Sunday, January 22, 2012

Christian Cooking: Recalling the Drama of Salvation

While riding on a train on my way to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham this week, I decided to put down my devotional reading (too much of that makes your eyes go cross!) and pick up the Telegraph only to have the most bizarre advert jump up and attack me, thereby robbing me of my peace and stillness.

Apparently, in the U.K. Uncle Ben’s makes a sweet and sour sauce that’s quite popular. It looks like red glue with chunks of Play-Doh mixed in it. But that’s not what got my attention, though that alone is reason enough to avoid it.

The ad made a stunning claim that Uncle Ben’s sweet and sour was the ‘perfect way to celebrate the Chinese New Year’. Yeah, read that again: the perfect way to celebrate the Chinese New Year in Britain – or wherever you may be – is to buy Uncle Ben’s sweet and sour. Yum, yum?

Now, not to impugn Chinese New Year observers, but since when did Britain become so secular that the Chinese New Year would get its own sauce and full page ad in the Telegraph? Now, before you lecture me or put down our British brothers and sisters, I know much of this is the power of advertising, and that’s all fine and dandy. I like a good gimmick like the next guy. My beef is not with clever marketing.

My issue is deeper and more allusive, really. And it is thus: since when did we as a culture become so removed from the Christian Year, the intentional observances of God’s redemptive acts in history and celebrating the lives of the Saints as handed to us in the Church Year, that we’re prone to celebrate the Chinese New Year by eating (some might say stooping to eat) Uncle Ben’s sweet and sour? Specific to this blog, would be questions like: what happened to the likes of king cakes for Epiphany; Christmas pudding (UK only); hot cross buns on Good Friday; pancakes for Shrove Tuesday; Easter eggs; Lamb for Easter Day; etc.? Sure, these foods still exist, but how many self-identifying Christians ever endeavour to consciously enjoy them or share them with others?

Eating certain foods on certain days of the Church Year, you see, reminds us that even something as simple as our daily cookery participates in the mystery of redemption by becoming a symbol invested with meaning, especially when intentionally framed by the larger story of salvation.

The early Church, taking its cue from much of the biblical narrative, considered honey, lamb, grapes, wine, fish and olives all to be powerful symbols of the faith. To consume them was to recall a certain aspect of salvation, a certain partaking of the beauty of redemption. At one level, since food is a gift from God, all meals are, in a sense, deeply religious experiences.

Above all, I hasten to remind us, dear ones, that the Mass – the primary means by which we are spiritually nourished – is the sacred meal of salvation par excellence. To deny that material things participate in redemption is to deny the Incarnation and, ultimately, Christ. Until the Reformation, when both the baby and bathwater were discarded, and up until the lingering darkness of the Enlightenment, Christians of all stripes understood this quite well.

But I’m not a war-torn old cynic who’s content to pine for the old glory days just for sake of putting down modernity, revealing its negligence of historic gustatory matters and highlighting its ignorance of sacred time. I’m actually quite keen – thankful really – to be living in these exciting times.

Therefore, I consider this current malaise an opportunity to turn once again to the past – back to the history of explicitly Christian cooking. For in years gone past, our forbearers marked sacred time not only in their parish prayer lives but in their kitchens, too.

And reclaiming this heritage is a modest way to keep the faith before our eyes in simple, daily and meaningful ways. For it is in the daily life that God wills to be found. Those insisting that Christianity is a primarily a series of emotional and ecstatic highs, meant only to be experienced by the true believer – whatever that is – are sorely misguided. Instead of Rita Coolige’s James Bond theme song, ‘We’re an All Time High’, the Christian’s cry, as a friend of mine recently commented, is loudly and only ‘Lord, have mercy’, which of course He did have mercy in sending us so great a Saviour.

And there is hardly a better way to recall our Lord’s tender mercy than by commemorating His feasts and observing the prescribed fasts of the Church Year accordingly.

Of course, our current season of Epiphanytide is famous for the king cake, the galette des rois, as it’s called in France. But during the Middle Ages in England and later in Colonial America, particularly in Anglican colonies, Epiphanytide was marked by drinking lamb’s wool punch, a hot cider drink.

My own take on lamb’s wool follows, but I have removed the traditional ale and replaced it with Prosecco, the dry Italian sparkling wine.

