Saturday, February 27, 2010
The dove you see in the image comes from the legend that once while he was speaking a white dove landed on his shoulder--and moreover the ground on which he was standing rose to form a hill; he stood at the summit and his voice resounded like a trumpet to the vast assembly.
For reasons that are rather mysterious, the leek is associated with St. David's Day: Welshmen wear or display leeks, in his honor. This goes back a very long way: in Shakespeare's Henry V (Act 5, Scene 1), this custom is spoken of as "an ancient tradition begun upon an honourable respect."
We (of course!) propose that you display leeks in their delicious edible form, on your dinner table. A Continual Feast (pp. 237-8) has two nice recipes for leek dishes to serve in St. David's honor: "Braised Leeks," and "Leek and Potato Soup" (aka Vichyssoise).
Another food often associated with St. David's day is a delicious bread with currants and/or other dried fruits called Bara Brith. Let me add that this bread is very high on my list of all-time favorite bakery items: it is rich (I love currants!), moist, delicious--quite addictive!
Bara Brith (it means “speckled loaf”)
1 cup currants (or combined currants, raisins, mixed candied peel, and/or dried apricots)
1 cup strong tea (I use Irish Breakfast)
1/2 cup milk
1 teaspoon (about a half package) dry yeast
6 Tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup white sugar
1/4 dark brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon mixed spices: 1/8 cinnamon, 1/8 nutmeg, 1/8 ginger, 1/8 cloves
Variations: I mention these in part because there are many different recipes for this traditional bread--and also because you may be missing an ingredient, but have something else that will work on hand!
You can cut back on the butter; you can add an egg or two; you can skip the tea, and put in more milk; you can modify the spice mixture, replacing the ginger and/or cloves with allspice, mace, and/or white or black pepper; you can use all brown sugar, or all white. This loaf is sometimes made with self-rising flour rather than raised with yeast; that is too big a shift to go into here--but you can easily find recipes that make it that way.
Brew the tea, and soak the currants (and other fruit) in it for several hours or overnight.
Drain the fruit and pat it dry. Reserve the tea.
In a small saucepan, warm the milk slightly—it should just be tepid, not hot.
Stir a few teaspoons of the milk into the yeast and let it froth.
Melt the butter in the rest of the milk.
Add the salt to the flour, stir the yeast and milk mixtures into the flour, and blend well.
Add enough of the tea to form a soft dough.
Place the dough in a greased bowl, cover well, and let rise until doubled in bulk—about an hour and a half (but that can vary a good deal).
Punch the dough down.
Mix the fruit with the white and brown sugar, and the spices.
Gradually work the fruit mixture into the dough, making sure that it is well blended in throughout.
Place the dough in a rectangular bread tin, lined with parchment paper. Make as even a loaf as possible.
Cover with plastic wrap or a towel, and let the dough rise to the top of the pan; this will take about an hour to an hour and a half.
Bake at 400 F for 20-30 minutes. Cover the loaf with aluminum foil for the last 10 minutes or so if the top seems to be getting too brown. When done, the loaf should sound hollow.
Delicious fresh from the oven--sliced, with butter! This bread is also nice toasted.
And while we are honoring St. David and our Welsh heritage, let me recommend to you Welsh choral music! Wales has the most wonderful male choirs, often made up of literally hundreds of men--and they sing grand hymns and other songs ("Men of Harlech"!) in a truly unforgettable way. I first heard them in Wales, and was completely blown away; I have become a devotee of their singing. There are lots of recordings of Welsh men's (and mixed) choirs available on Amazon and elsewhere
Friday, February 26, 2010
Eating fish on Fridays is a great occasion to discuss the idea of abstinence with your children. Why not eat meat? How does abstaining from chicken or pork or beef unite us to Christ in His suffering? The children get the idea of solidarity, after all, they have come to expect it of each other: “Mom, since I gave up sweets this Lent, shouldn’t everyone give up sweets?! It hardly seems fair that I should have to do this alone!” moans my nine-year-old son. It’s not hard to understand why we should not eat meat when Jesus ate nothing at all! I explain that fasting is a kind of physical form of prayer. When we pray, we pray with our hearts and minds and souls and our bodies participate some, especially if we are kneeling. However, we allow our bodies to participate more fully when we fast or when we give up something we love to eat
Fish Fry Fridays are also a perfect time to tell stories about early Christians and the symbolism of the fish. The idea that early Christians used to identify each other by drawing a fish in the sand is fascinating. Kids love the accounts of the early martyrs, the catacombs, and the evil Roman emperors. Disney, eat your heart out!
