First of all, on this last day of February, I can happily announce that this morning, I actually saw the street curb! We have had a couple of days of thawing, after a week of constant blizzards and Alberta Clippers coming through, so when the late February sun hits the snow, even when it’s 26 degrees ABOVE zero as the high, things start to melt. This is also very good news, since it means that in a couple of weeks, we will once again be able to see out of our window wells in the basement. Right now, it’s a bit of a tomb in each of the rooms, even with a window well that is 8 feet wide, 5 feet high, and 6 feet deep. Full of snow. Dirty snow right now…
I did my year long seminary internship in New Orleans, now 42 years ago. Half the time was spent working at a church in uptown, and half was spent teaching English to disadvantaged students who were freshman at the University of New Orleans. It was an interesting juxtaposition, for sure, and I can’t imagine I would have ever lived in New Orleans other than the internship.
New Orleans, or N’Orlins, or Nawluns, is truly one of our countries “unique” cities, along with a few others, like San Francisco and Las Vegas. From its music, to its culture, its food – and just the entire Carnival/Mardi Gras season – it’s really like no other. I have visited back there a number of times over the years, and found myself doing what most folks who live there do every day. At lunchtime, you spend time talking about where you are going to go for dinner! Hundreds of different restaurants to choose from, even after you have decided whether you are going for fine dining, or just good eating. Po’boys, gumbo, jambalaya, crawdads, and shrimp, crab, and alligator, not to mention washing it down with chicory coffee and maybe a beignet for dessert, or just a pecan praline, perhaps… it’s all good, and it’s all GOOD.
Over the past couple of months, Cheri and I have experimented in trying to replicate some of the dishes we enjoyed when we were there. We made jambalaya, and even baked a “king cake,” which is more of a bread like pastry, with almond filling rolled up inside, and then shaped in a big circle, like a donut, which is then baked, and the slathered with icing on top, which is then sprinkled with yellow, green and purple sugars. New Orleans food is nothing if not excessive! And don’t forget to hide the little plastic baby in the cake somewhere. Whoever gets the piece of the king cake with the baby in it gets the “privilege” of hosting the next king cake party. I remember one cartoon I saw where the husband is talking to the wife, and says, “If you get the baby – swallow it…” King cakes are usually only made during Epiphany, and never in Lent, since Mardi Gras is the time to get rid of all the fats and oils in your home, to prepare for the starkness of the Lenten fasting season.
Yesterday, we decided to thumb through one of the cookbooks we bought on a trip to the Big Easy, that showcased the unique dishes of the city. We found one in particular that sounded great. It was “crab au gratin.” Lots of butter and cream, with a little cayenne pepper and a truckload of crab meat, sprinkled on top with buttery toasted bread crumbs and then broiled in the oven. Doesn’t that sound great? We thought so, and so we went about getting the stuff we needed for the dish, even buying some small ramekins to make the individual dishes.
It's actually not a difficult dish to make. It’s just a bit harder to make it so it tastes good. Also, it was a good culinary lesson to realize you ought not to trust everything that you find in a cookbook – especially one that is sold to tourists. My first error, I think, was that I got canned crabmeat, instead of some good fresh stuff. It’s also a problem, in that you have to open the crab can with a can opener. This signals a primordial instinct among the three cats we have at home, who have believed since they were kittens that the sound of a can opener means either cat food is being prepared, or someone is having tuna – both of which send them running into the kitchen, howling and crying as though they hadn’t eaten for days, but in truth, they are just little pigs who like to beg and see if they can get a morsel, a taste, a chunk of the good stuff.
We followed the directions exactly as they were written – same amounts, even to the white pepper, and making the roux with the flour and butter. We ladled the mixture into the little bowls, covered them with the buttery bread crumbs, and then according to directions, put them in the oven to broil for 3-4 minutes.
Now, I was standing at the oven at about the 2-minute mark, and I noticed the aroma not unlike when you set the toaster on too long, and your toast looks more like ebony than nicely tanned. I opened the oven to check on things, and sure enough, each of the small dishes looked like they had been topped with Oreo cookies, and not in a good way. They weren’t flaming, fortunately, but they were looking more like blackened catfish than crab au gratin.