Epiphany Lamb’s Wool Punch


8 Honeycrisp Apples (cored, peeled and sliced)
2 bottles Prosecco or Cava (you may, of course, use a pale or dark ale, as is the traditional means for making lamb’s wool punch)
1/4 cup Butter + 1 tsp. for coating baking sheet
1 cup Sugar
1/4 cup light brown sugar
1/2 tsp. Penzey’s nutmeg
1/2 tsp. Penzey’s ground ginger


Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Bake apples for forty minutes on a buttered cookie sheet with brown sugar sprinkled on top. Remove from oven and place all ingredients, except the Prosecco, in a saucepan over medium heat. Cook the mixture five minutes on medium heat after the sugar has dissolved. Fill a flute 1/3 full with room temp Prosecco and top with the lamb’s wool mixture. Enjoy.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Christianity-Lite®, Suffering & Confronting Christmas

Many people think that being a Christian – especially during our more festal seasons such as Christmastide – is the silver-lining, that is, the lucky charm to an abundant life in an otherwise lifetime of pain and suffering.

Christianity-lite®, as I’m keen to call this mind-set, is marketed – particularly in the world of mega-church evangelicalism – as the ‘feel good about yourself’ religion of the moment that, like a rabbit’s foot tucked in the proper pocket, is the ticket to paradise on earth, or, at the very least, is an amulet bestowed upon all who earnestly seek wealth, happiness and really white teeth.

Being a christianette, which is really what this movement produces, means adoring those indispensable talismans hidden deep in the treasure chest of our prideful self, the ego and the Western god of individual choice. Hubris is the withered fruit this movement produces.

‘You gotta unlock your inner-you’, is the deceptive wisdom du jour. ‘Banish unhappy thoughts’, says this movement. ‘You can do anything you put your mind to’ and ‘go give it 110%’ are the movement’s favourite one-liners.

Certainly, this watered-down fairytale of the ‘faith once delivered’ appeals to all those looking to reach their highest potential in this thing called living life to the fullest – whatever the world says that may be at any given moment.

And all does, undeniably no less, go ‘well’ for these folks till such time as the ‘S’ word, like a thief in the night, enters the story of life.

When suffering strikes, the world of the christianette shakes and wobbles violently; the tectonic plates of rabid individualism and self-aggrandisement collide and an existential earthquake ensues. The snow globe of life, an appropriate metaphor for the season, gets jostled just a tad too much and it simply shatters under the weight of acute suffering. The barriers the christianette thought they crafted to guard against all calamities simply collapse like papier-mâché.

But wait. We’re all supposed be happy little christianettes™, right? ‘Tis Christmas after all, Tiny Tim!

Others, however, who would be fervent believers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ had not the world jerked them around unmercifully, hear the sappy carols – all of which I do love – and think that all we Churchmen are doing is pretending all is well when, actually, something is terribly ‘rotten in the State of Denmark’.

‘Are we in denial’, they might ask?

With so many ash heaps upon which to survey the ruins of life – think wars, rumours of wars, injustice, violence, oppression, broken relationships, relentless grief, physical illness, etc. – how could someone be genuinely joyful? ‘How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?’, shrugs the Psalmist (Psalm 13:2).

Indeed, prima facia evidence of suffering all around us certainly seems to give these fair-weather believers, these christianettes, at least some credibility. I mean, be honest, life is filled with suffering, even and especially during great seasons of rejoicing.

Just ask anyone who has lost a child unexpectedly this year whether or not Christmas is all joy and no pain? Ask the lady whose husband walked out Thanksgiving weekend never to return. Oh yeah, ask the man who lost his job back in September but still drives into the city every morning simply to save face on the family front. Ask the single mom about her daughter who just left for Jackson Hole to ‘find herself’ for the third time, with her third ‘life partner’, how she feels about singing ‘Joy to the World’ this Christmas? Don’t forget to ask the uncle who struggles with drugs how his sixth stint in rehab went.

Just go: go and ask them all if they’re feeling that ‘Christmas cheer’!?! But be forewarned: you’ll probably hear Ebenezer Scrooge’s thunderous catchphrase, ‘bah, humbug’!

The truth of Christmastide, however – the sheer unadulterated genuine profundity of the Incarnation of Jesus the Christ – does, despite all the push to ‘be happy at all costs’, offer something of lavish joy amidst plentiful suffering.

