Stewed Tomatoes and Lentils

It may be easier to start by explaining what this recipe (from Barefoot Contessa at Home) isn’t, instead of describing what it is.

It is not … going to win a beauty contest.

It may not … be the best dish for entertaining important guests.

It is not … kid-friendly, at least for my kids.

But! If you’ve been maybe hitting the queso a little too hard, and the tomatoes from your CSA are (to state it mildly) disappointing and you find yourself having to roast them instead of eating them as God herself intended them (in a caprese salad, or if you’re my husband, smack dab between two slices of white bread and some mayo, with salt and pepper), this could be the perfect recipe for you. I made it one night when Neil had a really late night at work, and I knew I’d be making something uninspiring for the kids. It really didn’t take too long, even though I used fresh tomatoes instead of canned. I baked them on a baking sheet with olive oil for 30 minutes or so at 375F, and then crushed them with their juices in the food processor.

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The end result was a not-disappointing dinner, and there’s something to be said for that. I used cumin instead of curry. If you wanted a little heat without curry powder, you could add some crushed red pepper. There have been similar recipes floating around the New York Times and Bon Appetit sites this week, so it must be the season for this kind of dish.

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As a bonus, you can see my pretty new tea kettle in the background in this photo. I had a gift card to Sur la Table from a Minnesota friend that had been just waiting to be used (thanks, Betsy!). I love it.

I may complain about the tomatoes, but I’m trying to give our Houston CSA a fair trial. I don’t think we’re in a traditional growing season here yet – I think we may still be in the “early spring” stages of this growing season, and so I’m trying to be patient. The tomatoes are truly terrible, and some of our onions were rotten inside. Thankfully, the seasons aren’t too long, so if we really don’t like this farm, we can switch to another one after Thanksgiving. It’s actually good to miss some things in Minnesota. The weather in Texas has been so glorious lately, and I feel somewhat disloyal to Minnesota for enjoying it so much. One great thing about the CSA here has been the eggs. We get a dozen “yard eggs” each week, and in addition to using them in baking, I made the smitten kitchen feta and potato frittata (not linked on her website – only in her cookbook) for some guests this past weekend.  The recipe says it feeds 6-8, but our crew of four adults and one 12-year-old practically licked the plate clean, before I even took a photo.

There’s less than a week until the new cookbook comes out, and Ina published the index on her website. What will I make first?? The recipe for the oatmeal chocolate chunk cookies is already up on the website – I’m tempted to try it this weekend. There are exactly 100 new recipes in the index for the new book, which seems kind of daunting, but at least it will be easy to tack on to the current number of recipes. I’ll admit it – I’m kind of excited that there’s a dog biscuit recipe in there – Tippet and Birdie will be so happy!

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Zucchini Gratin + Smitten Kitchen + Vegetable Love + Anniversary

Thanks to our Community Supported Agriculture box (from Wood Duck Farm) and the new (to us) late growing season, I have been cooking a lot. I have already made most of the Barefoot Contessa vegetable recipes, so I’ve had to branch out to other cookbooks and websites for inspiration. If all of the following look a little beige, have no fear. There have been plenty of salads (kale and otherwise), green beans, and the like that have come along with the farm share, too.

I made this lovely vegetable frittata, adapted from a recipe from Vegetable Love by Barbara Kafka. I bought this book for my dad’s birthday last year, and told him that if he didn’t like it, that he should just give it to me. Apparently, he liked it (yay?), and I picked up my own copy at Half Price Books earlier this summer. Here’s the frittata, which used summer squash, zucchini, onion, and eggs from our farm share.

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I’ve also been hitting up the smitten kitchen cookbook and website. I’ve used at least a dozen of her recipes, or variations on her recipes, in the past, and I love every single one of them. I love her writing even more. If you’re going to spend the time and energy to read a five-page recipe, it had better be informative and entertaining, and she hits all the right notes. Most recently, I made her sweet potato blintzes and refrigerator pickles. Here are all the photos I took of the blintzes, which were as labor intensive as they sound, but they were so worth the effort. (If you’re smart about it, you can multitask, cooking the crepes while mixing the filling, simmering the cranberries for the syrup while assembling, etc.). Perhaps most importantly, they used a good share of the sweet potatoes and eggs included in the farm share. They are rich, so plan to share them. I used quark for the farmer’s cheese. The cranberry syrup was essential. The buttery smell in the kitchen took me back to our crepe party in Minnesota, but this was on a much smaller (and less messy) scale. (Side note: that was nine months ago, and I’ve made fewer than 100 new Ina recipes since then. I’m clearly slipping. Slipping in butter, apparently.)

