Thursday, August 27, 2015

Xander and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day

Yesterday was a rotten day for my spirits. I was feeling down because—but for circumstances beyond my control—it should have been my 48th wedding anniversary. It also would have been my former husband’s 70th birthday. (Yes, we got married on his birthday.) He didn’t even live long enough to get out of his 50s so I suppose I should consider myself fortunate to be alive. But sometimes being alive doesn’t feel so fortunate.

Last night I called my mother, just to check in with her. She’s 89, on oxygen, barely ambulatory. She asked how I was doing.

I said: “Not that great.”

She said: “Well, I’ll cheer you up. I can always cheer you up. I’ve been awful sick all day today.” (She went on to recount her woes that I won’t share—suffice it to say she had digestive upset.) “And I’m awfully lonely. I was supposed to visit with Mae today but I was too sick. I just don’t have any friends here. Well, there was Shirley, but she died. My friend Ruth down the hall was very friendly, but she died. My neighbor Joan with the one leg died, poor thing. And Mr. Miller liked me, but did you know he died too? And I really don’t think I have much time left to live now. Oh, but I’m supposed to be cheering you up. How’s your cat?”

I replied: “Mom, my cat is dead. She died before Christmas.”

She said: “Oh, I didn’t remember that. What happened?

So I had to explain my cat’s illness and death. Again. That really helped to lift my mood. Then she started asking me why I don’t ever bring her to my house to stay. “All the stairs, Mom, you can’t do the stairs. I think I’m going to have to hang up now.”

She replied: “No, no, don’t hang up. I want to talk to you so I can cheer you up. Did you know Joe Donahue died?”

At that point we both laughed at the absurdity of the situation. All that death can be pretty funny after all.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The no clothes manifesto

Simplifying and paring down one’s possessions is not a novel idea. Books, workshops, and websites praise the value of living with less. I get it.

Just today I read an article on Apartment Therapy (photo credit to AT) about living with no closet at all. I’ve been cleaning out my bedroom closet for years. Things go out; more things come in. But in recent months I have become more ruthless. Items of clothing no longer have sentimental value to me. That cute sweater with the beaded design on the back, the one I bought in Austin when I was shopping with my daughter, the one I bought because my daughter thought I needed a change from my usual dowdy clothes? I wore it a few times when I was feeling frisky, but it is years old now and it began to lose its shape. (Hmm. . . perhaps I am the one who is losing my shape, but I prefer to blame it on the sweater.) Well, that sweater finally got purged. I’ll keep the happy memories. The sweater and lots of other things, with or without sentimental value, have gone. No longer do I own 100 pairs of shoes. Everything I own fits comfortably in one closet with room to spare.

For years I have believed that retail therapy was the cure for any ailment. Bored? Go see what Marshall’s might have. Depressed? Maybe they have some new jeans at Nordstrom Rack. I’m a sucker for a deal—give me a coupon, a secret code to get 40 percent off online, throw in free shipping and I’m all over it. I can just feel the serotonin flooding through my brain. And the thrift stores—wow! I have found fabulous clothes, beautiful silver jewelry, and unworn designer shoes. I even know when the thrift store is offering additional discounts. And now, those things that I bought at the thrift store because they were incredible deals? Many of them have been weeded out, purged from my closet. It doesn’t matter how great a deal I got if I don’t wear it. The same with the things I thought I should wear to improve my image or the cute things that I probably would have worn back in my hippy days in the ‘60s. My image is beyond repair and it has become foolish to dress like Stevie Nicks at my age.

All of this closet purging, this simplifying, got me thinking about my attachment to clothes. Yes, I’m easily distracted by shiny objects. But gradually it has dawned on me that this is incredibly foolish and wasteful. I think my many hunting and gathering excursions into thrift stores have actually over-loaded my clothing sensibility. It all looks like junk to me now. It all smells funny and the pure quantity of discarded clothes makes me a bit queasy. I noticed that much of the discarded clothing on the racks of the thrift stores comes from retail stores like Target and Kohl’s and Forever 21 that sell cheap clothes, often trendy clothes that are made to be worn briefly and discarded. Have you noticed the smell in one of these retailers that sell cheap clothes—they have a particular aroma that almost has the undertone of insecticide. That should be a sign.