Still, I thought there might be hope yet, if we were to simply scrape the darkest parts off the top. Two other facts of nature came into focus at that moment. As I attempted to scrape off the crumbs, I noticed that instead of a nice first “au gratin” density that should have been part of the dish, for some reason, it had the consistency of “crab soup.” I’ve had bowls of cereal that held together better. It wasn’t even like a bad batch of oatmeal – it was, as they say, “loose as a goose.” I went back and looked at the recipe again, thinking I had just missed something that might serve as thickener. Nope. It was a form of milky seafood broth. This was not what I had either planned or hoped for.
Also, it was cold. Now, I truly believe, if I had been boiled on top of a stove, and then broiled in the oven, I doubt I would be cool to the touch! This creation, however, was vichyssoise – with crabmeat instead of onion, but it was still just plain cold, with burnt bread crumbs on top. We tried heating it in the microwave, but it still came out as a hot broth, but no thicker.
Did I say two other facts? I meant three. The final blow was that Cheri tasted it, she gently announced that beyond the cream, it had absolutely no taste whatsoever. Apparently, instead of three cans of choice lumpy crabmeat flavoring the dish, the dish itself somehow turned on its own, and sucked any noticeable flavor right out of the au gratin.
When this happens to a dish that you have worked hard to prepare, it’s only natural that everyone pitch in to change the name of the food you would have eaten. It became “crab au rotten,” and “crab no wantin” and even “crap au gratin.” The garbage disposal gave the dish its final send off, and everyone was left to find their own way in terms of a supper fare.
Now, I’m a pretty good cook. I do most of the meals for the family, and most of the time, things turn out quite well, actually. And I don’t just make one or two dishes – I’ve cooked a wide array of cuisines, and dishes, even turkey dinners, and prime rib roast. This, however, took me down, I must say. I didn’t believe that I had failed the meal – it was that the meal had failed me, and to follow those directions so closely, and have it become nothing more than a burial at sea was pretty frustrating.
For the first few minutes, the family actually was pretty sympathetic, and did not assign blame to me for the failure of the meal. Unfortunately, I ranted on a bit too long, and they grew tired of my personal pity party, and either walked away, or in so many words, told me to just get over it.
And so I did. I guess there will be other meals to succeed in making, and maybe even some that I won’t. And we have all had that wise person show up in our life and speak quietly and sincerely – “You know, sometimes that’s just what life is about. No matter how hard you work, sometimes, things don’t turn out the way you hoped.” You see, I believe that, and I also believe that when things don’t turn out, it’s not necessarily because we have not been intentional (lots of “nots” and “don’ts” in that sentence….). When we don’t care, or don’t act intentionally, we certainly have a much better chance of failure, or making a mess. When we do try, though, and then fail, the more important thing is the effort, the process, more than the finished product. Thomas Edison, it is said, failed 10,000 times before inventing/perfecting the light bulb. That’s a lot of wasted crabmeat. Sometimes, though, you just need to look at a different recipe. Sometimes, you have to summon up a different technique. Sometimes, you just have to dump it all in the trash and try again another day. The blessing that is ours is that God so very often gives us another day, another chance, another time to hope, and perhaps another time to succeed. Sometimes, God simply whispers in our ear, “It’s ok – you truly did do your best. Don’t beat yourself up about it – just try again…”
So, I’m sure we will. I’ll find a different recipe, buy some different crab, and enjoy success at some point in the future. Maybe not today, but sometime…
If you have never had or taken the opportunity to visit the Red River Valley of the North, I’d like to issue that invitation. I’ll even buy you a cup of coffee if you make it to Fargo.