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Last but not least, I made the zucchini gratin from Ina’s Barefoot in Paris. As I made it, first sauteing the zucchini (or summer squash, in our case) with onions, and then adding bread crumbs and gruyere, I thought about how this recipe is a great combination of how I grew up eating summer squash (plain, cooked lightly on the stove) and how Neil grew up eating it (with lots of extra goodness added). It was our eleventh wedding anniversary, so I was about to expound about something symbolic and the marriage of tastes, but I see that Martha Stewart beat me to the creepy marriage/food metaphors, while simultaneously getting in a dig at Gwyneth Paltrow. Well played, Martha. You win, you crafty minx. The gratin was awesome, though, and Neil went back for seconds. Of vegetables!

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In all seriousness, we had a great anniversary. On the eve of the actual anniversary, Ben’s school had a “kids’ night out” event, so we dropped the kids off there, and after careful review of the extensive list of suggested restaurants from our friends, we made our way to Brennan’s to celebrate. The food, the service, and the atmosphere were all perfect for a grown-up night out to celebrate eleven years of marriage. What was striking about the menu were the many elements that we would consider “spring” ingredients – fried green tomatoes, pea shoots, etc. We are really starting to see the second growing season that everyone has told us about. I had crab cakes and the famous Brennan’s dessert, bananas foster (served flambé tableside). It was a great night out!

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Countdown to the new cookbook

Ina’s new cookbook will be published in less than three weeks.

How can we wait that long? I’ll tell you. We’ll fill our calendars with a dizzying array of activities.

September flew by like it has never flown before. That might be partially because the weather still feels like summer to us (not complaining), but I think a lot of it is that we haven’t had a spare moment to think about it. And that’s actually a wonderful thing. The kids love their schools, and we’re definitely in some semblance of a routine, although the routine will probably change in November, when there are fewer evening gatherings to meet Palmer folks. Between church retreats, church meetings, church gatherings, and a clergy conference, along with ramping up my piano teaching schedule and everything that goes along with it, the first few months of the school year are just zipping by. Birdie (the puppy) and both kids are in a race to see who can grow the fastest, and if they keep it up, I soon won’t be able to lift any of them.

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Sometime in there, between running the kids to birthday parties and getting the rest of us settled in, I made the provencal cherry tomato gratin from Foolproof.

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It was just ok – not super great, but not inedible, either. I don’t know why it looks like there’s a mutant handprint impression in it.

But that’s not the only thing I’ve been cooking. Even though we haven’t been home much, I’ve managed to cook at home when we are here. I make banana bread just about every week now that Rowan has decided that he likes it. One night, I made pork chops, grits, and collard greens, which feels much less like posing when there’s an actual magnolia tree in our yard. Our Community Supported Agriculture season started (through Wood Duck Farm), and this is the first time we’ve experienced a harvest that begins in the fall. We’re in our second week of receiving a huge box of farm-fresh vegetables and a dozen eggs. So far, we’ve made roasted acorn squash, sauteed zucchini, tomato sauce, baked sweet potatoes, salads, and my new favorite: Smitten Kitchen’s kale salad with pecorino and walnuts. I think I’m going to have dreams about that salad, because even though I like kale, I’m not usually a person to looooove it. This salad changed that – it’s just so good. I’ve roasted a few chickens each week with some of the onions from the CSA box, and those have become chicken stock, chicken soup, and risotto (using more of those onions). We’ve gotten bell peppers, which the kids have devoured. I’m about to make a buttermilk sweet potato pie from the Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, refrigerator pickles, and probably a frittata with summer squash and herbs. There will be chicken soup and risotto and pot roast, which have nothing to do with the CSA, but everything to do with the fact that I haven’t made them in months.

