Sunday, October 30, 2011

Thoughts on Relationship

They say a musician becomes one with his instrument, an artist becomes one with his paintbrush and a poet becomes one with his words.  I think it is also true to say that a chef becomes one with his kitchen tools.

I got a new frying pan for my birthday.  It is beautiful and red and enamel-lined cast iron.  Perfect for cooking.  And yet, it is a stranger in my kitchen.  I do not know how it responds to heat, how much oil it needs, how it behaves when I am sautéing or simmering or caramelising.

I must observe, and through trial and error (which means taking a step backwards - burning a few things, undercooking a few things, and unintentionally destroying a few things) learn how to cook all over again.  I must learn the personality of the pan if we are to work together.

If I expect my new pan to behave as my old pan did, then I not only have no need of the new pan; I also have unrealistic expectations.  If I am impatient with the new pan, I will never reach the level of cooking to which I am accustomed.  If I skip steps and try to rush the process, I will not value my pan for what it can do and will overlook some of its capabilities.  It takes time to learn all the nuances of a new pan.

If, on the other hand, I take the time to build relationship with the pan, to observe and study it, find out where it excels and how to work with it, then I will have no need to think the next time I cook.  We will perform a beautiful dance in the kitchen - my pan and I - that comes from knowing your partner so well it is hard to tell where one leaves off and the other begins.  We will have become one.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

In Between Two Worlds

I forgot about Halloween.  I forgot about the baseball World Series.  I even forgot that October is autumn for the Northern Hemisphere.  I guess four years of living in South Africa will do that to an American.

There are days, though, when I still feel very much like a foreigner, days when I wonder if I'll ever fit in.  My accent identifies me as a foreigner.  My lack of knowledge of slang words (i.e. I learned yesterday that "dicing" is informal drag racing) gives me away as an outsider.  There is usually something to remind me that, despite the strides I have made, I did not grow up here and therefore, will never fully belong.

I keep wanting to say that I'm homesick, but the truth is, South Africa is home now more than America.  Maybe what I am is "family sick."

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Flavourful Dream, Part 5

Roasted Butternut, Bacon and Peanut Butter Soup

500g butternut, peeled and diced
2 cloves of garlic, diced
olive oil
4ml Moroccan spice rub
4 pieces of back bacon, cooked and diced
1 med. onion, diced and caramelised
chicken stock
1 Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored and diced
80g peanut butter
freshly squeezed juice of one lemon
2.5ml curry powder
125ml fresh cream
60ml fresh coriander, chopped

1. Preheat oven to 190ºC.  Toss butternut with garlic, olive oil and Moroccan spice rub. Place in an oven proof dish and roast for 40 minutes.  In the meantime, cook bacon and set aside.  Caramelise onion and set aside.

2. Heat 1.5 litres of chicken stock in pot.  Bring to a boil, add apples, and simmer for 30 minutes or until apples are tender.  Add the roasted butternut, bacon and onions.  Simmer for another 10 minutes. 

3.  Remove from heat and blend until smooth and there are no lumps.  Return to the stove on low heat.  Add peanut butter, lemon juice and curry powder and stir until heated through and mixed well.  Thicken soup with cornflour mixed with water, if desired.

4.  Turn off heat, add cream and fresh coriander.  Stir to blend and serve. 

A Flavourful Dream, Part 4

I woke up in the middle of the night (again), still thinking about bacon, peanut butter and lemons.  This isn't just about food, I realised.  This is about all of life - how to deal with seemingly impossible situations, how to push through, how not to give up and walk away.  If I can figure out a recipe that incorporates bacon, peanut butter and lemons, then I can be encouraged to work through other difficult situations in my life.

I come from a culture of quick fixes, instant results and limitless options.  If something is not to our satisfaction, we ditch it and find something that is.  Divorce rates are high.  Homes are broken.  Friendships are severed.  Materialism is rampant. Obesity is reaching dangerous proportions.  Why, if I come from a culture that has everything it could possibly want, are people so unhappy?  Is there actually something to commitment, to making due with what one has, and to finding joy in facing the challenges?

The Bible says there is. It says that through our trials we are refined as gold and that the challenges of life lead to perseverance, which is necessary for our maturity.  I would agree, but the funny thing is... those of us who profess to be followers of Jesus don't often live as if we believe what we say we believe.  There is a disconnect between our words and our actions.  Are we really so selfish that we can't handle a little discomfort?

 And then it hit me.  Butternut squash, a Granny Smith apple, and a little inspiration from Western Africa.  I went into the kitchen.  I knew exactly what to do now... 

Play the notes, Annie.  Play the notes. 