I did a little online research about the clothing manufacturing industry. I learned that 98 percent of the clothes sold in the United States are made outside of the U.S., mostly in China. Our clothes are relatively cheap because they often are made using child labor or people who work on sweat-shop subsistence wages, in horrible working conditions. Remember the factory that collapsed in Bangladesh in 2013? The factory produced clothes for retailers including Benetton and Walmart. Over 1,000 people died.

Suppose most of our clothes were made in the United States? It would create jobs but we would have to pay more to stuff our closets full of things we might never wear.

All of these things together pressed in on me—the rampant consumerism, the mindless retail therapy, the waste, the exploitation of people in 3rd world countries to produce clothes—as I cleaned out my closet. And I wanted it to stop.

So, here’s what I’m doing. This is my personal manifesto: I am not buying any clothes for one year. That includes accessories, shoes, and the cheap bauble jewelry that clutters my drawers. If there’s a small fire in my room and all of my underwear is destroyed, I’ll buy new underwear. If I get married (that would be the most incredible surprise of all!) I might buy a simple wedding dress. And shoes . . . maybe a few things for the honeymoon—no, stop! I can’t have too many loopholes in the manifesto. One year, starting today, right now. So that means I can’t go out tomorrow and stock up for the coming year. It includes buying clothes at estate sales, thrift stores, outlet centers, and street vendors. If I go to Paris . . . no, stop!

Lord, have mercy! What have I done? What am I going to do when I’m in desperate need of retail therapy? Guess I’ll find out. This is my first manifesto ever. I'm feeling quite the revolutionary. I wish I had a Che Guevera tee shirt.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

That point of light

A number of years ago I sat in silent meditation high in the mountains of West Virginia. It was one of those times that I was able to sink deeper and deeper. Time faded away. I could feel that invisible essence of my being shrinking smaller and smaller until it was nothing—it simply merged with the mountain air. I imagined that could be what it feels like to die, so peaceful, free of earthly attachments.

And today as I sat in silent contemplative prayer, the image of that meditation in the West Virginia mountains came back to me. I could see that my core essence is but a point of light, buried deep inside me, protected by organs and sinew and skin and bone. That light was God’s creation, a part of Him. He stretched out His hand and from His finger came the light around which I was formed. And that light is still within me. I carry in my inner being a part of God and that light will never be extinguished. When my mortal body dies, the light will return to Him—God in me and I in Him.

This creates a longing so profound. I know that my words do not describe it adequately and I also know that some people may think me crazy. So be it.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Chili provençale aka ratatouillaise

Do I need to be reminded that this blog is called Cooking + Praying? I’ve been much more focused on praying (and life in general) than on cooking. There’s a reason for that and I’ll confess if you promise not to tell anyone. I’m trying to lose weight. Again. I lost it and it found its way home. So I’m just eating protein and vegetables. No carbs, no sugar. Not even fruit . . . sigh . . . and she says that at the height of peach season. I have discovered that croissants and pizza and pasta and jelly doughnuts and beer are all on the NO list. No barbequed potato chips with sour cream. (I think I’m going to cry.) There is no joy in Mudville. Actually after a couple of weeks I feel like I have the jelly doughnut and beer monkeys off my back. But if they arrived at my door, begging me to let them in, I probably would not resist too hard.

So I’ve been hoping that some delicious recipe would come into my life—anything that does not include another hard-boiled egg, another hunk of roasted chicken, or another leaf of spinach. So in pursuit of this recipe today I went to the farmers market and then to the grocery store to get the ingredients. I cooked the recipe exactly as written but for a couple of deviations. I couldn’t find harissa so I used some Indonesian spicy salsa sort of thing I found at Trader Joe’s. Oh, and I doubled it—more about that later.
My comments on the recipe:
(1) I used fresh tomatoes but I refused to peel them. The produce alone cost me over $30. I think next time I’ll used good canned tomatoes. It’s not worth the effort and the expense to use fresh tomatoes unless you have a garden and an excess of tomatoes. In the early cooking it appears that the peels are beginning to separate from the tomato pulp and they are floating around in the mixture. Do you think I would actually stoop so low as to pick them out with my fingers?

