Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Julia – Part 2: Well, I Won’t Be Moving To Paris Anytime Soon

My first adventure in French cooking produced more than a culinary surprise.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking had stared at me from across the kitchen for two days.   The ingredients were crowded together on the counter like runners at a starting line.  I wrote my previous blog, ran nine-miles, and realized suddenly when I returned, that if we were going to eat that evening, I could delay no longer. I preheated the oven, chopped four kinds of produce and cut up two types of meat, dividing them into little glass bowls.  I dug through the pots and pans, wooden spoons, and measuring cups, the preparation not too different than single-handedly packing the car for a three-week family camping trip.

Lesson #1:  Read the instructions carefully.  The first step called to boil the bacon for ten minutes in a saucepan, heat up a tablespoon of olive oil in an oven-proof French casserole dish (I used our very American cast iron skillet), and then lightly brown the bacon.  Whereas, I have no idea why you boil bacon, I followed the rules.  So far, so good.  Directions indicated to remove the bacon with a slotted spoon.  I missed the part about DRYING the bacon before putting it in the skillet.  Needless to say, even a very few drops of water and VERY hot oil do not mix.   The oil shot out all over the stovetop.

After cleaning up my mess, afraid of a five-alarm fire if I didn’t, I was able to sear the beef in the same pan without incident.  It appeared that things had settled down.  I sauteed the chopped onions and carrots, and then realized the recipe never referred to them again.  Having missed the step about the bacon, I reread the recipe four or five times, but the vegetables were orphans, no room at the inn.  Lesson #2:  Punt when necessary.

The pace picked up significantly.  Simultaneously the beef was browning in one pan in the oven (four minutes, toss, four minutes more), quartered mushrooms dancing in butter on the left burner (six to eight minutes), cute little pearl onions braising in stock on the right (saute ten minutes and simmer for forty), and the sauce bubbling in yet another vessel.  I had two timers chiming, and I am sure, a frantic look on my face.  “A second pair of hands” should have been included in the list of equipment, a role known by the French as the “sous chef.” I was alone, over my head, and treading in shark-infested waters. 

Long story short, we had leftovers that night.  I finished the final touches to the sauce after dinner.  We each took a bite and decided there was enough of my concoction to serve some guests who were coming the next evening for supper.  It would work.  No one would know of my disaster in the kitchen which at the time looked like a yellow-taped crime scene.  It appeared that a three year old had emptied every cupboard and drawer.  Bill was amused at the number of of pots, pans, bowls and utensils stacked by the sink to dry.  I had to clean the stovetop three times during the course of preparation, but whoa, it smelled really good.  And I didn’t die.

The next evening, we entertained two couples that we have never met before, as a part of a “dinners for six” event coordinated by the church we attend.   I knew that I was in trouble when asking the compulsory question “Where are you from?”, one of the couples revealed that they had lived in France for twelve years.  I could hear God chuckling.  My first attempt at French cooking and God sends us a couple from FRANCE???  The husband entered the kitchen and exclaimed, “Boeuf Bourguignon!” with a real French accent.  “I haven’t had that dish for such a long time,” he said.  “It’s one of my favorites.”    Ok, I thought, NOW I die.  I looked at the back door.  It sounded like a great time to escape outside and go run a marathon or two in the cold and dark.

But at the table, something happened.  As he ate, our guest leaned over and remarked to his wife, “Oh, she even used those little pearl onions,” in the voice of one seeing a long-lost friend.   While the rest of us enjoyed the meal, he delighted in it.

And Lesson #3 descended on my heart.   God chuckled because He knew that this attempt of mine was not about me attempting a new recipe at all.  When He compels us to step outside our comfort zone and we follow Him into it, something far deeper always emerges, the “raison d’etre.”   God uses it to bless others.

Now to Him

who by the power at work within us

is able to do far more abundantly

than all that we ask or imagine…

              Ephesians 3.20

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Today I Meet Julia Face to Face


I grew up in a home where common sense did not reside. It is still a mystery to me that my parents -- a professional violinist and tone-deaf research scientist -- raised four children.  Sheet music, orchestral scores, and music manuscripts littered our living room.  My father would conduct experiments throughout the house, including an ill-fated backyard skating rink in the dead of a Chicago winter.  Dinner?  I can remember my mother looking up from her music as if emerging from another world, it never occurring to her we would need to eat today.