Oh! And Neil was installed as the sixth rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church. He’s been there since June, of course, but this ceremony, held this past Tuesday evening, was the official commitment between Neil and the church. It was a really wonderful service, and I hope I never forget looking at Neil when the bishop, with his back to the congregation, standing among us, faced Neil and welcomed him on behalf of the diocese. The service was the culmination of weeks of planning and hard work, and the guest preacher was our dear friend from Williamsburg, John Kerr. John is a brilliant, funny, and kind friend, and he always seems to know just what to say and how to say it. The whole service and the reception were just wonderful, and we’re so glad to be “official” here now – I’m sure Neil will publish some photos of the big event on his blog soon.

I haven’t quite kept up with my goal of completing more recipes before the new cookbook is released, but I guess that’s the beauty of not having a deadline. Hopefully I’ll eek out a few more between now and then – stay tuned!

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Rice, shrimp, and more rice, and then preschool and cinnamon rolls

I mentioned in an earlier post that I made some unremarkable rice pilaf from Barefoot in Paris.

Here it is.

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We’ve been spoiled by a rice pilaf recipe that I use from a cookbook we bought at the Greek Festival in Richmond, Virginia, and I’m just not sure any other pilaf will compare. If you have a hankering for the same flavors that appear in the tomato rice pilaf in Barefoot in Paris, I’d steer you toward the tomato soup in Foolproof instead.

But we found a surprise new favorite in the shrimp and mango salsa recipe from Parties!

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After a few somewhat ok attempts at the grill and several spectacular failures, I’ve figured out the perfect technique with a charcoal flame: let my Eagle Scout husband do it. The feminist in me dies a little bit inside to admit this, but I’m not gifted with the open flame. I was the girl that volunteered to write up all of the lab reports in high school chemistry to anyone who would light the damned flame for the experiments. I just don’t do fire. Neil does, and the shrimp were delicious. He’s not really much of a shrimp/seafood/shellfish guy, but these changed his mind. I made a half batch, which served the two of us for dinner, and we had some leftover to eat cold the next day.

Along with the shrimp, I made the crusty basmati rice from Foolproof. Neil really liked it, and I liked it ok. I think it was definitely better than the tomato rice pilaf, but not as good as our old Greek standby.

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I’m afraid all of this is a little bit boring and bland, though, compared to what Rowan and I cooked up in the kitchen last weekend. When we were on vacation last month in Wisconsin, we discovered a little diner in the Dells that had cinnamon rolls as big as Rowan’s head. He loved them, and he’ll still you that it was his favorite part of vacation. (This, from a child who really doesn’t love eating, and who had a blast doing everything else on vacation, too.) I promised him that we’d try to recreate them at home. He was my enthusiastic helper. (I dressed him in the garishly loud shirt that day because we were going to a huge train show downtown at the convention center, and I didn’t want to lose him in a sea of other 3-to-8-year-olds who all look the same in a huge room. By the way, he’s totally and completely over trains, being a big and important first grader, but that didn’t stop him from going back (again and again) to the LEGO train display.)

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And we even used painter’s tape to delineate how large the rolled-out dough should be on the counter. (3M should be paying me for this!) That’s 15×10 in case you’re wondering.

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The end result was very, very sticky and rich. There was a lot of filling, which contrasted with our vacation cinnamon rolls, which were much more doughy. Even if you’re going for an over-the-top gooey roll, I would cut back the filling by at least half on these, which originally came from The Pioneer Woman’s cookbook.

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That didn’t stop Rowan from devouring several of them, but I think we’ll try a different recipe next time.

But! Most importantly of all! The one and only Benjamin Neil Willard started preschool last week.

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As a kid who loved school, starting in preschool, I’m so happy that he was so excited to go to school on his first day. He loved it. He’s wearing his brother’s hand-me-down clothes, which is really no surprise, but he even insisted on carrying Rowan’s lunch box and (monogrammed) backpack. No identity crisis for this one – he knows who he is, and he owns it, in spite of the initials on his “packpack.” I got out the “real” camera to take the first day of preschool photos, and the lens fogged up so badly within seconds of being outside that the camera wouldn’t even take a picture. I said, “Gah, I can’t do this.” (Neil was at an early morning bible study which runs into a staff meeting, so I was the solo photographer this time.) I went inside to grab my phone to take pictures, and poor Ben turned around and said, “Does this mean I can’t go to pwee-school?” Oh, oh, oh… if I could do anything to take away those split seconds of disappointment that went through his little mind, I would have done it in a heartbeat. I’m glad he said something instead of just melting down, because I was able to tell him in a hurry, “Oh of COURSE you’re going to preschool!” Sweet boy. As you can tell from these photos, he recovered quite nicely.