Saturday, October 22, 2011

A Flavourful Dream, Part 3

Fritz made the most amazing dark chocolate sculpture with a strawberry reduction glaze.  It rose high off the plate in intricate swirls that resembled a cross between the Eiffel Tower and Belgian lace.

Jürgen made a mustard glaze, cut up the pretzels, basted them with the glaze and grilled them to make something like croutons.  He simmered ostrich meat in the beer and, together with the mustard pretzel croutons, put together a fabulous meat pie of sorts.  "I'll have to see how he did that," I thought.  (except... this is my dream... so did I just make up that recipe or did Jürgen?)

I just sat there.  Play the notes, Annie.  Play the notes.  Can I actually make something with bacon, peanut butter and lemons?  I've made a citrus glaze for ham (which is not exactly bacon and lemons, but at least I was getting somewhere).  Peanut butter... Thai cooking often utilises a peanut sauce...  Can the two be combined?

I suddenly woke up from my dream.  It was 04h20 in the morning.  I don't usually put much stock in dreams but this one stuck with me.  Does it mean anything?  Is there a parallel that relates to real life?

For two days now all I can think about is bacon, peanut butter and lemons.  Sometimes my circumstances feel a little bit like getting bacon, peanut butter and lemons.  I look around and think that everyone else got chocolate and strawberries or pretzels and beer.  I want to complain.

Sometimes my relationships feel a little bit like bacon, peanut butter and lemons.  What on earth am I supposed to do with them?  I'd often rather chuck them in the dustbin than try to find a unity or synthesise them into a coherent counterpoint.

Play the notes, Annie.  Play the notes.  What chord is it?  Is it actually just an unexpected chord and not "wrong notes" at all?  Would it help to look at it as an amazing possibility rather than a burden?  And is there in fact fun in conducting a symphony of bacon, peanut butter and lemons?

I can't get this out of my head.  When I figure it out, I'll let you know.

A Flavourful Dream, Part 2

Suddenly Benjamin Zander* (conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra) appeared like a ghost at my kitchen station, clapped his hands in delight and said, "What amazing possibilities!" 

I looked at him rather crossly.  "You may be an expert on the art of possibility, but even you never had to conduct a symphony that involved bacon, peanut butter and lemons."

"True", he replied, "But if I ever get the chance, what fun I shall have!"  He grinned like an excited schoolboy, which only made me feel more irritable.

"Are you always this happy?" I growled.

"Think about it, Annie.  What chord are you playing?  If bacon is one note, and peanut butter is another note, and lemons are a third, what chord would that be?"

"It wouldn't be a chord at all," I replied emphatically, "but three wrong notes played together and believe me - even the audience would hear that mistake."

"But even wrong notes constitute a chord, though it might not have been the chord you intended to play.  Think hard - what chord is it?"

I was angry. I didn't want to play this game, so I said the worst thing I could think of - "A C# augmented with a minor 7th."  Take that, I said in my mind, but to my surprise Benjamin Zander winked and said, "Sounds delicious!"

He began to fade out of the game show and said, "Play the notes, Annie.  Play the notes.  Even if they weren't the expected ones."

[*note: this has no reflection on the real Benjamin Zander, of whom I have nothing but the utmost respect.  I'm just relating my dream, although I'd like to think that if I did meet Benjamin Zander in person he'd say much the same thing]

A Flavourful Dream, Part 1

counterpoint, n.  The technique of combining two or more melodic lines in such a way that they establish a harmonic relationship while retaining their linear individuality.

I had this dream the other night. I was on a game show called "Culinary Counterpoint," in which three contestants were each given two unusual ingredients and had to combine them into one dish.  They had one hour to complete the task, and then judges would decide which contestant had done the best job, thus determining the winner.

As I said, I was one of the contestants.  The other two contestants were "Fritz" from Switzerland and "Jürgen" from Germany.

The game show host pulled out a card and said, "Okay, Fritz, your two culinary counterpoint ingredients are chocolate and strawberries."

I looked at the host.  "You're giving the Swiss guy chocolate as an ingredient?  I thought this was supposed to be challenging!  Chocolate and strawberries aren't an unusual combination!"

He continued, "Jürgen, your two culinary counterpoint ingredients are pretzels and beer."

Again I protested, "You're giving the German guy pretzels and beer?  Those aren't even ingredients; they're food!"

He looked at me, "Annie, your culinary counterpoint ingredients are... huh! This is strange - you have THREE ingredients to incorporate.  Well, no one ever said counterpoint was restricted to two voices, so I guess you have an extra challenge ahead of you.  Your ingredients are bacon, peanut butter and lemons!"