2 lbs. tilapia or some other flaky white fish
2 cups of flour
3 cups of panko
1 cup vegetable oil or olive oil
Prepare three bowls: one, with the flour, salt and pepper; another with the eggs, whipped together; and the last, with the panko. Cut the fish into about three inch long pieces. Dredge them in the flour, salt, and pepper. Place the floured fish into the eggs, and then cover them with the panko. Put onto a clean plate. Meanwhile, pour the oil into a frying pan. Make sure that the oil fully coats the bottom of the pan and is about 2 cm. deep . When hot, place the first pieces of panko fish in the pan and turn down the fire under the skillet. Do not overcrowd. When they are browned on both sides, take out and do the next batch. Be careful that the pan does not become overhot or the fish will burn and make sure that there is always about a 2 cm. layer of oil. Continue until all pieces are cooked.
For the children, I often just give them some fish with ketchup and jasmine rice. For the grown-ups, however, I usually toast some tortillas and serve the fish with some shredded cabbage and spicy thai sauce (good one at Trader Joe’s) or with a salsa like the one listed below:
fresh lime juice
½ cup yogurt
1 habenero chili (use a milder one if you wish)
½ teaspoon - crushed oregano
½ teaspoon - ground cumin
½ teaspoon - dried, crushed dill
½ teaspoon - cayenne chile
ground white pepper to taste
Tuesday, February 23, 2010
The pretzel is a very ancient bakery item, which traditionally was eaten only during Lent. It appeared each year on Ash Wednesday and disappeared on Good Friday. It goes back at least to the fifth century. This image from a Roman manuscript in the Vatican Library, dating from that period, shows pretzels: they are on the table, surrounding the fish.
As to the shape: the pretzel is made in the form of two arms crossed in prayer. The word bracellae, “little arms,” became in German Bretzel, then Pretzel.
These early Christians ate no dairy products in Lent, so the pretzel was made only of flour, salt, and water: it was as simple as it could be. (This text [updated by the addition of the image] and the recipe for pretzels are from A Continual Feast p. 180. We also saw a pretzel at the feet of Lent, on the post on "The Battle between Carnival and Lent.")
Today’s gospel (Matthew 6:7-15) teaches us how to pray, calling God by the intimate title of: Our Father. It gives the powerful reminder that “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” What an intimate friendship we can have with Our Heavenly Father who knows our dearest needs! Let us be sure to fold our own little arms in prayer this Lent reciting the Our Father with more reverence and thinking of each of the powerful petitions it contains when we say it.
Monday, February 22, 2010
Yesterday in church, I was fortunate enough to hear Fr. Joseph Koterski, SJ, speak about the “Examen Prayer” in his sermon. This prayer, which comes to us from St. Ignatius of Loyola, is a good one to say—to meditate on—every day, but especially, of course, in Lent. It is recommended to do this prayer for about 10 minutes a day, ideally perhaps before going to bed.
The Examen Prayer is easy to remember: the key word is GRACE.
G stands for Gratitude: We thank God for something—or perhaps many things—in our life.
R is Request for Light: We request the grace to see ourselves clearly. We ask God to show us what He wants of us.
A stands for Account: We review in our mind our actions and thoughts since the previous day (or since we last made this prayer). We note the patterns of our thoughts, feelings, and behavior.