If it weren’t for my widowed grandmother who lived with us for several years, we would not have eaten at all.  She cleaned, she sewed, and she made food from what was already in the cupboard as she did not drive.  Mom would go to the grocery with nary a meal in mind, choosing instead what was marked down from produce to outdated cans which she usually bought by the case.  Bread, she purchased, from an outlet store, most often white sandwich loaves that could be smashed flat with very little effort.  Dolly Madison snack cakes were purchased in large cartons and stored in the freezer.  When I think of the preservatives that I have consumed in my lifetime, I figure I will live a very long time.

Our house was not known for its culinary expertise.  Everything came from cans, including our best friend Chef Boyardee and his associate Franco American.  My grandmother could make about anything if you gave her condensed Cream of Mushroom soup and a can of tuna.

When Bill and I married, I discovered the wonders of Bisquick.  Our first week of married life, I learned to make Bisquick biscuits -- “from scratch” -- a far cry, I thought, from a can of refrigerator biscuits that you hit on the side of the countertop to open.  I advanced to making “real” spaghetti by actually boiling noodles and heating up a jar of Ragu.  When we visited Bill’s parents the first time, his mother – a cook extraordinaire – prepared macaroni and cheese for a quick supper one night.  I was 27 years old and had never had macaroni that didn’t come out of a blue Kraft box.

Needless to say, learning to cook for me was on the magnitude of learning to bungee-jump.  Under my husband’s tutelage and my mother-in-law’s recipe box, I learned to feed our family, realizing first that cookbooks were not written in obscure ancient languages.  Through many mistakes, I also realized that recipes were meant to be followed.  Some dishes became favorites, and others, well, at least I didn’t burn down the kitchen.

So, considering my background,  today I will meet Julia Child face to face, working my way through a recipe for an entree I cannot even pronounce.  Step by step.  As one of my daughters would say, “Just follow the instructions, Mom.”

Taking up this culinary challenge is one of the things, oddly enough, that I have learned from running.  As I have gotten older, I realize that my elaborate justifications-- to not do so many things –- are only really feeble excuses on life-support.  For years, I would see runners and say, “I could never do that.”  Early one morning, I started a slow jog a half block at a time when no one could see me.  And I didn’t die.  That was twelve years and six marathons ago.

Today – well, Julia, let’s give this a try.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Do It Again!!!

The onset of a new day to a two year old is as full of wonder and adventure as the first day of creation.  There is no recognition of mundane.  To our granddaughter, all is profound from seeing a dog walking down the street to being allowed to use the Elmer’s Glue all by herself.  Enthusiasm is her middle name.  She will literally run laps through the kitchen, living room, front hall, and mudroom, over and over and over again, each time shouting out “Hi, Momma,” as she passes by.  She has an extensive vocabulary for a child her age, but the word “boredom” has no meaning to her at all.  A day is never long enough to accommodate her energy and unending questions. 

Last week, I taught her the song “The wise man built his house upon the rock,” complete with hand motions.  Each time when I came to the end of the song and the foolish man’s house went SPLAT, she would burst out laughing, deep and genuine, and shout, “Do it again, Grandma.  Do it again!”  The repetition only seemed to reinforce the joy she was getting from hearing the song about forty times in a row, until I could break away and do something exciting like changing her brother’s diaper. 

At night, when finally the house was silent with two sleeping babies and two exhausted parents, I curled up under the duvet in the study and re-read one of my favorite books, Orthodoxy  by G. K. Chesterton.  After a non-stop day of songs and running laps and building towers of blocks (all the stuff that Grandmas are licensed to do), I chuckled at what I read, as if this specific page arrived right on schedule. 

p. 58  …it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising.  His routine might be due, not to lifelessness, but to a rush of life.  The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy.  A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life.  Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged.  They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead.  For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony.  It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun;  and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon.  It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike;  it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them.  It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our  Father is younger than we.  The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence;  it may be a theatrical encore.