You wouldn’t think that two kids in school would send us into too much of a tizzy, but with two different schools/calendars/dropoffs/pickups/schedules/rules/lunches, along with ramping up my piano teaching schedule for fall and trying to keep pace with the new program year at church, not to mention adding new babysitters and their schedules into the mix, my calendar looks like someone melted a bag of Skittles all over it. It’s a little crazy, but the good news is that everyone seems to be enjoying the ride. There might be a lot of takeout consumed here in the next few months, as we all get used to the new schedules. But then there will be a new Ina cookbook, and no amount of back-to-school coffees/conversations/cocktails/cockamamie is going to keep me from that. Stay tuned!

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Come Labor On

I made some mediocre rice pilaf from Barefoot in Paris last week and took over an hour to grill some chicken breasts for Friday night fajitas, but I’ve had something else on my brain this weekend.

Twenty-four years ago, around Labor Day weekend, my beloved grandpa died after a long battle with cancer. I don’t know if I would remember the Labor Day weekend part, except that it was around the time of my first week of Junior High, and I had to bring my excused absence slip for his funeral around to all of my teachers. Every single one of my teachers told me how sorry they were that he was gone, and what a remarkable man he was. At the time, I was an awkward pre-teen and I just wanted to sit down at my desk. It didn’t register with me that they told me what a great guy he was, because virtually everyone had told us what a great guy he was, in the months leading up to his death, and at his funeral. He was a very lovable, and loving, man.

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It’s also only appropriate that I think about him during Labor Day weekend. Even though he was one of the last people who would have rallied around a labor-like cause, he was a hard worker, if only to escape the house when my grandma was after him about something. He drove a bread truck, and had an early morning delivery route that took him all over the area. When he was finished with his route, he was allowed to bring home the day-old baked goods to his family, and with three sons to feed, the tradition of toast as a bedtime snack took hold quickly. My family still eats toast before bed – Neil says that toast is practically sacramental for us, and it’s true. It’s one of those things that you don’t realize is unusual until you leave your family of origin and someone takes notice. But try it sometime – there’s nothing more comforting and settling than a piece of toast with a thin layer of butter just before bed.

I thought of my grandpa especially this year because Neil posted a haiku contest on his blog last Friday, about breaking rules. The original topic was about seersucker after Labor Day, and my grandpa would have been the last person I knew who would wear a seersucker suit. He always wore the same overalls, usually with one snap unfastened. But he was rather fond of selectively breaking rules, which is probably why that snap remained unfastened.

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My haiku contributions were about him:

He parked in the fire
lane, like his son owned the place.
Grandpa, rule breaker.

That one was about my family’s grocery store, where my grandpa would unfailingly park his pickup truck, with the tailgate down, directly in front of the store, where the curb was painted yellow and there was a clear sign dictating, “NO PARKING – FIRE LANE.” As far as I know, nobody ever ticketed him or complained about it, not that that would have stopped him. While I was digging through some old photos looking for some of Grandpa, I found these, of a grand opening of one of my dad’s grocery stores in River Falls, Wisconsin, c. 1980.

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I’m the little blond girl in the cake cutting photos. Why did I look so disappointed at that giant cake? The cake reads: “Welcome to Dale’s IGA: The Friendliest Folks in Town.” There’s a little card next to the cake that reads: “YES This is a REAL CAKE. Weight 315#, Servings 3000, Size 3 1/2′ by 7 1/2′.” I don’t know how they figured the 3000 servings, but who’s going to argue with someone who makes a cake that big? The guy in the plaid pants is my very stylish dad.

Back to Grandpa. I think the illicit parking was a point of pride. He was so proud of my dad for building that store and running a great business, and he wasn’t afraid to mark his territory in front of it to show his pride. He was proud of all of us, and he would go out of his way to spend time – however short – with his grandchildren. The feeling was mutual – we adored that man. For all of his stubborn toughness, he had a tender heart and a gentle soul. I remember when I had the chicken pox in fifth grade, and I was sent to my grandparents’ house when my parents couldn’t stay home to take care of me. I was starting to feel better but still had a fever, and couldn’t return to school, and so my grandpa and I watched the entire Anne of Green Gables series on television. “That girl is going to get herself in more trouble, isn’t she?” he asked me with a wink. He helped me memorize the states and their capitals so I wasn’t behind when I got back to school.