I lost it.  "What are you smoking?  This is so unfair! There's no way I can combine those ingredients!"

He ignored me.  "The clock starts... NOW!"

Fritz ran off to his kitchen station and began melting dark chocolate to pipe into intricate, lace-like sculptures.

Jürgen ran off to his kitchen station, ate some pretzels and beer, and was deep in thought as to how to incorporate them into a unique dish.

I shuffled over to my station, complaining the whole way.  "He could at least have stuck with the nationality thing and given me hot dogs, potato chips and Coke. There's no way I can do anything with bacon, peanut butter and lemons.  No way."

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Thoughts on Faith

"When Love beckons to you, follow Him,
Though His ways are hard and steep.
And when His wings enfold you, yield to Him,
Though the sword hidden among His pinions may wound you.
And when He speaks to you believe in Him,
Though His voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.
For even as Love crowns you so shall He crucify you.
Even as He is for your growth so is He for your pruning.
Even as He ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
So shall He descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.
Like sheaves of corn He gathers you unto Himself.
He threshes you to make you naked.
He sifts you to free you from your husks.
He grinds you to whiteness.
He kneads you until you are pliant;
And then He assigns you to His sacred fire;
That you may become sacred bread for God's sacred feast."
-Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

If you knew that the pain would make you more beautiful, refine you as gold, would you still run away from it?  If you knew that amazing treasure lay on the other side of the mountain, would you still refuse to climb it?  If you knew that the death of your desires would lead to new passions teeming with life beyond your wildest imagination, would you still demand your rights and destroy the altar?

Our scientific minds have caused us to lose our sense of faith.  We only undertake the journey whose end we can foresee.  But to step out in faith - not knowing anything beyond the first step - takes a courage our culture would disdain and even call foolish.

Here's to the fools of this world, for they are often rewarded with an intimate relationship with the King of kings Himself while the rest of us have only the solace of our limited knowledge and understanding.

Thoughts on Domestication, Part 3

I propose to you a new list – 

How to Return the Domesticated to Their Exotic State of Being: A Step-By-Step Guide

1.      Remove all cages, boxes, and man-made constraints. 
2.      See it as inherently valuable and extraordinary by its mere existence. 
3.      Ask yourself, “What can I learn from it?”  Put yourself in the position of an eager student. 
4.      Learn to be comfortable with that which is different. 
5.      Value every encounter as a sacred encounter, something that has the potential to change your life forever. 
6.      Appreciate it for who or what it is, not for what it can do for you.  In fact, don’t even begin to analyse its usefulness to you. 
7.      Have no expectation that it will be there tomorrow, for tomorrow is not guaranteed.  Therefore, consider every interaction with it to be a precious treasure that you guard carefully. 
8.      Remove the word “just” from your vocabulary.  Nothing - and no one - is ever “just” this or that.  A piece of paper is not “just” a piece of paper: it has endless possibilities, from becoming a medium in which to write down thoughts and ideas to becoming a bird, even a bird that can fly. 
9.      Look for the Divine fingerprints on it, remembering that there are Divine fingerprints all over you as well. Try and figure that one out and when you can’t, marvel and laugh at a Plan that is greater than you could ever imagine.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Thoughts on Domestication, Part 2

I must warn you, however.  There is one thing in this world which you cannot domesticate no matter how hard you try, and that is imagination. You can force a person to do whatever you want, put them in a position of servitude or even utter humiliation, but you will never be able to tame the fires of their thoughts.  Who can say but that the caged bird flies in its dreams?  Or that the prisoner runs through meadows and hikes up mountains in his sleep?  Our imagination knows no bounds, and even in the bleakest of circumstances our imagination gives us hope, carries us through and wills us to go on.  It is our imagination that dreams not of what is but of what can be.  It is our imagination that defies the constraints of current boundaries, rules and even logic itself at times.  It is our imagination that refuses to accept limitations and rises above the odds to achieve greatness...  For apparently, our imagination is unable to hear the voices of defeat, cynicism and adult rationale that whisper, “It cannot be... it is impossible... it is too late.”  On the contrary, our imagination seems to retain the exuberance of childhood that believes anything is possible, all things are achievable, and immense joy is to be found in the trying. 

Thoughts on Domestication, Part 1

How to Domesticate the Exotic: A Step-By-Step Guide

1.      Cage it, put it in a box.
2.      Make it abide by a restrictive list of rules and boundaries.
3.      Force it to submit.
4.      Subdue its spirit.
5.      Discourage passion.
6.      Encourage conformity.
7.      See it as ordinary; take it for granted.
8.      View it only in terms of its usefulness to you.
9.      Ignore the Divine fingerprints in its creation.

I Spy...

If you can spot the butterfly on the bougainvillea you earn ten bonus points. 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Die Strykyster Strikes Again

I have terrible luck with South African irons.  Actually, I don't know if the irons were made in South Africa, so let me rephrase that before I offend my adopted country -

I have terrible luck with the irons I have purchased in South Africa.  The first one blew up in my hand.  I'm not making that up.  I have the photo and the scar to prove it.
The second one quit working after one year.

The third one goes from hot to cold to nuclear meltdown in one shirt - the sleeves look great, the front is wrinkled, and the back is, well, I think "incinerated" would be the appropriate word.

Nothing like moving to a foreign country to make you feel like you have completely lost a skill you mastered back in Grade 6.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Thoughts on Why Everyone Should Learn a Foreign Language

"When each of you were born there were roughly six thousand languages spoken on the planet...

"A language is not just a body of vocabulary or a set of grammatical rules.  A language is a flash of the human spirit.  It's a vehicle through which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material world.  Every language is an old growth forest of the mind, a watershed of thought, an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities.

"Of those six thousand languages, fully half are no longer being whispered into the ears of children.  What could be more lonely than to be enveloped in silence, to be the last of your people to speak your language?" - Wade Davis, in a TEDtalks speech given on 12 Jan 2007

Roughly every two weeks a language dies...

I wonder sometimes if we think God only speaks our language?  Does it occur to us that God speaks more than English - that He speaks every one of the languages of the world?  I do not mean to belittle my own culture, but Americans are particularly bad about learning foreign languages.  We expect everyone else to learn English in order to communicate with us.

In learning a foreign language, we not only learn another way to communicate, we learn another way to see the world.  And that is enriching.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Thoughts on Being

There are 23 verbs of being in the English language - 23 ways to remind us that we are eternal beings and that only our physical bodies are confined to time and space - and yet we gloss over them without a thought:

"How are you?"

"I'm fine, thanks, and you?"

Is "fine" the only answer to that question?  What if you merely - or profoundly - said, "I am," and left it at that?  Would it jolt me out of my focus on the finite and remind me once again that you are eternal - that you will outlive not only your present circumstances but the Earth itself?

I am not the Great I AM, but I am.  I am present - not just in body, but in mind and spirit as well. And for this brief time your path, which takes you one direction, and my path, which takes me another, have converged.  The "I am" and the "You are" have become "We are."  It is a holy moment.  Do you see the significance?

C.S. Lewis once said, "You have never met a mere mortal."  I think I am trying to say the same thing, only my English is not as eloquent as his:

"I am..." with all of my strengths and weaknesses, joys and sorrows, and "You are..." with your gifts and skills, likes and dislikes, have become "We are" - a unique combination of soul touching soul. There will never be this combination again throughout all of history, which is precisely why we need each other. I need what you are.  You need what I am.  Every encounter with another human being is an eternal encounter.

Perhaps it is time we recognised it as such.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Wednesday Quote

"It's strange - those of us who involve ourselves in places where there is the most suffering, look back in surprise to find that it was there we discovered the reality of joy." - Dr. Paul Brand, as quoted by Philip Yancey in Soul Survivor

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Thoughts on Determination

When I first moved to South Africa, there were foods I missed, dishes I couldn't prepare and things I couldn't find that left a "hole" in my cuisine.  I was happy to discover a host of new flavours, dishes and food items, but I still missed things from America:  fresh cranberries, Starbucks coffee and chocolate peanut butter ice cream.  Queso cotijo, tomatillos, and boysenberries.

Over the past four years I've learned to adapt my cooking.  I set aside my American dishes and learned how to cook South African dishes.  I learned what the local ingredients were and how to use them.  I developed a sort of American/African fusion cooking (ostrich chili, lemon and passionfruit meringue tart, and curried pumpkin and apple soup).  I even learned what works as a substitute when the original ingredient can't be found.

But I still miss the combination of chocolate and peanut butter.  So today, instead of complaining (of which I've done my fair share), I began brainstorming.  How can I make something that I can't buy here?  And what can I use in place of the ingredients I can't find? I planned, worked, substituted and got crazily creative.  It was a huge risk - would my food substitutions work?

I am happy to say that my experiment was a success, which brings me to my point (for today's post is not about my cooking skills):  I wonder what it would be like if I applied the same creativity, diligence and stubborn persistence to other areas of my life that have "holes"?  How would that change difficult situations?  My work and ministry?  My marriage?

I know one thing for sure:  there would be a lot less complaining and a lot more joy in the journey.