In fact, the birth of the world’s only Saviour has everything to say to those who suffer this Christmas, whether by their own actions or because of other reasons.

And what is does not say is this: think positive thoughts you who feel down, channel your energy and try harder next year to be happy. In other words, it does not say ‘save yourself’ while you still have time, nor does it say that Christians are always happy all the time.

In fact, the message of Christmas is the exact opposite. The message of Christmas, above all, is the message of the angels, the heavenly decree that means ‘the elevation of our creaturely existence, by the very fact of God’s will to unite Himself to it and to bring us into coexistence with Himself’ (Torrance). ‘For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord’, scream the angels (St. Luke 2:11)!

And this message, this divine proclamation, proclaims that right smack dab in the middle of life’s hullabaloo – think ‘debt, diapers and divorce’ (Bp. Fitzsimmons Allison) – the Saviour is born.

Read that again: the Saviour is born. Not a guru, not a general of the armed forces, not a homeless shelter operator, not Ann Landers – though all are fine things – but the Saviour of the world is born.

He has come down in the midst of chaos to redeem and restore. It means that ‘we are capable with intimacy with God – not so that God can gain something but so that we may live in joy’, Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, reminds us.

However, at this moment you may be thinking: okay, I get it. Christ came to redeem. But suffering is still all about me, Charleston. What saith you about that?

Well, I submit to you the song of the angels once more; this time as the great hymnist Edmund Sears heard it and gave it to us in the great carol 'It Came Upon A Midnight Clear':

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!

Do you hear the angels singing? Can you hear them singing? Will you hear them sing again of Christ, the God-Man, who has come to redeem?

Or is this just too grand, too much of an eternal action, seemingly removed from your own time? Are you convinced that because this happened so long ago, that it says nothing to us today? Are you still convinced that thinking happy thoughts produces happy people?

Well, consider that this proclamation wasn’t too much for the shepherds who watched their flocks by night; they ran with bateless breath to greet their Saviour. And it wasn’t too much for Our Lady, Mary the Mother of God, who ‘treasured in her heart’ all the angels said only to later have a sword pierce that same heart that was saturated in sorrows. And it wasn’t too much for suffering Bartimaeus, blind from birth and a lowly street beggar, who cast away his only security blanket – itself a filthy quilt – to seek the Incarnate One amidst all his travails. It wasn’t too much for St. Peter, who cried out ‘You are the Christ the Son of the Living God’. It certainly wasn’t too much for the dying thief – who lay nailed to a cross beside our Suffering Servant – when he asked for mercy.

And what about Job, who stands in stark contrast to the ‘think happy thoughts’ crowd of post-modernity? He didn’t even know about the Incarnation, yet after losing everything he cherished – certainly things we esteem in our own time – all he could say is, ‘The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the Name of the Lord’. And it wasn’t even too much for St. Paul, who, despite experiencing a life overflowing with sufferings, famously remarked: ‘For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Rom 8:38-39 RSV).

What about you? What about us?

So, brothers and sisters, if the Incarnation – the real story of Christmas – doesn’t give you joy and comfort amidst all of your suffering, I honestly have no idea what will.

But hold on; that’s not to chastise. I’m not talking about sentimentality, thinking that suffering doesn’t matter to God or that your suffering somehow isn’t genuine. Nor do I mean suffering doesn’t have it place. Oh yes, suffering matters greatly to God. And, oh yes, Christians have long known that as a direct result of the Incarnation we can, yea verily, unite all of our sufferings to Christ’s, allowing Him to heal us and transform every scar. ‘Gaze we on those glorious scars’, beckons the Advent hymn. To look to the crèche, then, is to always look to at the Saviour who suffers for us, His beloved children. When Jesus says ‘come unto me all ye who travail and are heavy laden’, He’s talking about journeying to the heart of the Christmas story – to the holy house of Nazareth where God takes on flesh to reconcile the world.

For this is the meaning of Christmas: Jesus came into the world - the eternal Word was made flesh - so that ‘all who receive him, who believe in his name, He gives power to become children of God’ (St. John 1:12).

And it is this news – this festal flourish – that is quite simply the most comfortable chorus we could ever hear or be privileged to sing, even if we sing it with a wounded voice – one that’s horribly out of tune from the cacophonous melody of life.