C: Chart Your Course: Do we keep moving ahead in the same way? Or should we change direction? Where do we need Contrition? Do we need to go to Confession?
E refers to Enthusiasm: We ask God for the grace to carry out our resolutions with Enthusiasm.
In Lent, here are a few issues that we may want to take up in our Accounting and Course-charting: How are we keeping Lent? How are we practicing the fasting and abstinence that are essential to this great penitential season? Are we practicing self-denial?--and greater charity and prayerfulness?
And how might we do it better, more generously?
Friday, February 19, 2010
It is not in general a great idea, I think, for mothers (and fathers) to go around hungry during Lent: that is not guaranteed to sweeten their disposition or increase their spirit of charity toward their children. (Many of us are fairly loathsome when hungry!) And we all know that children--and other family members!--require all the charity and patience we can possibly manage. We want to be more loving, not less, in Lent!
It may be wiser to deny ourselves small pleasures--enough sugar in our coffee? butter on our toast? a cookie with our tea?--pleasures whose very absence serves to remind us that all these pleasures--and so many more besides!--come to us from the hand of God. This way, our small acts of fasting and self-denial make us more grateful to God for his great gifts to us.
Thursday, February 18, 2010
In the Gospel this week, Jesus reminds us that we need not fast when the bridegroom is with us. The time for fasting is not during a wedding feast…but Christ also notes that His disciples will fast when the bridegroom is no longer around. In this passage, Jesus, reminds us of the appropriateness of behavior being linked to circumstances. There are times and places for different attitudes towards food. To every thing there is a season—and, specifically, a liturgical season. I was struck yesterday, during our church’s Ash Wednesday service, by the mercy of Christ and His Church in giving us these seasons. Our pastor was recommending (especially, though not exclusively, to the parochial students in the audience) the practice of morning prayers during Lent. Sure, it would be better to say morning prayer every day, but our God knows our nature! And so we are given the blessing of times that are set aside as special, where we can devote ourselves to the Lord especially, and take on good habits, with the hope of continuing those habits. But if we don’t, there will be another special chance in Advent and again next Lent.
Lent is clearly a season of abstinence, a time of year where we’re asked to re-focus our hearts, minds, and stomachs on what is most valuable and essential for our lives. Jesus Himself fasted in the desert for forty days, and the devil’s first temptation was to challenge him to turn stones to bread. We are asked to remember what really gives us life: before any of the things we “need”, we need Him! We can incorporate this into our approach to food in general…not just by eliminating meat on Fridays, but in our general approach to eating during this time. One of the strange aspects of the Lenten meat prohibition in our modern era is that it often feels more like an inconvenience than abstinence: many people don’t eat meat every day, and for most of us, fish or seafood is a delicacy, something reserved for special occasions.
To that end, I have been thinking about how to incorporate the spirit of fasting into my family’s Lenten practice. One familiar idea is to have an inexpensive meal and to contribute the ‘extra’ money to charity. I think this works best if the whole family can be aware of this practice and actually see or bring the money to someone or see it sent (even if it’s virtually) to the charity in question. But I was also thinking of the value of our *time*. A meal—and its cleanup—can be a lengthy operation. It seems very appropriate to the season to simplify one or more of our meals during the week. Instead of a regular dinner, we can have something very easy to make-- be it soup, plain pasta, or another low-maintenance dish, and give the time that we would have spent in its preparation to some worthy cause. That may mean additional family prayer time, individual spiritual reading, a visit to a soup kitchen, or some other sacrificial work. But becoming aware of how we use our time can help us to purify our hearts and unite ourselves to the Lenten fast on more than one level.
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Lent is all about second chances. It gives us a wonderful season to reflect on our relationship with God and to come up with concrete resolutions that will bring us closer to Him.