(2) I doubled the recipe because I want to bring a batch to my sister tomorrow. It grew and grew as I added ingredients. There is a boatload of zucchini and eggplant in this recipe. It grew out of my largest Dutch oven so I had to put it in my big soup pot—at least it fit in the oven where it is now resting at 350 degrees for over 2 hours.
(3) I didn’t peel the red bell pepper either. I roasted them like the recipe says but I struggled to peel them. I know there’s a technique but I forget what it is and I was too up to my elbows in kitchen mayhem to look it up. The pepper peels are floating in the mixture along with the tomato peels. Now I know how to remove them.
(4) My kitchen is a mess and it’s hot so I left it all, hoping that some kind soul will come into my house and clean the kitchen. Just in case you want to attempt this yourself at home, the photo is of my kitchen at this very moment. I’m afraid to go back, even though the beeper is telling me it’s time to stir the pot.

(5) The good news is I tasted it, albeit prematurely before the flavors can really mingle, and it’s delicious.

Kristin Espinasse calls the recipe “ratatouillaise” but in my mind it’s kind of like Chili Provençale. The following is quoted from her site, link below:

The dish has two secret (and untraditional) ingredients — a generous drizzle of honey, which heightens the tomatoes — and a dash of something spicy — I used harissa. Herbs, sautéed onions and ground beef join the vegetables in the covered casserole before it’s placed in the oven for a slow simmer. In the photo above, you can see the “raw” state — the vegetables still bright and crunchy. After a couple of hours, they turned soft and creamy, rich with a deep, meaty savor. Paired with couscous, this made a superb Sunday dinner — with leftovers for another weeknight meal (over pasta or soft polenta). The best part? It leaves your house smelling like a summer kitchen in Provence.


The word “ratatouillaise” is a hybrid of ratatouille and bolognaise (spelled the French way).

Olive oil
2 red bell peppers
3 onions, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 lb ground beef
2 lbs tomatoes, peeled and diced
2 large zucchini, peeled in stripes, and cut into 1.5-inch chunks
3 small eggplant, peeled in stripes, and cut into 1.5-inch cubes
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon harissa
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Salt and pepper

Cut the red peppers in half and remove the seeds. Line a baking sheet with parchment pepper and arrange the peppers on it. Roast the peppers at 400ºF until their skins have blistered, about 20 minutes. Peel the peppers and slice them into thin strips.

In a large Dutch oven, heat a tablespoon of oil and sauté the onions and garlic until they’ve softened and start to turn golden. Add the ground beef, breaking up the chunks with a wooden spoon. When the meat has cooked, stir in the tomatoes. Season lightly with salt and pepper.

Preheat the oven to 350ºF. In a (separate) sauté pan, warm a tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high flame, and then add the zucchini and a dash of pepper. Don’t overcrowd the pan — cook in batches, if necessary. Sauté the zucchini until gently softened and starting to turn brown, about five minutes. Add the zucchini to the meat mixture. Repeat with the rest of the zucchini, then the eggplant cubes. Add them to the meat mixture. Stir the red pepper strips into the meat mixture, along with the honey, harissa, bay leaf, thyme, oregano, and 1.5 cups of water.

Bring the mixture to a boil on the stove, then cover the pot and place it in the oven. Cook the ratatouillaise in the oven, stirring every half an hour, until the vegetables have collapsed and everything is “bien confit” (well reduced) — about 2.5 hours. If too much liquid remains, uncover the pot for the last 30 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings.

I found the recipe on Kristin Espinasse’s site, A Day in a French Life at:
Complete instructions with photos can be found on Ann Mah’s blog here: