Monday, October 24, 2011

Great Meals

An older gentleman told me that sermons were like his wife’s meals.  Most pastors probably think (or at least wish) that all their sermons were great, that all of them had a lasting impact on members of the congregation.  Pastors often complain about people walking out the door and within a day, if it even takes that long, forgetting what the sermon was about.  As if it is a fault with the congregants.  The pastor thinks he is the next Rick Warren, or Bill Hybels, or Max Lucado, or Billy Graham, or C.H. Spurgeon, or Jonathan Edwards, or George Whitefield, or Philip Melanchthon, or John Chrysostom.  So the gentleman was asked mid-week by an elder in the church about the pastor’s previous sermon, with which the elder was deeply impressed.  He couldn’t recall it.  He was asked if he paid attention, if there were any sermons that he could recall.  It was in that context that he said sermons were like his wife’s meals.  All of them sustained him that day.  Most of them were tasty, and he does not remember ones that weren’t, but he thought that probably some weren’t.  Most of them were made with planning, forethought, and delivered with care—at least he doesn’t remember the ones that weren’t.  Still you know, he told the elder, none of them sustained him for more than a day.  And thinking back on all the years of her serving him meals, he hardly remembers any of them.  Yet he is alive and healthy today, so they must have done what they were supposed to do.

While I too would be hard pressed to recall any great sermons, I can recall some great meals.

Fifteen years ago I ate for the first time at The Manitou.  It is a small restaurant on M22 north of Crystal Lake.  It is almost hidden on the south side of the road right near Long Lake (there are dozens of Long Lakes in Michigan).  It specializes in local fare with fresh ingredients made from scratch.  They only do dinner.  After they seat you, while looking at the menu you are given a small crudités tray with dip.  With that alone, you know this is a special restaurant.  Then the music.  I remember that first visit, listening to Shawn Colvin “Sunny Came Home.”  The music is what is known in the radio world as Adult Contemporary.  The menu includes enough items for those who are not adventurous.  But even that isn’t plain.  Please order soup.  I can remember great French Onion soup, and Southwest Tomato soup, and Potato Cream soup.  I almost always get fish, almost always whitefish since that is always fresh, never frozen.  Usually I have it broiled, but once (shame on me) I had it beer-battered deep fried.  Whitefish is too good to have that done to it.  But I had never before (or since) had it deep fried, so I wanted to try it at The Manitou of all places.  Prices are affordable for me.  An “Early Bird” (which, being interpreted, means “senior citizen”) menu is available 4:30-6, with prices right around $12 for an entrée with soup or salad (and get the soup, especially in the cooler months).  Portions are smaller, which means they are right-sized.  You can also order from the full supper menu, with prices right around $22.  I think The Manitou is terribly romantic.

About eight years ago I ate at a restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia.  I was at a philosophy conference.  I can’t recall, nor would I be able to sleuth it and find out, the name of the restaurant.  But I remember the meal.  Spinach linguine with morel mushrooms in a Marsala sauce.   One might expect that there might be half a dozen morels, maybe sliced, in the pasta dish.  No, there were fifteen or eighteen.  Granted they weren’t the three inch long morels; they were more like half that size to two inches in length.  Never before and never since have I been at a restaurant that served morels.  Maybe I just don’t get out enough.  That is true.  I don’t eat out a lot.  For the $15 I might spend at a restaurant, I can fix three very good meals, with equally exquisite ingredients.  Still, at some point it seems I would have been at a restaurant serving a dish containing morels.