That is the joy and wonder in which we were designed to live.

…and a little child

shall lead them.

                    Isaiah 11.6

Do it again!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Impossible! My Top Book Picks from 2011

A thread of impossibility was woven through my favorite books of 2011, not an intentional effort on my part, but a theme deeply embedded and very clear.  It is through stories of impossibility that we find hope for our own “impossible” situations.  In every story, there was not an avoidance or running from reality, but a running toward it, “what am I going to do about it?”  It is not a matter of strength, but viewing life from a different perspective.

Impossible survival.  Unbroken by Lauren Hillenbrand.  This is one of the best books that I have read in many years, well-written, extremely well-researched, and an amazing story about one man’s survival in World War 2. I  recommend it highly.

Impossible grace.  Choosing to See by Mary Beth Chapman  This mom faced the pain of suddenly losing her youngest daughter in a horrific accident and grappling with the conflict her 17 year old son faced by his role in it, praying him back from the edge of despair.  The grace that was shown to their son from the very first moment is something that every parent needs to have firmly in place.   The faith that they claimed became a profound reality for every member of their family.

Impossible situation.  Dancing With Max by Emily Colson and Charles Colson.  This book narrates the struggle of a single mom dealing with the extremes of raising a severely autistic son.  It clinched me. As she faces utter exhaustion, emotional distress, and a world that has given up on her son, she realizes that Max is not a burden, but a gift, a means of building character and purpose in their lives.  My favorite Emily Colson quote for when anxiety and stress drove her to overeat: “Cleaning is as mindless as eating, but you can still button your jeans in the morning.”

Impossible vision.  Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young German pastor, grasped the meaning of living out his faith during Hitler’s rise to power, even when it meant certain death.   He was a radical voice literally crying out in the wilderness, when military and world leaders, as well as churches fell under the deceit of Hitler, realizing too late the horror resulting from the Nazi worldview.  Bonhoeffer was not an extraordinary man, just one who was willing to stand up for the truth.

Impossible ideas.  Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson.  With innumerable interviews and years of research, Isaacson crafted a narrative about a man who connected art and technology, a man of great ideas and stubbornness.  When faced with what others saw as impossible, Steve Jobs would state, “So what should we do about it?”  In one presentation, Jobs quotes Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. After Alice laments that no matter how hard she tries, she can’t believe impossible things, the White Queen retorts, “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”  That is the story of Jobs’ life.  But while many have idolized Jobs by what he accomplished, the author does not spare the reader the dark side of Jobs who was a difficult man to live and work with.

Of making many books

there is no end.

           Ecclesiastes 12.12

Other good reads from 2011:

Work Matters by Tom Nelson (a game-changing perspective on what you do)

You Lost Me by David Kinnaman (the reality of what is happening in churches)

When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert (are you making the problem worse?)

The Next Christians by Gabe Lyons (the hope that is being unwrapped by the next generation)

Has Christianity Failed You? By Ravi Zacharias (for those who use the failures of the church to justify unbelief)

Grey is the Color of Hope by Irina Ratushinskaya (a Soviet poet in a prison gulag)

If I Live to be 100 by Neenah Ellis (“Stay away from doctors and eat a lot of junk food.”)


And above all the books that I have read this year and over the years, the one book that continues to have a profound and personal impact on me every day is the Bible.  Hands down.  It has changed me.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Time Out!

A few days ago, the Northwestern Wildcats took on the Fighting Illini.  The university basketball players on both sides had done their drills, honed their skills and practiced specific plays designed to take the ball away from the foe and into the team’s own basket.  But in the excitement, all seemed to be forgotten.  The game began with a flurry of ball-grabbing, missed baskets, and foul upon foul.  When the frenzy resulted in players sprawled on the floor crazily grasping the ball like selfish three year olds, the first time-out was called, a short breather to break the madness, regroup, come back to reality, and put strategy ahead of mindless desperation.  After each time-out, the players seemed renewed in their quest, focused rather than frantic.

Just a few days into 2012, it may seem that the year has surged into a sense of urgent lunacy.  We are either sinking into the ever-present miry bog of activities, responsibilities and temporary madness…or wobbling precariously on the thinnest of wires suspended above what now appears a bottomless pit of despair.  Already, a time-out is in order – to dispel our irrational fears and get a grip.

There is, however, a completely different time-out that does not wait until the point of despair or frenzy.  It is a time-out that will change your mind, your heart, and your life.  Early in December, I emailed several of my busiest friends from all walks and seasons of life and asked them about their daily habits.  They answered as if in unison.  Each one of them spends time reading God’s Word every day.  They intentionally take a time-out to read the Bible before their erratic day even starts.   These are not complacent people who sit around lamenting, “well, i have completely emptied my in-box, answered everyone on Facebook, cleaned my closets, there is nothing on TV, I guess I will –reluctantly— read my Bible.”  These are the busiest people I know, from young moms to busy executives with no time to spare, dawn to deep into the night.  And every one of them said that they cannot afford NOT to start the day with Scripture.

From a very active mom with three small children: 

An extra 30 minutes of sleep-time is precious to a mom with young children, but I've found that spending those 30 minutes in God's word and presence before my day begins it's break-neck speed instead of spending an extra few minutes with my head on the pillow refreshes me in a way that I never could receive if I were still languishing in bed!

My view and reactions towards both the big things and the small things are impacted greatly by spending time with Him at the beginning of each day- THAT is a game changer in this stage of life.

A time-out with God will make your day more efficient and fruitful, because you have already listened to the Coach.  His Word is not designed to follow you into the day, but go before to guide, refocus and strengthen – no matter what ferocious team you face. 

Your Word is a lamp to my feet

    and a light to my path.

                  Psalm 119.105

Tuesday, January 3, 2012


Up and down the streets of our town, the dawn’s light reveals discarded Christmas trees, abandoned at the curb alongside the trash cans, like prehistoric carcasses littering the wintry landscape.  What once was center-stage the focus of beauty and admiration has been stripped of its adornments and cast aside with an incriminating trail of still-pungent dark green needles heading down the front walk.    “That was a nice one,” we remarked, “better than most,” we eulogized as we disposed its dead body for the garbage truck to pick up on its weekly rounds.  And in its place inside, there now appears an empty corner, imperfect and lacking.

Bereft of Christmas decorations, the mantle looks bare, the doors so plain, the living room with a cavernous hole, the site of the tree now occupied by a single widowed chair, a poor substitute for the magnificent eight-foot evergreen.  Equally barren, the new year stands before us, cluttered already by a few plans and scheduled events penciled in, always and forever subject to monumental change.  Like our now-emaciated living rooms, there are empty places ahead of us in this newest of years, things that we cannot see yet from here, and perhaps even then, we will not be able to fathom.

And it becomes not a matter of us laying our year before the LORD for Him to fill in the cracks and reinforce our plans like so much scaffolding, but letting Him reveal HIS year for us.  One day at a time.  Because when it is HIS year or HIS day we pursue, even an interruption takes on new significance.  We see our days with different eyes.  It is not a matter of filling up life, but Him fulfilling ours, a year of great possibilities and even greater purpose.

Now to Him

who by the power at work within us

is able

to do far more abundantly

than all we ask or imagine….

                  Ephesians 3.20

Monday, January 2, 2012

Something New

Twelve years ago, as our oldest daughter set off for college, I started emailing a daily Bible verse first to her, and then subsequently to each of our girls as they left home. Through the years, our two son-in-laws and some friends have been added to the daily email. As one of them remarked to me just last year, “on busy days, sometimes that is the only Scripture that I read.”

You are now welcome to join us – to give you a little bit of God’s powerful Word to go on through your day. A new blog - Du Jour - will post a daily verse to give you encouragement and nourishment for your busy life. A link on the blog enables you to subscribe and have it delivered directly to your in-box, if you desire.

The Du Jour blog is found at www.worddujour.blogspot.com

This blog Nightly Tea will continue as well.

May God’s Word bless you and transform you in 2012.

Happy New Year!