Many people use this time to abstain from favorite foods. It is also a wonderful time to add a little more to our spiritual life. Can we try to get to mass and receive Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist daily? If we are already going to daily mass- can we try to receive the Eucharist with a greater devotion? Perhaps we can recite the words of Ash Wednesday every day this lent as we walk up the aisle to receive the Holy Eucharist: Remember man that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. After all- we are truly nothing without Our Lord and we need the Bread of Life for our spiritual nourishment. What a gift!
As we are all abstaining from meat- let’s also abstain from yeast! This is a simple recipe for and Indian flatbread: Naan. It has been taken from a great cookbook, The Food of India: Authentic Recipes from the Spicy Subcontinent. There are so many wonderful meatless Indian dishes that may be a fun exploration for our Lenten Fridays.
4 cups all purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup milk
1 tablespoon sugar
4 tablespoons oil
1 teaspoon nigella seeds (I didn’t have these on hand)
Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together in a bowl and make a well in the middle. Mix the milk, sugar, egg and 2 tablespoons of the oil in a bowl. Pour this into the center of the flour and knead, adding more water if necessary to form a soft dough. Add the remaining oil, knead again, then cover with a damp cloth and allow the dough to stand for 15 minutes.
Knead the dough again, cover and leave for 2-3 hours. About half an hour before the naan are required, turn the oven on to the maximum heat. Divide the dough into 8 balls and let them rest for 3-5 minutes. Sprinkle a baking sheet with nigella seeds and put it in the oven to heat up while the dough is resting. Shape each ball of dough with the palms to make an oval shape. Bake the naan until puffed up and golden brown. Serve hot.
"Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry. The tempter approached and said to him: 'If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.' He said in reply, 'It is written: "One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God." ' (Matthew 4: 1-5)
Lent has many themes, including sorrow for our sins and repentance, self-denial and self-mortification. But our attempts to imitate Christ throughout these forty days--and our resistance to the temptations of the devil--are among the most ancient themes of Lent. And with these, the recognition that we are fed not just by bread--by ordinary food--but, most importantly, by the word of God.
Monday, February 15, 2010
So it's time to eat up your bacon and sausage, and almost time to start fasting and abstaining from meat--and from other favorite foods and drinks. (We'll be discussing all this a good deal in coming weeks.)
So back--briefly!--to Mardi Gras, with its many traditional pancakes and crèpes, its Russian blinis with caviar and sour cream, and, for the French, Apple Fritters. In A Continual Feast, on p. 236, there is a glorious recipe for deep-fried Apple Fritters, from Normandy. (There are other Mardi Gras recipes in the book, as well.)
Let me add a little reminiscence and reflection on these Apple Fritters--and on the power of food in Christian family life. One of our primary purposes as mothers (and fathers and other cooks) is to make the life in our family as fun, as interesting, as meaningful, and as memorable as we possibly can. And food is one of our most powerful tools--our greatest helpers--in this. When my children were away at college, they always tried to get home for Mardi Gras--for those Apple Fritters; they didn't want to miss them! And they would bring a friend or two along with them. They all wanted to be home especially for this ritual meal--and those beautiful, delectable Fritters!
These are the rich opportunities that the Christian year, with its many different moments and seasons, and its powerful messages, gives to us. It is a great gift.
Friday, February 12, 2010
“So....Mom, I was just wondering... Will we have a party for St. Valentine’s Day?” My children invariably pose this question as we approach a holiday, whether it be President’s Day or St. Patrick’s. And most recently, it has been: “Mom, are we going to have a snow day tomorrow?”* One of the challenges I have as a homeschooling mother is that my older children have not always been homeschooled. They remember class parties and school “holidays.” They sense, somehow, when the public schools are not in session. And since I want to make homeschooling fun, I try to oblige.
So, for this Valentine’s Day, I have decided to have a few fun yet meaningful activities. The first is to compose a neatly written and illustrated love note to their father in which they tell him how much they love him and refer to at least one activity they enjoy doing with him. The second is to make Love Knots.