And, heck, before you know it we’ll be singing a new song even while we’re suffering! We'll sing like the Psalmist: ‘He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God’ (Psalm 40:2).

Now, that is true comfort. And that is the peace, joy and healing that only Christmas can bring.

And these last days of Christmastide are also the perfect time for considering comfort food. And there is hardly a dish more comforting that twice-baked potatoes. I’ve made these many times, and I can assure they will comfort you and greatly enhance your joie de vivre.

Charleston’s Twice-Baked Potatoes


4 Idaho baking potatoes
2 TBSP olive oil
2 cups grated Cheddar cheese
1 cup grated Gruyere
4 strips of bacon
1/2 cup of half and half (use more if desired; you may use whole milk, buttermilk or even heavy cream)
1/4 cup fresh chives (finely chopped)
2 TBSP fresh cracked pepper
1 + tsp. salt (potatoes use quite a bit of salt)
1/2 cup sour cream
8 TBSP of unsalted room temp butter (one stick)


Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cook bacon in a skillet on medium heat for 10-15 minutes or until it's crispy. Set bacon aside on paper towel to rest. Rub olive oil on potatoes and place on a baking sheet in the oven for 1.5 hours or until the potatoes are tender to the touch; they should give a little when you gently squeeze them. Make sure you poke a couple of holes in the potatoes with a sharp knife before baking so they don't explode in the oven.

Remove the potatoes from the oven, and, using an oven mitten, slice the top third lengthwise off of the potatoes. Using a spoon, scoop out the potatoes and place in a mixing bowl. You want to make a sort of canoe or boat shape in the potatoes.

Mix in all other ingredients except the gruyere cheese and bacon with the potatoes in the mixing bowl. You may opt to use a potato smasher, a hand-held mixer or just a fork. This depends on the consistency you like. I, personally, use a food mill for the potatoes after they've baked and then mix in the other ingredients, but I like the fluffiness the milled potatoes produce.

Spoon this mixture back into the hollowed out potatoes, top with the gruyere and the bacon and bake on 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Serve right away.

Bon appétit!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Christmastide: The Full Twelve Days

Christmastide is a season, not a day or an eve. It is properly observed for twelve full days, culminating with the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th. Its object is Christ Jesus, the Saviour of mankind, who has come in flesh: 'Hark the Herald, Angels Sing! Pleased with us in flesh to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel', as the hymn puts it. Merrymaking and festal decor should remain in its place until the Epiphany. A sense of awe, glory and splendour should permeate this season of our Lord’s appearing.

And we observe Christmastide – not Christmas Eve or Day only – because the cumulative effects of the Incarnation absolutely require a prolonged period of pondering. One day or one evening just isn’t enough. And God knows it! We don’t just think about our Lord’s birth for a day and then move on, as it were. Christmastide is simply too rich to be reduced to one day.

The Incarnation, you see, is the keystone in the arch of the Christian faith. Everything builds upon God coming in Christ to redeem and restore humanity. No Incarnation means no redemption, and no redemption of humanity means no resurrection and no ascension. And no resurrection means, as St. Paul so aptly reminds us, ‘We are above all people, most pitiable’(I Cor 15:19).

Hence, the absolute necessity of this great season before us is self-evident, dear ones. The Incarnation ‘brings us joy, because when we experience blessing, freedom, righteousness, enrichment, wisdom, power and life through means so contrary to anything humans could ever conceive’, writes Luke T. Johnson, ‘we know we are in the hands of our God’.

Notice, too, the old English jingle ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ always adds another little lagniappe to the previous day's tally: drummers, pipers-a-piping, turtle doves, etc. all combine and must be repeated in the refrain until the last day, when I find it almost impossible to recall all that has been given. The gifts are too many to number! And I like this reminder. The blessings of Christmastide are truly innumerable!

But Christmastide begins, of course, with adoring the Christ-Child, our partridge in the pear tree, and ends on Epiphany, the great feast of our Lord’s manifestation to all peoples of the world.

Christmastide, then, actually gains momentum with each passing day; the gifts keep piling up as we steam our way to the Twelfth Night and the Epiphany. The Church Year, moreover, is well-seasoned, as it were, with important commemorations over these days, too (St. Stephen’s Day, St. John the Evangelist, Holy Innocents, the Holy Name, etc.).

