Food for grief

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One  of the hardest things in life is being there for people as they mourn. Everyone grieves differently and not knowing what people need, want, or could use during extreme times of grief is difficult and strange. Especially if you are mourning as well yourself.

We allow ourselves to become apathetic and believe someone else will step in to take care. Someone closer to them, who knows them better, who they want to see more than us. And in some cases that seems appropriate, in others I think we just are talking ourselves out of a difficult situation. My pastor once talked about how Peter, who denied he knew Jesus, must have been haunted by Jesus’ eyes of grace and challenged us to think about who was haunted by our own eyes of grace. Maybe don’t haunt those in grief but I do challenge you to show up for them.

Sitting with people through hard conversations, awkward encounters, tough decisions, and tears is not something we generally feel comfortable with or crave. And yet this is when we need each other the most, this is when we realize who we can count on. It’s hard to know how to be there for others or how to comfort those who are weeping, but something, done in love, is always better than nothing.

I have no good advice here, except that food is something we all need, happy or sad, hopeful or hopeless, near and dear or strangers. Grocery shopping in grief is rough, and essentials are always helpful, maybe show up with a bag of those. Grief brings visitors, offer to supply the drinks and ice needed to entertain others. Show up with a meal, one that can be easily frozen if need be or can feed those there and any others that might show up. 

And listen. Or maybe distract. Sometimes, against all odds, a funny story is all that’s needed. A funny story and soup. A distracting hour away from grief can be very therapeutic. And risotto, or pasta, or a casserole… Now I’m hungry. But also inspired.

Easter

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Easter is by far my favorite holiday. 

All of Holy Week is actually rather special to me and though I don’t go to a high church that celebrates Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and good Friday, I acknowledge them in my own way. Easter is really just the crown on a week of sacrificial love shown to us.

This year my husband and I were able to host Easter Day at our house. We had family from both sides and a handful of friends gathered in our backyard for corn hole, koob (apparently a Viking yard game I’ve only recently been introduced to), and egg decorating. My family was introduced to pisanki egg dying many years ago by friends of ours, it’s an elaborate method of melting wax in a special pen like tool and writing on eggs before putting them into strong dyes. At the end you melt the wax off and you can see the layers of color hidden beneath the wax. This was the first year I’ve been able to do pisanki eggs at my own place and it was fun to share it with so many new people, it is a practice in patience.

The best part was gathering around the food, having my husband and brother in law slice up ham and lamb, dishing up mashed potatoes, delicious squash, and pulling off chunks of challah bread. For dessert we had cheesecake, meringue baskets with vanilla custard and fruit, and both a cherry and a pecan pie! It was overkill and it was delicious!

   
 Since I didn’t want to be stuck in the kitchen all day I did as much prep before hand as I could, the breads and desserts were made in advance, dishes were started early and then finished off just before dinner, and kitchen areas were zoned off, one counter for appetizers, one for dinner, and the third for dessert. First the clean serving dishes were stacked there ready to be used and then, once done, the dirty dishes were put back on that counter ready to be taken care of the next day but forgotten for the time being.

  
It was a success for me, time spent not stressing out about what plate to put the lamb on during the rush of getting everyone served and the organization of knowing where exactly we were going to put the stacks of dirty wishes was helpful for my easily stressed out brain. And gave me time to decorate my own egg and hold my nephew.

Wedding Parties

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I have three siblings and all four of us are now married! I’m guessing this is a celebration of sorts for our parents, we are now out of the house, building our own lives in different states and buying and renovating our own homes, moving our stuff, slowly but surely, out of their basement and barn, etc.

My sister was the first to get married and I wasn’t there to help much, I was traveling through New Zealand and Australia when she got engaged and for all but a couple of weeks of her engagement, I wasn’t able to throw her a bridal shower or help with the planning and crafting etc. we did as much as we could when we got home, baking pies, throwing an emotional bachelorette party, and helping to set up decorations the day of but it was hard to miss so much of the “wedding process.”

My brother was next and I lived in a different state when they got married, I was able to be there for the wedding but didn’t help my sister in law or brother much, except for making a pie for their dessert bar and making a beer run. It was a casual backyard affair that turned out beautifully but again I threw no parties for it.