You can find the recipe for these delicious treats on page 232 of A Continual Feast. (To the basic recipe we added a little twist: we brushed the tops of the Love Knots with a thin mixture of vanilla extract, sugar, and a little bit of water.) This is a very easy recipe and the children really enjoy forming the dough into the "lemniscate," or sidewise-8, shapes. The making of the love knots segues nicely into a lesson and discussion on infinity. We talk about the idea of infinity. We begin with love: God loves us without bounds! Nothing can contain God! I remind them of Buzz Lightyear and his famous line: “To infinity and beyond!” Not even infinity can contain God or God’s love and mercy. Interestingly, this the children understand easily, maybe even intuitively. Then we talk about numbers and “space” in very simple terms. This is a bit harder--for all of us! Numbers just keep on going: you can always add a bit more; inversely, you can always take a bit away.
After they have formed a few love knots, they all draw the lemniscate for each of their siblings and write inside a few of the reasons they think God loves them and made them. (This can be kind of a challenge!)
The third activity is the baking and decoration of heart-shaped Sugar Cookies, from A Continual Feast, p. 95. Ordinarily, when we bake cookies there is a good deal of fighting
over whose cookie was whose, so for this Valentine’s Day no one got to keep the cookies they decorated. Each child made 7 cookies: 1 for each of their siblings and parents. At first there were groans and complaints, but when they were presented with (mostly!) delectable-looking treats from their brothers and sisters, their excitement grew. I “heart” you infinity style!
* During the massive snow storm this past week, we copied the Ingalls: we scooped up some fresh, clean snow from the backyard and ate it up with some really good maple syrup. Yum! It was like eating maple sorbet!
Thursday, February 11, 2010
This week’s Gospel readings have been taken from Mark. They will culminate with the very memorable story of the loaves and fishes on Saturday. This great public miracle of Christ’s marks a dramatic moment on many levels, and is an episode that has been extensively commented on by a host of intelligent and thoughtful people. I would like to focus on an aspect of this miracle that I imagine is near (in practice if not in spirit) to many mothers’ hearts: leftovers. The Gospel tells us of the multitude of people who were following Christ and who had no food to eat. We learn of the scant amount of food that the apostles had at their disposal. Yet, Jesus transforms the meager portions into an abundant supply—so much that there were twelve baskets of food left over after everyone had eaten. It’s a beautiful reminder of the way in which the Lord transforms our inadequate supply of X (you name it, whatever it is!) into something overflowing with abundance. In fact, this excessiveness marks one of Jesus’ consistent characteristics: he doesn’t merely fulfill needs, he outdoes Himself. He doesn’t just cure people, He forgives sins; he doesn’t just make some wine for a party; He makes excellent wine; He doesn’t just redeem us; He gives Himself totally to us. And when He makes food, there is a lot left over. I’m guessing that a many people had a lovely snack later that day…or perhaps a delicious breakfast of bread and fish?
We tend to think of leftovers as something “lesser” on many levels. But leftovers are, first and foremost, a sign of abundance. Leftovers are a sign that more was given than was necessary: the food exceeded the need. This can also be a sign of affection and concern, as we tend to recognize in the U.S. around Thanksgiving, when our entire nation seems to plan on leftover turkey in order to turn it into soup, sandwiches, and casseroles the next day.