When I was in elementary school, Grandpa was diagnosed with prostate cancer. In the late 1980s, the diagnosis was different than it can be today. He was an otherwise strong and healthy man, and the cancer took years to erode his life. For a long time, he was still able to go with us after school on apple-picking adventures, and to spend time on my family’s hobby farm, where there were sheep and cows. Even though he wasn’t a farmer, he loved his garden, and both of my grandparents were avid organic gardeners and composters long before it was cool. (Who knows? Maybe the overall-with-one-snap-undone will be the new hipster fashion craze?) Time on the farm always brought a smile to his face, even when he sat in the truck when he was unable to walk around.

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It wasn’t long before he wasn’t able to come along at all, and all of our visits took place in hospital rooms. With all of the cancer treatments, his body wasted away, and so did a lot of his energy. We knew that part of him was still there, though, every time he flirted with the nurses, or insisted on introducing us to his ward-mates, along with a litany of our best attributes and achievements. After so much sickness, though, and with medication that helped his body but fogged his brain, he became depressed and despondent. My dad could hardly stand to see him that way, and so he knew that he had to bring a little bit of the farm to Grandpa’s bedside.

My dad, who inherited the rule-breaking stubborn streak from my grandpa,* pulled aside some of the nurses that Grandpa had been charming for so many months. He asked if maybe he could bring in a baby lamb from the farm on one of our visits. The nurse tried not to laugh, and had a smile in her eye while she willed her voice to be stern: “Sir, that is against hospital policy.” My dad had figured as much. “But if you do it, and I’m not telling you that you can, but I’m not telling you that I wouldn’t just look the other way, either, make sure that it’s on my shift, because I want to see the look on that man’s face when he sees your surprise.”

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And so, my second haiku:

When he was near death
and so sad, we broke the rules,
too. Lamb at his bed.

My grandpa died not long after we brought the lamb to visit him. And on the same day, that lamb died, too, without ever having been sick.

I still think about him whenever my or my children’s stubborn streak shines through, or when breaking a long-standing rule just seems like the right thing to do. I think of him when we make deviled eggs at Easter, or whenever anyone cooks something in a microwave that really shouldn’t be cooked in a microwave. (He tried an entire leg of lamb once. It didn’t work out so well.) I think of him any time I hear someone whistling inside, which he did, probably just to drive my grandma crazy. I think about him every time I can’t read a map or get lost while driving – he was terrible with directions, but could never seem to get himself lost, no matter how hard he tried sometimes. I think of him when I’m driving, and it starts to rain just slightly, and I can’t decide whether to turn on the windshield wipers yet. (He once told my grandma that their new car had sensors in the windshield that detected the rain, and it automatically turned on the wipers. He was full of it, and I think she knew it.) I think about him when I see my own dad with my kids, and how much he loves them, just like our grandpa adored us.

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And so: a toast (heh) to grandpas. To laborers. To rule-breakers.

*This photo illustrates another rule-breaking episode. I found it when I was digging around for old photos of grandpa. I’m not at liberty to divulge the details, but remember that every time I substitute an ingredient in a recipe or ignore instructions altogether, I come from the stock that did this, on purpose, without a burning permit.

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Plum Tart and Tuna Steak

I’ve been waiting for Italian prune plums to come back into season to make the last few of Ina’s plum recipes. I was hoping to report that it was well worth the wait when I made the Italian Plum Tart in How Easy is That?, but it was kind of a bust. Bummer.

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It looks pretty, but it was just kind of dense and sticky, and not worth the trouble. There are plenty of other plum recipes, though, so I think I’ll stick to those next time.

On the opposite end of the looks vs. substance spectrum was the grilled tuna salad from Barefoot Contessa at Home. It looked like a paleo-style homicide investigation, but it tasted wonderful. this is not your grandmother’s tuna salad.