I was next and my sisters and mother did so much to contribute to my wedding even from their different states, helping me choose a gown, sending gifts to bridal showers, hosting my bachelorette party the week they arrived in town, throwing me a bridal brunch the day of my wedding, and basically keeping me sane. I also got a mother in law and sister in law who contributed greatly to my wedding, hosting a beautiful bridal shower for me, throwing a fantastic rehearsal dinner, not to mention housing me before our wedding!

Most recently my oldest sister got married. She lived out of state but planned to get married in my home state as we see much warmer weather in February when they got married (outside with a week of fun camping beforehand!) and during her engagement they learned that they would be moving to my hometowns shortly after their wedding!

It was an awesome wedding and my sister and brother in law threw a weeklong party that had one awesome event after another and I was thrilled to be a part of it! Most exciting for me I was able to host a bridal shower for my sister before the wedding, not just celebrating her engagement and the crazy big step she was taking in her life but welcoming her to our town as well. She’s lived here and spent time here before and has a good bunch of friends here, it was fun to see them gather in my new home. To sit down to our favorite of breakfast for dinner with quiches and French toast bakes, mimosas and spiked coffees, and talk about her coming life changes and dream of what all it would be like with her.

  Weddings are the start of so much and sometimes the parties and events beforehand can get overwhelming and seem insignificant to those around the couple to be. These parties are always, I have found, ten times better with something tasty to eat and something cold to drink. It seems good to remember that there is more to these events than stocking the kitchen with pots and pans and the linen closet with towels, that we are there to to celebrate what is happening in their lives and how things will change, grow, and develop in new ways for them now. By all means, stock the kitchen and the linen closet, but also feed them, sit and eat with them, and make a happy toast!

So, here is to parties shared, be they emotionally laden or light and happy, momentous occasions celebrated, food enjoyed together, and drinks that help us get to know each other! And may this party inspire another!

Tortilla Memories by Aleta Campbell

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My mother, aunts, and uncle were raised on the Indian reservation near where I now live while my grandparents worked on translating the bible and putting the legends of the people down in writing.

I asked my aunt to share some of her memories of the food from that time in her life.



How did growing up on the Indian Reservation influence your food habits and your ideas of eating together and hosting people for meals?
Hmm… interesting question. How in the world do you separate your family influences from your outer community experiences or influences? Instead of figuring it out, I’m going to describe what I remember of potlucks at church when I was small. I grew up on the Tohono O’otham (formerly Papago) Indian Reservation.
On the reservation, we had a potluck at every holiday. What I remember is the food more than the “fellowship.” That was probably because I was a kid. I’m sure that my parents remember interacting with people because adults talk more than kids. We kids love food, then we play!

What I remember is that it was all “dewicious.” When the Indians made chili, they did not mean chili beans or Texas style chili with hamburger in it, chili meant what the Mexicans call “chili con carne.” Some people made it extremely hot, some mild and some in between. Some made the chunks of meat large, some small, and some in between, no matter, the end result was wonderful. Sometimes somebody would bring a stew, but not often, usually meat came as chili.

Another staple was beans, and by beans, I mean pinto beans. I don’t think they were cooked with a lot of different spices, just salt and pepper; perhaps some also put in cumin? I do not remember the beans ever being “refried” back then, just brought in the juice they were cooked in. They were usually served with a slotted spoon so you could avoid getting too much juice on your plate; that would make the paper plate disintegrate too quickly. When I was little I associated refried beans with “Mexican” food, enchiladas, etc.

Another staple was tortillas. Very infrequently someone would bring cowboy tortillas. These are small, thick tortillas that the Indian men would make when they were out on round up; they were probably small because they had to fit in a pan over a campfire. I love cowboy tortillas; I think I could make them because you don’t have to make them so big and round and thin, but they are not what I think of when I think of T.O. tortillas. The usual tortillas made by the Tohono O’otham Indians are large, about 16 inches in diameter, and extremely thin. They were soft and pliable, with dark spots where the dough had bubbled up and resulted in a scorched area or burn. The tortillas were best the first day, okay on the second day if they were well protected from the air, and stiff and hard as cardboard if they dried out. After growing up eating tortillas like this, it makes most commercial tortillas seem like dry, puffy, clammy, gummy leather. The tortillas were often cooked outside over a wood fire and had a delicious quality that cannot be duplicated by other means. When I moved north, then east-ish, the tortilla landscape was bleak and something had to be done about it. That’s a story for another time.