I’d like to reconsider leftovers in this light. In my family, my husband is actively *upset* if there aren’t any. He takes food to work, and he’s not a big sandwich person, so he counts on extra food for his next day’s lunch. Plus, there are children still at home who will eat up extra food from the evening’s meal for their lunch if he doesn’t take it. Having more than you need can be a really good thing—as long as you like the food! (which can be the tricky part). I’d like to give a specific suggestion on this front: cultivating dinner choices that either a) are tasty as leftovers or b) can be incorporated easily into some other meal. In the first category, I’d say that things with sauce do much better—perhaps part of the reason I always wish there were more left over when I order Thai food. In the second category, I’d suggest simple things that can be reintroduced (pleasantly!) into quesadillas, casseroles, or other hodge-podge dinners. I would also like to offer a recipe: for paella. This may sound counter-intuitive: paella is a delicious meal, generally thought of as high maintenance; which it can be. But it is also a very flexible meal, which can include a number of ingredients and allows for a pretty wide variety of cooking methods, as long as you like saffron rice. The recipe that follows is based on the recipe for “Easy Lobster Paella” from the Barefoot Contessa (Ina Garten). If I offend any purists, I apologize. But I’ll also note that giving a recipe for any traditional food sparks controversy—no one ever agrees on the “right way”…and I first learned to loosen up my attitude about paella from a Spanish priest friend who came over to our place and made paella with me.
Easy (non-lobster) Paella
[editorialized with my ‘user comments’ in brackets]
¼ cup good olive oil
1 ½ cups chopped yellow onions (2 onions) [add more or less according to taste]
[I add a tomato or two which I chop and cook with the onions; you can a bit of tomato sauce for a bit of tomato flavor]
2 red bell peppers, cored and sliced into ½ strips [I leave this out for my kids, but it’s better and more authentic with them; roasted peppers can also be added at the end if you like]
2 tablespoons minced garlic (4-6 cloves) [again, you can modify according to preference]
2 cups white basmati rice [any rice will do, actually, which may surprise many people. I have actually never made paella with basmati rice, though I have used both Arborio and long grain and even a combination of both and been happy with the results]
5 cups good chicken stock, preferable homemade [superior chicken stock will make for superior taste, but any broth/stock will do—including bouillon. The Hispanic aisle of supermarkets even has a bouillon flavor with saffron already added in if you want to try that. I would recommend adding a cup or so of clam juice and/or seafood broth or bouillon to enhance the seafood aspect, especially if you’re leaving out the Pernod. White wine is a nice addition to this mix. So 4 cups chicken stock +1 cup clam juice/ seafood broth+ ½ cup wine is a good mix…slightly more than the 5 cups called for]
½ teaspoon saffron threads, crushed
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes [I leave these out; my family doesn’t like spicy and I don’t think of Spanish paella as spicy at all…but to each his own!]
1 tablespoon kosher salt [or any salt]
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup Pernod
1 ½ lbs. cooked lobster meat [I do between 1 and 1.5 lbs. shrimp; the frozen kind, defrosted, since they are easy to have on hand and my family loves them, though you could modify the seafood]
1 lb. kielbasa, sliced ¼- ½ inch thick [or any other cooked sausage. Or skip the sausage if you don’t like it or don’t have it]
½ pound leftover chicken or other meat, cut into bite sized pieces [warning: do not use something very ‘saucy’ or something with a strong flavor: leftover roast chicken is great, but you don’t want anything that will assert its own flavor instead of becoming one with the paella—no chicken parmesan! You can also fry up some chicken thighs or other chicken pieces and add them towards the end if you like]
1 (10 oz. package) frozen peas [I also sometimes include green beans]
1 tablespoon minced fresh flat-leaf parsley [or you can omit]
2 lemons, cut into wedges [again, to taste]
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Heat the oil in a large ovenproof Dutch oven [or something else big, that has a lid and can go on the stove and in the oven]. Add the onions and cook over medium-low heat for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the bell peppers [and tomatoes, if including] and cook over medium heat for 5 more minutes. Lower the heat, add the garlic and cook for one minute longer. Stir in the rice, chicken stock, saffron, red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper and bring to a boil. Cover the pot and place it in the oven. After 15 minutes, stir the rice gently with a wooden spoon [I generally add the chicken or any other ‘leftover meat’, and return it to the oven to bake uncovered for 10 to 15 more minutes, until the rice is fully cooked.