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It was wonderfully reminiscent of sushi without the rice, and without the hefty price tag of eating at a sushi restaurant. I made a small portion of this for myself for a weeknight dinner when Neil was working. He’s not a big fish guy, and I actually really like it. I’ve come a long way from our newlywed days, when I would make tuna casserole for myself when he was away. I’d still put away some tuna casserole if given the opportunity, but I’m the only one in my family who likes it, so it’s a lot of effort for a starchy comfort food. The biggest challenge to making Ina’s fresher, healthier version is getting a fresh tuna steak on the same day that your avocados ripen. But then you might get to go to Central Market and see this lovely display:

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And! Speaking of Central Market, my food horizons have been expanded here in Houston, just in the past few weeks. First of all, we’ve had the most lovely time in people’s homes, with amazing fajitas, our first (addictive) taste of boudin, and maybe the best chocolate cake I’ve ever eaten (which was made even better by watching my 3-year-old take some running laps in the shallow end of the host’s pool while fully clothed, in the style of a frat boy on spring break). If I was feeling a bit lonely on our way home from our trip, that feeling quickly faded as we have spent time with our friends here in Texas.

This past weekend, the friend/food connection continued as a friend and I both took our sons to my inaugural trip to Phoenicia, a giant food market with an international theme. If you’re like me, taking a 6-year-old to a food store can be torture. It could just be my 6-year-old, because my 3-year-old does just fine and loves to shop for food. But my first grader isn’t particularly fond of eating, and he’s always sooooo cooooold and so boooorrrrred. But! When you bring a friend along, suddenly it’s an adventure!

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The picture, while capturing the cuteness of the kids, doesn’t do much to capture the wonder that is Phoenicia. As you walk in to the smell of exotic spices, you can see freshly baked pita bread descending from the heavens (or, perhaps, an upper-floor bakery) by way of a conveyer belt, where it is then packaged up to take home, still warm. There are giant vats of feta cheese and Greek yogurt. There were some, um, unusual meat products, and row upon row of imported candy and tea. Nuts, dried fruits, olives, house-made hummus… I think I said about three dozen times in the first minute or so, “I’m going to need to bring my dad here to see this.” It was a great food adventure for a hot afternoon. The kids goofed off in the air conditioning while the moms ooohed and aaaahed over the groceries and filled our cart. Be warned, though, that if you bring young, inquisitive children to Phoenicia, you may have to answer questions about the hookahs for sale and on display behind glass.

“What’s that?”

“It’s a hookah.”

“What’s it for?”

(This is where my kid pipes in.) “I think it’s to help people invent things.”

We didn’t exactly correct them.

 

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Roots and Questions

Earlier this summer, I made the trek to Buchanan’s Native Plants in North Houston for some herb plants. The herbs were tucked in the back corner with the fruit trees, which fascinated me. I’ve never lived in a place where we could have grown citrus fruit before, and so I was browsing through the meyer lemons and the key limes. An older, wizened lady who worked there approached me, and I asked her a few questions. She looked a little bit like the old goat lady in Cold Mountain. I mean that in the nicest way possible.

I couldn't find a good photo of the goat lady from Cold Mountain, so here's one of Jude Law instead. You're welcome.

I couldn’t find a good photo of the goat lady from Cold Mountain, so here’s one of Jude Law instead. You’re welcome.

The lady at Buchanan’s seemed to genuinely love the plants under her care, maybe to the point that she doesn’t actually *know* that she looks like the goat lady, and I respect that. We started talking about plants, and Texas, and growing seasons, and I learned a lot. One thing that really stuck with me was that with the fruit trees especially, you’re not supposed to let them grow fruit during their first year in a new location. They need to focus on growing their root systems, so if you see a flower, you’re supposed to pluck it off. By doing this, you’re actually helping the tree produce more fruit in later years. They need an entire year to develop their root system.

I was mulling this over in the car on the way home, with the smell of fresh thyme wafting up to the driver’s seat from the back of the car. I think people need some time to develop their root systems, too. Houston feels so much like home to us already that it’s sometimes hard to remember that we just got here. Every week holds a different errand or task that takes us out of our comfort zone. We are learning names and places and helping our children adjust to new schools and friends. It’s work, and even though it may sometimes look like we’re not producing a lot of fruit as a family, we’re digging in our roots.