Okay, back to the potluck fare. Another frequent item at a potluck was potato salad made with DILL pickles, salad dressing or mayonnaise (I couldn’t tell), sliced celery and chopped boiled eggs. Yum! . I don’t remember the salad being very yellow, so I don’t think that mustard was included, but, then again, I was a kid and couldn’t tell. My first encounter with sweet pickles in potato salad made me want to spit it out in surprise. You can keep your sweetened untamed masses! My father-in-law grew up in East Texas and his mother made potato salad with sweet pickles and I could hardly put the stuff in my mouth. Dill, people, DILL! It’s gotta be dill!

Sometimes someone would get confused and bring a lettuce salad. What?

Other people would be even more confused and bring a jello salad. What? What? Huh???? People!

If all the stars were lined up just the right way, someone would bring tamales! Tamales! Okay, that’s a Spanish/Mexican word, but the T.O.’s OWN tamales! I had never heard of green corn tamales until I had moved off the reservation and was in my early twenties. The tamales that the T.O.’s make are made with the red chili I mentioned before inside the tamale; not pork, not olives, not anything but red meat in red chili sauce. I’m sure things have changed by now, but we are talking about the potlucks of 40 to 50 years ago. The tamales were usually large and had several corn husks wrapped around them. Not the tiny ones you can buy in the frozen section of some stores. When he was a child, my husband sometimes ate tamales that came from a CAN!!!!! That’s beyond words to me. Tamales were always the star of the show when they showed up.

Another very infrequent item was cholla cactus bud salad. I tasted this as a kid and decided that I probably didn’t want to live off the land quite THAT much. It’s a real traditional item, though, and my Mom and Dad thought it was a WONDERFUL treat. Mom never made it herself. I think the thought of wandering around in the desert, harvesting buds from cholla cacti, and brushing off all the spines without getting any in your hands/eyes/mouth, whatever, was a little intimidating. She had four kids and so much linguistic work to do! Who has time to search the desert for edibles?

Occasionally someone would bring yeast rolls which were heavenly. When the potluck was in Santa Rosa, the church ladies would get together and make yeast rolls which they then baked in the adobe dome oven on the church property. THAT was wonderful!

I think one of the things that made the food so good was that many families were still cooking on wood-burning stoves or over an outdoor fire. The smell and flavor of the wood permeated the food. We cooked on a gas stove and food didn’t have the same flavor.

 

Well, I’m drawing to the close of my most vivid memories of church potlucks from childhood.

Food Rules

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1. No thank you portion.
2. Eat what you take.
3. Eat what’s offered or not at all.

I think all families and households have some rules about food and eating, these are the main ones I remember from growing up.
The “no thank you portion” was famous as it applied to everyone, if we had a tomato dish my sister had to put a mouthful of it on her plate even though she hated tomatoes, us girls had to put a bite of fish on our plates even though we despised them, I had to take a small serving of mushrooms even though the slime and texture grossed me out. We didn’t have to take a lot but we did have to take at least a mouthful and put it on our plates, which led to the second rule which was you could serve yourself but you had to eat whatever you took. Seconds were allowed, but if you greedily over served yourself the first go around you had to plow through and finish it, including your no thank you portions.
My first realization that not everyone had the third rule was when I went to a new friends for dinner, the mom had made a fish casserole for her and her husband, and then made macaroni and cheese for the kids which was hard enough for me to understand that there were two meals on offer and you weren’t required to eat what everyone was eating! Then my friend decided she didn’t want macaroni and got up and made herself a peanut butter sandwich! I was so blown away I didn’t even know what to do with myself!
Being trained the way I was I took, and quickly swallowed, a bite of the fish casserole and loaded my fill of macaroni without complaint. The idea that you could decide on something completely off menu of your own accord had never even crossed my mind, my mother would have had a conniption!
A single meal was all that was ever offered and we could eat that, we couldn’t even decide not to eat it if we didn’t want to as we had to take our no thank you portion no matter what.
I’ve since worked as a nanny and used these food rules myself, they might not be perfect but they do work at getting kids to try foods they don’t always like or tried once and decided to hate. They do cut down on crazy demands from each individual child and they do set boundaries for the dinner table that each kid can understand and expect.
The more I think about my childhood food rules the more I wonder about yours- what were the rules growing up for you? What did you expect from dinner time and it’s rituals?