Naturally, then, it is customary in many countries to mark the expanding joy of the Christmas season with a continual stream of gustatory delights. Our cookery should be reaching new heights over these holy days.

Will you consider completely celebrating Christmastide this year?

Above all, will you journey with the Magi this Christmastide, who, ‘On entering the house, they saw the Child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage’ (St. Matthew 2:11)?

You should also consider making this Southern staple, my take on my Aunt Paula’s homemade pecan pie. It’s easy, especially festal and fits the bill for Christmastide perfectly.

Christmastide Pecan Pie


1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/2 cup dark corn syrup
3 TBSP brandy, rum or bourbon
3 eggs
1 cup + 2 TBSP sugar
4 tablespoons butter, melted
1 tsp vanilla extract
6 ounces pecans
1 (9-inch) unbaked pie crust*

*You can make your own following the very good recipe at, or, alternatively, I have found the Pillsbury Refrigerated Pie Crusts to be quite sufficient for this recipe. These are not the frozen ones that are already shaped out; these are usually lurking by the cookie dough in the reach-in coolers of the supermarket. If you use the Pillsbury ones, I actually use two of them for this pie. Just fold them on top of one another and rub a little egg yolk to blend them. Don’t pre-cook them for this, though.)


Preheat oven to 350°F. Mix corn syrup, eggs, sugar, brandy, butter and vanilla using a spoon. Stir in pecans. Pour filling into pie crust. Bake on centre rack of oven for one hour. The pie is officially done with it springs back to the touch, or, technically speaking, when the centre has reached about 195-205 degrees. Cool for 2 hours on wire rack before serving.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Rethinking Christmas Traditions

Malacy's mom always kept the potatoes underneath the kitchen sink when she was growing up. My mother, in her role as Dr. Mom, used to place the entirety of the family medicinal arsenal just above the dishwasher in a kitchen cabinet. My paternal grandmother, however, always (we might say religiously) kept peanut butter only inside of the fridge. So, naturally, if you've got a headache and are craving a baked potato with a side of peanut butter in our own home -- even today -- you'll need to know exactly where to go. You'll need a little advice, as it were.

Isn't it funny how we learn to function in the kitchen (or not) based on how we were brought up? Now, of course, none of these idiosyncrasies are technically wrong -- just funny. And many of them arose out of simple space constraints or evolved from habits their parents taught them.

The most famous example of this is the granddaughter, who, following in the footsteps of the many generations of matriarchs before her, was still slicing the ends of the ham before baking it on Christmas Eve. Why? Well, the roasting pan her forbearers used was too small for the whole ham so they trimmed the ends so it would fit. But even now, with the latest and greatest full-size Williams-Sonoma roasting pan in her midst, this lady still slices the ends before baking!

It tickles me that I, too, want the medicine in a kitchen cabinet instead of in the self-evident medicine cabinet in the bathroom. Likewise, how funny is it that if I'm looking for an Idaho baking potato I have to move the chemicals around under the sink to find one! And we all can add our own stories here; all of us have these little inherited tricks we've picked up over the years. Many of them are really quite clever. Most of them are harmless. And really none of them are outright wrong on their own.

Festal meals also follow this paradigm as well. In some places Christmas is not really Christmas without a turkey, while in other places Christmas is a time for beef or roast duckling. I know one friend, a hoot of a man, who takes his own cranberry relish to his in-law's Christmas dinner because his grandmother -- a very strong-willed Southern belle -- once told him it was her favourite part of the Christmas meal and Jesus taught her how to make it! And we all know mad grandma is a sad grandma, right?

Nevertheless, it is interesting that we're still thinking about certain things in the kitchen in certain ways without at least tacitly considering other -- some might say more salutary -- options.

I think we do this with certain aspects of our faith as well. I know some people -- because of how they were raised -- that consider only certain parts of the Christian story. Evangelicals, of course, typically stress only the atonement, while liberal Protestants overly-accentuate social causes and inclusiveness in the Church. Some of my dear acquaintances will - again, because of what they've inherited - boil down the whole of God's revelation to humankind to one verse in the bible! And sometimes this myopia is a really random and obscure aphorism from the Old Testament! Others, raised with lukewarm Christian parents, will cite absolutely nothing as the source of their faith; they were never told about God. 'Go get your own one day if you see the need, junior' - is the logic in their story. Those with Fundamentalists in their not-so-distant bloodline might talk about abstention from booze or swearing, while those from purely pagan ancestry might question why we profess a belief in God in the first place. Finally, some with Puritanical leanings may, when pressed, tell you how to please God the good old-fashioned way: hard work, pulling up the proverbial bootstraps and demonstrating some supposed election.