There are a couple of unusual geographical oddities about the Valley that are important to know. First, I think I have mentioned before that the mighty Red River of the North happens to flow north, all the way up past Winnipeg in Manitoba, a good 550 miles. The challenge of having a river flow north – other than the Nile, which flows into the Mediterranean Sea, is that when it does so in a land that freezes pretty rock solid for a good third of the year, is that the river itself also freezes. Now, rivers in the north freeze up all the time, but when it flows north, it thaws out from south to north, which means the water tends to get all backed up, and create some pretty good flooding. By the way, did you know that when the ice breaks up on a river, creating massive chunks and fresh water ice bergs, that it’s called a “debacle.” Just a piece of trivia for a Tuesday…
The other geographical piece that’s important to know is that the Red River Valley of the North exists as the bottom of the historic Lake Agassiz, which existed about 14,500 years ago. It was actually larger than all five Great Lakes combined, spreading out 632,000 square miles. When it finally drained into the Arctic, it is believed it raised ocean levels by more than 9 feet. It was probably 400-500 feet deep, and was home to all sorts of prehistoric swimming things. So today, the Red River Valley, North, is one of the most fertile pieces of land in the world, having thousands of years of decayed fish creatures stacked up on the lake bottom. I recall helping by father-in-law harvest in the northern part of the valley, and expecting the wheat crop to always be about 90 bushels per acre. One year, their barley crop averaged over 140 bushels. Rich farmland.
So, living on a prehistoric lake bottom means that geographically, the Red River Valley is absolutely flat. Rich, but flat. The joke is that a fellow’s dog ran away from home, and he was able to watch it run for three days… As you drive around the city of Fargo, then, if you are alert, you will realize that the only elevation changes that occur have happened by human intervention. Overpasses, underpasses – that’s the only way you will have a sense of ascending or descending. There is a huge dike that was built downtown to keep the river from flooding every year, and that’s actually where the kids go to sled. There are no hills…
Well, actually, I perhaps spoke too quickly. Every winter, a few different hills materialize, often on the sides of parking lots. By Centennial elementary school, you will often see the children sliding down the small rise, created as the snow plows push the snow into one spot. Unfortunately, they also push all the sand, dirt and mucky yuck in with the snow, so the kids actually sled on filthy hills, especially when it melts. If it ever melts. Before soil conservation took hold, and farmers would plow their fields in the fall so that they were a fine soil, when it would snow and blow (with nothing to stop it), it created what we called “snirt.” Snow and dirt. You know the old Currier and Ives prints, of horses pulling a sleigh through pristine white snow? Not so much. Parents would often make their kids climb out of their boots and snow suits, so as not to leave large puddles of mud in the entryway as things melted.
There is another creation for winter. It’s known as “Mt. Fargo.” After we get blizzard after blizzard, our great street cleaning crews plow the streets, and then dump the snow into huge dump trucks, which haul it all to different locations around town. The largest becomes Mt. Fargo. Since nothing melts, the bulldozers and front loaders just pile up the snow in one area. One large area. After a decent snow, they will fill 400-500 dump trucks with the snow, and take it to the “mountain.” It’s only the middle of February, but the mount is about 65 feet tall so far. There have been some years, with exceptional snows, when it has reached the 100 foot level. Just about 10 stories high. This packed-in snow and ice combo mountain takes until August to fully melt away.
It is up to 17 degrees right now, and we are in the roller coaster time of the winter. Today, perhaps 20, tomorrow, a high of 4, with a low of -13, and then Friday, we might even reach the 32 degree mark, which may have an effect on the perennial ice sheet that is our front sidewalk. It won’t, however, any effect on Mt. Fargo, except to perhaps give it a nice thick coat of ice as the top layer melts a bit. We’ve been getting snow about every other day, so they are predicting a really decent-sized mountain before we are done.
And so that’s winter in the northland. It’s a good day when you don’t have to put on the heaviest coat to go get the mail. My brother in Texas tells me it’s 70 degrees there this week. I tell him it’s 70 here as well, so long as people keep the front door shut. For some folks, this becomes a time of despair, and for others, just an irritant, like mosquitoes in the summer. For the rest of us, it’s a quiet badge, a hidden medal we wear around our necks. We are surviving the yearly ice age, and again, we hope that March will bring something other than the really big blizzards.
I do hope that wherever you are right now, that you will consider this day a blessing of God for you. Really, the weather doesn’t matter as much as the gratitude we hold in our hearts. At the end of the day, it’s that attitude, that frame of reference for our world that makes all the difference. Peace to you, and enjoy your day of life.