Change of plans

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As someone who started a collection of cookbook and party planning books early on I was eager to get started hosting friends and family for every sort of event I could come up with. I was lucky in that my first place was the perfect gathering place and worked beautifully for many different events. There was a learning curve as I figured out how to feed a crowd, how to ask for help, what friends to invite for what, and how many people would work for different kinds of gatherings. (There is still a lot of learning to do in all of these areas)

Now things are changing as I’m not in the perfectly located apartment with the perfect living space and as I plan more events at my boyfriends home instead of my own, and we enter a new adjustment period of planning events that accommodate both our groups of friends.

It’s fun to have a new space to work with and new ideas to try, but there is also a level of hospitality dread when it comes to new challenges like this. I both love and fear change and this new stage in life is full of it. From planning meals for groups mixed with men who love meat based events and people with health and diets on their mind at the same time to offering drinks to beer lovers and pregnant women at the same time to planning couple based things as well as parties for all friends, are areas where I’m now wading into the hostessing pool.

None of these will probably be huge issues unto themselves but knowing the pressure I put on myself to host things perfectly I know I will feel the stress until I become more comfortable with the new areas of partying.
When I first noticed or figured out that hostessing was one of the areas that I loved people I never would have said that having friends over would stress me out. I didn’t have my own place and I was eager to try my hand at every idea I came across, and I stored away plans like a squirrel waiting for winter. Now I’ve had my own place and the opportunity to try the plans and parties. I understand a lot more about myself as well as the people I host.

It’s good to step back and realize how much you have learned from the first tries, it’s good to realize how much you’ve grown. Cause often it’s easy to become overwhelmed with how much left you have to grow up and figure out.

Farm Fresh

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We used to raise sheep for meat. We also ate our chickens eggs and then, when they were done laying, we ate the chicken as well. We raised goats for milk and often sold the kids for meat, I wasn’t as excited about eating a baby goat as they were always a lot smarter than any of the other animals and it was easy to get friendly with them.

When I tell people that I raised animals for meat they often respond with compassion, as if this must have been an especially hard thing to go through as a kid. The truth of the matter is that I felt pretty lucky to be raised on fresh and delicious meat. Many friends of mine don’t appreciate the taste of lamb as they have only ever had tougher cuts or poorly raised animals. Farm fresh eggs and meat make for a much better experience-taste wise. Animals that have been treated well, raised on acreage where they can move and eat at their leisure, and have actually been paid attention to taste like actual animals.

The western worlds food ideas is changing and more local, fresh, well raised food is being encouraged and the trend is encouraging. It is interesting that even among many who want grass fed, cage free, organic meat- there is still a large amount of people who don’t want to remember or realize that they are eating a cow or a chicken or a turkey- that beef comes from an actual animal with a face and that boneless, skinless breasts were once part of a whole animal.

I don’t want to become a vegetarian because I enjoy meat too much, I appreciate the flavors, the texture, the fat, and protein too much. But being raised the way I was and being educated about farms and farmers, animals and their beginnings- has given me a unique way of seeing what I eat. I don’t want to eat mistreated animals because I know they won’t taste as delicious as the carefully treated ones. I also know some of the hoops farmers have to jump through for certain certifications and don’t want them to go out of business because a changing population wants to see the encouraging stamp on their package than have to think about the industry behind it.
Being a demanding consumer means more about knowing your farmer, knowing your source, than it does about the labels and the marketing they are able to do.

Not everyone can know their farmer, but a visit to a farmers market can go a long way, ask questions- they know their stuff. Teach your children about chickens, not just as a main dish but as an animal that is butchered by trained professionals to get to your supermarket wrapped in cellophane.