But all of this -- good or bad -- is, to a large degree, inherited. This is also why it is absolutely essential that we must endeavour to bequeath the fullness of the 'faith once delivered', the traditio St. Paul mentions in the first epistle to the Church at Corinth: 'Remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you'.

Two ideas here, dear ones, are paramount: handing on, i.e., bequeathing and the fullness of the faith.

Now, let me give two disclaimers before proceeding and, at last, relating this to Christmas: first, the Church does not, thanks be to God, rise or fall on our own ambitions or plans, not even the well-meaning ones. The Church 'keeps calm and carries on' (thank you, Churchill) because Christ is its head and cornerstone. It is only the Spirit moving in us as a the Body of Christ that we become the Church Militant which allows us to participate in this Divine economy. Secondly, we cannot force anybody to believe a certain way, and that should never be our goal. We should only get them in the kitchen, as it were. Then, and only then, by the grace and power of the Holy Spirit can God work a mighty act in our own time.

So it's perfectly okay if we tell our kids to keep the medicine in the kitchen and to keep potatoes under the sink -- provided, of course, we get them in the kitchen to talk about these things in the first place.

Thus, at times we need to stress social concerns, while, at other times, we need to think about neglected parts of the bible, ever mindful of St. Augustine's advice, 'The New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old is unveiled in the New'. Sometimes we need to think about why the Puritans -- in all their craziness -- truly believed they were offering all their labours to God. And we probably even need to honestly address some of the more fascinating aspects of Christianity in an open and candid manner (i.e, evolution, medical ethics, etc.).

Now, before you say I'm a pantheist, a phenomenologist, a syncretist or anything else you don't like (shh...I don't like them either!), you should know that I'm NOT saying that all well-meaning and genuinely spoken statements -- couched in some sort of quasi-loving prose -- are validly part of the 'faith once delivered to all the Saints'.

I am very much not saying that. Much of what passes for Christianity today would make even the most radical heretics of old blush! When classical Christianity is lost, moreover, even worship becomes ‘in practice Unitarian, has no doctrine of the Mediator or Priesthood of Christ, is man-centred, with no proper doctrine of the Holy Spirit, and is basically non-Sacramental’, writes James B. Torrance.

I am, however, very much saying that our Faith, the Faith of the Apostles from whom we've received so great a treasure, is a FULL faith. Theologians will sometimes call this the 'plenitude of the faith', which is only to say what I am; namely, within the bounds of Christianity it is absolutely okay that two people don't see the same side of the same coin at the same time. For example, St. Augustine says this or that, while St. Thomas Aquinas says it another way down the road. And so on.

And Christmastide is a perfect time to consider the fullness of the Christian story, for what else -- pray tell -- stretches the bounds of credulity and theology than God Himself coming among us?

The Church has in ages past, and must now, admit that the Incarnation does stretch the limits of time, space and nature. In so saying, however, we are not denying the historicity of the event; rather, we are paradoxically affirming the Incarnation as the supernatural event of our salvation sine qua non.

‘But, though supernatural,’ writes Archbishop Ramsey, the Incarnation is:

also rational because it is congruous with the understanding of the world which we have, with reason, been following. We were created in order to give ourselves to God our Creator in obedience, love, worship, total self-donation. We have failed to, and the frustration of our world is the result. God’s answer to our need is to give himself utterly to us in the total self-donation of the Word-made-flesh.

I'm saying that this season of Christmastide should be a festal time marked by the interruption of all existence by the Christ-Child coming -- no, breaking, kicking and screaming -- into our world for the express reason of redeeming and restoring it to its original fullness.

And once we begin to consider the implications of this most important feast of the Church, we will then find ourselves full of faith and overflowing with joy and peace. And the best part of the whole ordeal? It all began and comes right back round to the source and summit of our joy, God Himself who has come in flesh for our salvation. Christians believe that through the ‘act of divine condescension and generosity’, which is the Incarnation, we find the ‘basis for the Christian faith’. This is the real Christmas Tradition. All other traditions -- with a small 't' -- merely take their energy from this One.