So, despite the fact that it actually turned 38 degrees above zero yesterday here in the Northland, with 40mph gusts, it still feels like winter – the truly nice thing, of course, is that your car actually warms up before you get to your destination. Everyone in this neck of the woods actually is hoping that the groundhog was right and we will only have six more weeks of winter – that would be a delight. By the way, just as a little word or phrase lesson: “neck of the woods” is used often to talk about the neighborhood or location of someone’s home, but the use of the word “neck” really is from an Algonquian language term meaning “point” or “corner.” So, since most of America lived in rural areas for the first 150 years or more of our existence, everyone lived in a corner of the woods somewhere, so the place we all knew best was our “neck of the woods.”
I still hope winter is done by the middle of March…
Since it indeed is the season of snow, and even some ice, and this week is the first time since probably Thanksgiving – or Halloween – that we saw the temps above freezing, and because the wind likes to blow from the Arctic Circle in the north to our home, and since our house faces pretty much northwest, the wind will carry the snow for the most part away from our driveway, and wrap it around the house to our backyard, where it has managed to create a good six foot drift between the back door and the gazebo. All the patio furniture, along with the gas grill, is only a white form as we look out. Cheri mentioned how nice it would be to sit outside, or even in the gazebo, but right now, instead of enjoying a nice cool breeze at the end of the day, we would have to dig a tunnel, and “enjoy” becoming frostbit.
That leaves us with only three options: one, we can watch television all day, which I have always believed is electronic poison to be avoided at all costs; or two, we could continually clean the house, which is also not on my top 100 lists of favorite things to do; or three, as we fallen into the habit, we can continue to put together jigsaw puzzles on the table in the breakfast nook.
The table isn’t so terribly large, but with the table leaf (interesting how we use that term to talk about extending a table’s size) put in, it works about right to build a nice 500 piece puzzle. Ok – I have to tell you where a table “leaf” came from. The word, “table” is from the Latin tabula which means board or plank – flat surface. “Leaf” of course is the foliage of a plant, or a page in a book – nice and thin. Later, it came to be used as a very thin covering of metal, like gold leaf. It also came to be used to refer to a hinged part, or something attached by a hinge. The first methods of extending a table’s size was to attach an extra piece of wood by a hinge, to be called a “drop leaf.” By the 1700s, table makers had fashioned a way of either having two pedestals that would balance that extra piece of wood, or to use some way of separating two pieces of a table, and dropping in a (usually thinner) “leaf” to make the table bigger. See what happens in winter – there is always time to do research…
Anyway, back to the puzzles. As nice as 500 piece puzzles are, for some reason, we have tended to purchase 1000 piece puzzles instead. Not sure why – it’s winter, I guess. So the 1000 pieces barely fit on the table, and after you hunt to find the edges to create that frame for building the rest of the puzzle, it’s tight, but workable. One day, I decided to order a couple of puzzles from our friends at Springbok Puzzles in Kansas City – mostly well-made puzzles, that offer some challenge. I purchased a 1000 piece puzzle of neon signs of all sorts, and thought that would work well for us. Imagine my shock when I got a call from the puzzle factory! The nice puzzle salesperson told me the website description of the puzzle I had ordered was wrong. Instead of being 1000 pieces, it turned out it is a 1500 piece puzzle. She proceeded to try to convince me that what I really wanted was a different 1000 piece puzzle, which they could arrange. Or, she quietly said, they could go ahead and ship the 1500 piece at no extra charge. At that point I realized I was getting a deal, and one thing I am not is a deal-turner-downer. I told her to go head and ship the 1500 one, and we would enjoy it, at no extra charge.
This is probably a good example of why Cheri should be the one to order those things. It arrived in a BIG box. Actually, a rather LARGE BIG box. Remember my comment on how a 500 piece puzzle fits rather nicely on the top of our table? When you triple that size, it’s sort of like trying to put a quart of mashed potatoes in a pint container. The word that comes to mind is “spillage.” As we began to work on the puzzle, taking it out of its BIG box, it was apparent that the greater challenge, even beyond putting the 1500 pieces together, was going to be finding out how to put the 1500 pieces on a 500 piece table. We ended up with pieces in the box lid and the box bottom, and a very tenuous setting left over, with about every square inch of the table covered with pieces, and actually with a number of them stacked up on top of each other. Oh well, that’s the fun of winter puzzling…
We have one more factor that enters into our puzzling, even with a 500 piece beast. Actually, there are two factors, each having four paws. We have three cats who control our home – two males and a female. The female is what you might call a five-gallon cat. She’s a big girl, and usually stays pretty close to ground level, since she gave up jumping up and down off of high surfaces, due to the force needed to move a significant mass of feline either up or down. However, the other two have never learned or been taught that there is a surface on which they should not jump. Thor, our Siamese, acts that way because he is continually cold/freezing. He has never met a lap he hasn’t liked. Hermes is our other 14-pound big boy. He is always curious, which is fun when he carries large elastic bands in his mouth down the stairs to the family room in the evening, howling and letting us know he’s coming with every step.