Thirteen years ago in Switzerland we did a day long hike.  We were staying in a chalet in Huemoz, in the Villars-Gryon area, just east of Lake Geneva about twenty miles.  We had some friends drop us off in Solalex for a day long hike.  Prior to going to Switzerland we had seen an episode of Rick Steves’ Europe Through the Back Door where he visited some small villages near the area we would be staying.  He raved about this small “Heidi-like” village, Taveyanne, that had a small restaurant worth the hike.  For that reason, Taveyanne was on our itinerary for the hike, our lunch stop.  The restaurant is small.  Were it in America, the local health department would shut it down.  Inside is a round hearth where some of the cooking is done.  There is also seating outside, with the views, well, it is Switzerland.  It was early June, and we sat outside.  The menu is written on a chalk board.  Two choices.  Jambon cru, and Champions au croute.  For my wife and fifth and sixth grade children, I ordered Jambon cru, thinking it was cured ham: thin slices of ham served with fresh bread and an assortment of vegetables.  I ordered them that because I knew they didn’t like Champions au croute, mushrooms served in a brown sauce over hard bread.  My meal was excellent, three different kinds of mushrooms.  The sauce was delicious, soaking into the hard bread.  But I was wrong on their meal.  What they got was more like prosciutto, a dry-cured ham very different from Southern or Virginia or salt-cured ham.  Thin slices of Jambon cru served with bread and some fresh vegetables, including small onions.  They ate the bread.  I ate the Jambon and onions, in addition to my Champions au croute.  I thought it all delicious.  They were hungry the rest of the hike.  And it was a long hike, perhaps twelve or fifteen miles.  From Taveyanne we went over to Encex, down to Bretaye, up to Chamossaire.  At Chamossaire Beth and Jayne boarded a train back to Villars, then walked down to Huemoz .  Kevin and I continued our hike down the back side of Chamossaire eventually to our chalet in Huemoz.

Until I was twenty-four, I did not like mushrooms.  Until I was eighteen or nineteen, I liked almost no vegetables.  If they count, the only vegetables I liked were corn and potatoes, what some might call livestock feed.  I grew up in poverty, at least what various government and social service agencies would call poverty.  I was never hungry, at least not involuntarily so.  If I was hungry, it was because I refused what my mother served.  At our house, with very limited funds (but not limited resources—my mother was very resourceful), you ate what was served or didn’t eat at all.  And if food was put on your plate, you finished it completely.  It was a sin to put food on your plate, not eat it all, and scrape some into the trash.  We didn’t scrape food into the trash.  If anything, we scraped it into a bowl to take out to feed the dog.  Our dog was hungry.  I remember sometime in my early elementary days having my mother put peas on my plate.  Similar to the scene in “A River Runs Through It” of the boy required to eat his oatmeal (“man has been eating God’s oats for a thousand years; it’s not the place of an eight-year old boy to change that tradition”), I could not leave the table until I finished my peas.  Finally when they were cold, and probably worse tasting than had I got them hot, I bolted them down.  Then I ran to the bathroom and puked it all up.  Involuntarily, as I thought.  The taste was so disgusting I just puked, like retching when you smell fetid roadkill too intimately.

Sunday dinners at our house were one of the following: fried chicken (mmm better-than-finger-lickin' good), baked breaded pork chops (“Shake ‘n Bake, ‘cause I helped!”), or roast beef.   Almost always it included mom's home made rolls, her version of Parker House rolls, but the best.  To this day, anyone who has her rolls declares them the best they have ever had.  If we are having a family gathering for a meal, her task is always the rolls.  As well, no one makes roast beef as good as my mom.  It was a cheap cut of beef; we were poor.  Slow cooked in an iron Dutch oven with potatoes, carrots, and onions.  It was so tender and tasty, the meat flaked apart.  No knife was needed.  But I couldn’t take the carrots and onions.  I barely could take the potatoes.  I didn’t mind potatoes baked or mashed.  But in a roast or stew where they took on the flavors of the other ingredients—that was not to my tastes.  If the Sunday dinner was roast beef, my mom made enough for leftovers.  Then what would she do?  She’d destroy them, at least in the mind of this twelve year-old.  She ran all the leftover beef, potatoes, carrots, and onions through a grinder and turned it into what she called “hash.”  She’d spread it into a 9”x13” baking dish, top it with ketchup, and bake it.  That is what we’d have Monday or Tuesday or both.  That was another day I was voluntarily hungry unless there were any of her rolls leftover, which fortunately she did not grind into the hash.