This past Sunday was Rally Day at Palmer, where different ministries and committees educate Palmer’s members about what they do, and how newcomers can participate. I had my elevator speech prepared about our root-making activities, in case I was asked to sign up for something. It’s not that I’m completely opposed to signing up for anything. I’m simply overwhelmed. Most of the time, I’m overwhelmed in a really good way. But this root-growing business is exhausting and can be all-consuming.

In the church where I grew up, rally day wasn’t a thing. I think my mom was in charge of Sunday School, and she roped whatever half-dozen kids between the ages of 5 and 12 that attended on any given Sunday into one of the back rooms. I think there was a felt board. The same people were junior and senior warden for my entire childhood, and the solitary fundraiser was a sandwich stand at the cranberry festival. Vestry meetings lasted for about 15 minutes, I think.

Back to present (rally) day. I’m ever mindful of how my participation might affect a group. I want to be helpful, but I’m also not an unofficial message-taker for my husband. Things get weird when I get asked to “put a bug” in Neil’s ear about something, especially now that we’ve experienced Texas-sized bugs firsthand. I don’t want to disrupt the vibe if it means that people feel like they can’t be themselves around me. It takes me a while to decide how we’ll fit into the big picture, and the big picture can feel a bit overwhelming. In the past, finding my way has meant starting something completely new that has never been done before (so I don’t run the risk of disappointing everyone when It’s Not As Great As Last Year), or volunteering outside of the church walls for another related organization. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, of course, but for now it feels right to show up and be present.

So, in order to preserve my own sanity and family harmony, it’s better for me to wait a little while, grow those roots, help the family adjust to a new community, and make decisions about our participation deliberately and sometimes slowly. I’m not complaining. I’m just looking at our family health in the long haul.

As it turns out, I never gave my root speech on Sunday. Rally day was a little nuts, and after some bathroom trauma with the kids, we ended up going back into church to retrieve my purse and the kids’ things, and things got a little nuts after that. We were inside, then outside, then inside again, and one kid wanted chips while the other one wanted to go home. We finally made it home to let the dogs out about an hour and a half after church let out. What’s that? You want another Birdie photo? OK.

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But in the course of that crazy morning, I think I may have discerned another calling for myself, which goes hand-in-hand with my root-growing experience. I will head up the Ministry of Silly Questions.

Anyone who had a dorky enough adolescence will remember Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks routine. I’m heading up my very own Silly Questions Committee. I don’t know if this is true in all large, long-standing organizations, but it can be true of churches: there’s some “insider language” that can be confusing to newcomers. “We’ll meet in the Nave during the season of Pentecost, but during the change ringing the vestry will meet in the undercroft.” “It’s TEC weekend, so there won’t be a communion anthem, but we’re keeping the creed and the confession.” “The meeting will be in the Saints and Sinners Memorial Chapel, which is in the south of the building behind the small kitchen – the old one, you know, where we used to have the big kitchen.” “Someone needs to tell the Thurifer that we’re in Ordinary Time again, but that the suffragan will be here next week. Not the coadjuter – she’s on sabbatical.”

Huh? It’s like a meeting of the Skulls, but more confusing. Most of the time, we don’t even know we’re doing it. And so, when there might be an opportunity to translate it for someone who is new (and probably confused, and maybe self-conscious), we can make the whole experience more accessible. You can find approximately one meeeellion blog articles about “being the church” and “spiritual but not religious” and “why millennials aren’t going to your church and what you need to do about it yesterday because you’re doing it wrong,” but I think what every church needs is someone to ask the questions that nobody else will ask. 

“Where’s the bathroom?”

“What time do I need to be there?”

“Where should I park?”

“Which Sunday School class is my 3-year-old in? Does he need to be potty trained?”

“Do I have to sign up for the whole year, or can he try it out for a week or two first?”

“Can I find it on the website?”

“Can I meet with you later this week, or maybe email you? I have a lot of questions.”

“I don’t drink/have Celiac/can’t walk to the altar rail, but I want to receive Communion.”

The way I figure it, I’m not afraid to embarrass myself over a couple of silly questions, especially if it means that someone else doesn’t have to embarrass themselves by asking it. Who’s with me? What’s the silliest question you’ve ever asked? Did you live to tell the tale?

 

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