Transfer the paella back to the stove top and add the Pernod [if using]. Cook the paella over medium heat for 1 minute, until the Pernod is absorbed by the rice. Turn off the heat and add the lobster [raw shrimp], kielbasa, and peas and stir gently. Cover the paella, and allow it to steam for 10 minutes. Sprinkle with the parsley, garnish with lemon wedges, and serve hot. [If you like some of your rice crispy, you can turn the heat up to 425 or so on your oven and finish it there for 5-10 minutes].
Tuesday, February 9, 2010
The result? I came across a scone recipe and adjusted it to fit the ingredients I had in the pantry. I love scones, almost as much as my father does, and have been in search for the perfect recipe for quite some time. While this recipe will certainly not satisfy the scone purist, it does come in handy for a quick, simple and delicious way to add just a little bit of special to any ordinary breakfast.
1 cup flour
¼ cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
½ cup chopped, dried apricots
¼ cup melted butter
¼ cup milk
1. Mix dry ingredients. Add chopped apricots and, using a wooden spoon, stir to coat.
2. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir until just combined.
3. Drop by the spoonful onto a greased baking sheet. Bake at 400° for 15-20 minutes.
This recipe will make 9 small scones.
We just enjoyed our delicious afternoon treats with a cup of milk in honor of St. Scholastica whose feast day we celebrate tomorrow. Thanks for this full week of snow days, St. Scholastica. We are enjoying the family time!
Monday, February 8, 2010
I have a special devotion to St. Scholastica and always remember her on her feast day—February 10.
Hers is an interesting and charming story, told by no less than Pope St. Gregory the Great in his Dialogues. St. Scholastica, a 6th century abbess, was the sister of St. Benedict, the founder of Western monasticism. The brother and sister were very close (perhaps twins). They generally met once a year at a house near his monastery at Monte Cassino. On one occasion, they spent the day together. At the end of supper, she asked him to delay his return to his monastery until the next day so that they could continue praising God together. He said he couldn’t stay. She then prayed fervently to God to make her brother stay—and suddenly there was a great storm with thunder and lighting. He couldn’t leave. He said to Scholastica: "God forgive you, sister, what have you done?" She replied: "I asked a favor of you and you refused it. I asked it of God and he has granted it." So they spent that night speaking of the joys of heaven, and he left the next day. It was their last visit together on this earth. She died three days later—and Benedict, in his cell, saw her soul ascend to heaven in the form of a dove.
What shall we eat and drink to honor this great saint--and the holy Benedict? We cannot be sure just what Scholastica served her brother that last evening they ate together—but we can be quite sure that it included some simple monastic bread--and probably a glass of wine or two. (Wine is food, and was part of the monastic diet.)
The recipe for Monastery Bread is in A Continual Feast, on pp. 246-8. (Ann Vitz has been having some fun with it lately.)
And, like the nuns at St. Emma’s convent, let’s add that little bit of sugar for some extra sweetness.
Why my devotion to St. Scholastica? Some years ago, I was involved in an unpleasant quarrel. A peaceful resolution to it was offered to me and, despite some reluctance on my part (original sin, no doubt), I thought: "I should make peace on the feast of St. Scholastica."
I’ve always been glad I did.
I try to remember to thank her each year on her feastday for her heavenly inspiration.
Sunday, February 7, 2010
We are now fully launched into the season of Carnival. The word "Carnival" means--somewhat surprisingly, perhaps--"the putting away of flesh"; so this is the great mad party before the flesh is put away. Carnival will rise to its climax on February 16—Mardi Gras, meaning "Fat Tuesday"; in English, it's Shrove Tuesday. Carnival will then give way to Lent, with its many austerities; the flesh is indeed to be put away for a time.
In the past, this season was sometimes thought of as a great struggle between the pleasures of the flesh—out of control, and gone somewhat berserk—and Lenten mortification and self-denial. In his famous--and darkly comic--painting titled "The Battle between Carnival and Lent," the great 16th century Flemish painter Peter Brueghel showed the dramatic conflict between the two seasons—the two spirits: love of the flesh vs. self-mortification and charity. Some people are drinking beer, eating waffles, dancing and kissing, many of them masked or wearing party hats--now, that’s Carnival! Others (on the right) are coming out of church, giving charity to beggars, and doing other works of mercy: that’s Lent.