It was after I moved away from home that my repertoire of edible foods expanded.  It expanded quickly.  Within a year I learned to like almost every kind of vegetable.  I was at a place where I had to eat what was served and couldn't afford to buy my own groceries.  I tend not to like canned vegetables (especially peas; serve me canned peas to this day and I am likely to dash to the bathroom retching).  I like most vegetables fresh.  For cooked vegetables, I like them fresh or frozen.  I am sure I would now eat my mom’s hash.  I am also pretty sure I would not relish it; in fact, I might still go hungry if that is all that was on offer.  Now if I go to spend a day with my parents, my mom likes to fix her version of an Irish dinner.  Cabbage, onions, celery, potatoes, and usually smoked sausage, sometimes corned beef.  Pretty good stuff.  I used to hate casseroles.  Like my mom’s hash, I didn’t like things all mixed up.  I am sure there is some Levitical prohibition against eating foods all mixed up (like keeping wool away from flax, or dairy away from meat).  If she made a stew, I’d separate the meat from the potatoes (both of which I could be compelled to eat) from the onions, peas, beans, carrots, and tomatoes (none of which I would eat).  Now casseroles are one of my favorites, especially from October through April.  My wife makes excellent casseroles.  It is almost impossible to find a restaurant that serves casseroles.  Now that would be a niche market.  Making single-sized servings freshly of casseroles.  I have been to restaurants that serve Shepherd’s pie, for example.  But that is rare.  Maybe casserole is too much “home style,” and if people wanted home style they’d just stay home and not go out to eat.  Just as likely, no one wants to wait nearly an hour for the casserole to cook.

When I was perhaps five years old, a memorable meal I had was in the Hankinsons’ work shed, around November 17, around midnight.  My dad and his buddies got three deer, and had a deer cutting party at the Hankinsons’, very close family friends, the sort of friends that you could call on in the worst winter weather if you were stuck in a ditch.  It was a cool night in Borculo at the Hankinsons’.  The men were cutting up the deer, women were packaging it.  Part way into the project, Marilyn brought out to the shed an electric skillet and some butter.  Thin slices of backstraps were sautéed.  Excuse me, we didn’t use the word sautéed; rather they were fried.  I have had lots of venison since then.  But I haven’t been able to replicate the taste from that night of (if I were running a restaurant) “medallions of venison sautéed medium rare in clarified butter, served with red-skinned potatoes and Brussels sprouts.”

Finally, I mention something that was not a meal, at least it should not be considered a meal in itself although I could eat enough of it to consider it a meal in itself.  Georgia Wright made the best German Chocolate cake.  I called her Grandma Wright.  She was not physically my grandma, but a grandma to me nonetheless.  When I got my first deer with a bow at age sixteen, she helped me drag it out of the woods and load it into the trunk of my car to drive out the two-lane behind her farm.  She made great fried chicken, from free range birds (the one’s in her yard), butchered with her own hands.  When I was in high school, in the fall I’d head up north to Hoxeyville most weekends.  If Grandma Wright thought I’d be coming up, she’d make her German Chocolate cake.  One weekend I was there when I hadn’t been there the weekend before and she told me she had made it the previous week expecting me.  It was probably not just the German Chocolate cake that tasted so good.  It was her coffee that she made to go with it.  She made coffee in a vacuum pot.  A vacuum coffee maker has two vessels, an upper and a lower.  The principle of a vacuum coffee maker is to heat water in the lower vessel of the brewer until expansion forces the water through a narrow tube into the upper vessel containing coffee grounds. When the lower vessel has more or less emptied itself, the pot is removed from the stove.  The heated water by gravity runs over the ground coffee through a strainer back into the lower chamber from which the brewed coffee can be poured.  I have never known anyone else who made coffee with the vacuum method.  Compared to contemporary coffee snobs, her coffee would be declassee.  She wasn’t using some special roasted bean, or roasting her own beans.  It was probably Chase & Sanborn or Hills Brothers for God’s sake.  And it tasted so good.  Maybe it was because most of the brewed coffee I drank (and I drank more instant coffee than brewed coffee back then) was brewed in a percolator, which was usually too hot and probably boiled and burnt the coffee.  The vacuum method did not burn the coffee.  Her coffee and her German Chocolate cake are for me a taste of autumn.

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