When you take a curious or cold cat, and combine that with a 1500 piece jigsaw puzzle – well, it’s not the best arrangement. And you know, cats really don’t listen if they don’t want to. They just go on their merry way, wreaking chaos and destruction at every turn. We have been working on the puzzle for the last two weekends, which is the only time it seems that both of us can build the thing. Over the last two weeks, I expect we have had an invasion of either one or both marauding cats, jumping up on table, on the puzzle, and just tearing things up. First of all, they have no sense of boundaries – they walk all over our work without a care in the world. They also are born with the surfaces on their paws that are meant to grip, but when they are mixed with glossy paper on the top of a puzzle piece, they end up having the pieces stick to perhaps four paws at the same time. Cats don’t like stuff stuck to their paws. What they do, of course, is that they flip those stinking little paws, sending puzzle pieces flying off the table, if we are lucky, or caroming into a hundred other pieces on the table, like a huge game of billiards, which in turn sends each of those to hit more piece, and disaster unfolds before your eyes. If indeed they do decide to be not quite as destructive, they tend to sit on top of the pieces, and happy as can be, they begin to wag their tails. I’ve seen entire scenes of trees or park benches disappear off the end of the table with only one swipe of the tail. It’s really rather remarkable what they are capable of.
Finally, when they decide they are bored with the whole affair, they jump off the table, which requires them to use their hind legs as catapults, which in turn slide yet other swaths of pieces all over God’s green earth.
It feels as though we have built the same 1500 piece puzzle about three times over so far, with no end in sight – maybe Spring will come, and free us from our imprisonment…
I’ve heard folks remark many times, “Well, in a perfect world…” and then they describe what their perfect world would encompass, which is usually very close to them getting their own way in a situation. I have a secret for you: there is no perfect world. There’s not even a world in which you can be guaranteed to have your dreams come true. Sometimes, what happens to us is far less joyful than just having a cat knock your jigsaw puzzle around. Sometimes, this world seems to be so imperfect that it breaks our hearts, or sends us so very close to the sense of despair. People we love get sick and die. Communities we love get embroiled in constant battles, not to find the truth, but to just see who will win and have their own way. Even sadder, sometimes deep in our own hearts, we give up a little, or we grow cold, or don’t care, or seek revenge, or dig a moat around our lives, and never let the drawbridge down. In case you are curious, by the way, the word “moat” is from the French motte, which originally meant the mound on which the castle was built. Often the mound came into being as the ditch was dug around it, leaving a “moat” that we know today.
Back to that perfect world. Sometimes what happens to us are bad things, unexpectedly destructive, like a cat on a puzzle. Sometimes, we just make mistakes, like getting a 1500 piece puzzle. I’ve said many times before that it is a greater matter, not of what happens to us, but what we do with it when the cat knocks the pieces all over kingdom come. Actually, I believe our perfect world is the result of what Jesus taught us so long ago. “Be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect” he said. He didn’t mean for us to never make a mistake, or an error of any kind. What Jesus meant was for us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that every response we make, every answer we offer, every reaction that comes from us would be rooted and grown solely in the love that our Creator offers to us. When bad things happen, it’s not the end of the world. And even if it were, it’s not the end of our eternal life. There are worse things than having imperfect stuff happen to us. Far worse would be if we made the choice to not love, when we could indeed love, and forgive, and comfort, and challenge, and make perfect that which is not, because love pervades all that we do, and all that we are.
Have a blessed week, and enjoy the rest of your winter. It can’t last forever.
After 43 years of ministry, Randy Cross lived his "fourth life" and shared about retirement, living boldly and intentionally in our world. To be sure, there was some North Dakota thrown in.