Down toward the bottom, you can see Carnival--shown as a hugely fat man riding a big beer barrel, with a pig’s head on his lance--getting ready to joust with Lent, represented as a skinny old woman dressed in gray mourning, sitting in an uncomfortable prayer chair; her lance is a flat baker’s paddle with two herring lying on it. See the pretzels sitting on her cart? Pretzels--thin ropes of bread in the form of praying arms--were Lenten food.
Here are Carnival and Lent in more detail.
She may not look very tough, but Lent is about to win--for a season!
Thursday, February 4, 2010
Valentine’s Day (in addition to Cyril and Methodius) is, of course, the feast day of St. Valentine—a 3rd century priest who was martyred during the persecutions of Emperor Claudius the Goth. His connection to a romantic love-fest is not immediately obvious. My mother mentions in A Continual Feast that the most likely reason for the association of Valentine’s Day with lovers is that birds were believed to mate on February 14th, and so lovers followed suit, asking the martyr to bless them in their choice of mate. Valentine’s Day seems like a natural day to extend and expand our celebration of love: first, by recognizing love in all its depth and forms; including corny love poetry, but not limiting it to that. It also makes sense to recognize (as medieval lovers did) our need for assistance in choosing our mates, and finding our vocations. Valentine’s Day, a celebration of lovers on the feast day of a priest and martyr, is a perfect moment to reflect on vocations in general, and celebrate not just earthly love, but the divine source of that earthly love. It’s an opportunity to remind ourselves, and our families, that our love for even those nearest to us is rooted in a love beyond ourselves, a love which comes to us, first and foremost, as a gift.
On a practical level, we may want to integrate this awareness of our vocation as a gift into our celebration of the day. Telling stories of how you met your spouse, and also recalling how other important people have entered our lives as gifts might be one great way: the birth of children is always a great event that we recognize as a gift (particularly evident to me right now since my baby son was born just a month ago!). I know my children love hearing stories about themselves, and when they were born. Why not retell those events, recognizing the graciousness of their arrival in our lives? We might also want to read some Lives of the Saints that feature intense or dramatic vocations: both to the married life and to the priesthood. Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, and Saint Francis of Assisi are a couple of examples that might be worth considering, as is the amazing life of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton. During this Year of the Priest, too, it would be beautiful to celebrate all vocations on Valentine's Day…Why not invite a priest for dinner? (For one thing, they’re less likely to have other plans!)
Wednesday, February 3, 2010
Today, February 3, is the feast of St. Blaise, bishop and martyr. To him we go for protection against diseases of the throat; throats are blessed in church today.
Catholic Cuisine--a lovely and useful blog--has a charming recipe for this feast, as it does for many other saints' days. Go visit at http://catholiccuisine.blogspot.com/
This is a very ancient feast! A dear Croatian friend writes me:
"In Dubrovnik there is a large celebration today as St Blaise (=Sveti Vlaho in local tradition) is being commemorated for the 1038th time! Not even 50 years of tough Communism could break that age-long festive tradition and loyalty!"
Let's hear it for Saint Blaise, and for all the other saints whose great stories and commemorations have contributed so richly and powerfully to the history--indeed the very identity--of Europe and the West.
Tuesday, February 2, 2010
Today I made 2 loaves of Basic Bread from A Continual Feast, found on page 62. After my yeast bread baking debut with Monastery Bread I found this a great next recipe to tackle. It follows a very similar method with only two added ingredients (scalded milk and butter). The results have just come out of my oven, and they are fabulous!
The smell of fresh baked bread is intoxicating…and the falling snow outside holds the hope of a snow day for tomorrow. This day of contradictions has turned into quite a lovely evening!