So, too, this time of year one's larder often needs re-energising. I already mentioned my friend who believed only in his grandmother's cranberry relish. But what about trying that relish another time of year? Oh yeah, I know, what about trying something else this year as a Christmas side dish instead of x or y? Scandalous, you say? But if our feasting, you see, is rooted in the Incarnate One in our midst, our Christmas table is overflowing from the proper source, the King who has come to sup with us! And that means we can branch out, consider a true feast, one with all sorts of new ramifications and surprises. We go back in order to go forth; that's how it goes.

So in the spirit of going back for the sake of going forward, I must confess, that I've only served these wonderful sauteed mushrooms with beef in the past, especially with my traditional standing rib roast at Christmas, when I even up the amount of liquid in the base to have a really stunning presentation.

But in the spirit of stretching and considering their versatility, try these with these with your Christmas chicken, lamb or roast pork.

Charleston's 'Traditional' Sauteed Mushrooms


1.5 lbs fresh button mushrooms (stems removed and sliced in half on your own)
4 TBSP fresh cracked peppercorn melange
1 TBSP plus 1 tsp fresh thyme
2 tsp finely chopped shallots
1/4 to 1/2 cup dry red wine (what you'll be later drinking)
1 TBSP Williams-Sonoma veal or beef demi-glace (this is a key ingredient; available via their website)
1 tsp Penzey's brand lemon pepper seasoning
1 TBSP white wine Worcestershire sauce
2 tsp regular Worcestershire sauce
2.5 TBSP unsalted butter
1 TBSP fresh chopped parsley


Place mushrooms in a medium-sized saute pan. Add all other ingredients and saute on high for ten minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook until tender -- approximately five more minutes. Do not overcook; the butter will turn into a grease spot. If a high boil continues, remove from heat and begin once the mixture has cooled slightly. Once done, remove from heat, place in a traditional gravy boat and serve as a side item with a variety of meat dishes. Enjoy!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Word Became Flesh: Rediscovering The Same Old Story of the Incarnation

It is time to talk about the Incarnation. For Christmastide looms nigh, dear ones. Indeed, only a few days from now the Church beckons the faithful to recall the yearly remembrance that Christ has indeed come to 'ransom captive Israel'.

The Christ-Mass, as its traditionally known, draws us to the Chris-Child in our midst, the one who 'came down to earth from Heaven, who is God and Lord of all'. Thus rejoicing is fitting indeed: Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

But Emmanuel shall not just come and depart in the middle of the night. He shall restore, redeem and save and sup with us forever. That's the mystery of the Incarnation: namely, that Jesus Christ has come in the fullness of time to save.

‘Who for us and our salvation became human’, as the Nicene Creed puts it, is the singular expression ‘that for Christians defines the difference between the old and new age, between the first and the new creation’, writes Luke T. Johnson. Thus, Christians believe that through the ‘act of divine condescension and generosity’, which is the Incarnation, we find the ‘basis for the Christian faith’. Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, rightly called the Incarnation the absolute ‘heart of Christian belief’.

'The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us', shouts St. John's gospel. 'We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth'.

What else, friends, can give you more joy, more comfort than this great solemnity of the Incarnation of Our Lord & Saviour Jesus Christ?

Christmastide means that God in Christ, ‘being the Word of the Father and above all’, entered our world – through Mary’s ‘yes’ – so that ‘He Himself’ should not disappear from it as the supreme artificer. In the fullness of time, writes St. Paul, God sent forth his Son (Gal 4:4). ‘For He alone was in consequence both able to recreate all’, maintains St. Athanasius,' and He alone was 'worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be an ambassador for all with the Father’. Rejoice, brothers and sisters, our redeemer has come!

Hence, we discover both the reason and absolute necessity of the Incarnation. We must never waiver: the Incarnation, the ‘whole historico-redemptive moment in the Old and New Testaments’, as Torrance describes it, is the true fountainhead of all theology and the pivotal act of the restoration of the Divine Image together with the reconciling of the entire cosmos.

If you haven't considered re-thinking the Incarnation lately, now is the time. Now is the time to consider once more what has transpired on our behalf. Now is the time to recall again that Christ ‘came to redeem us for something’, writes von Balthasar, which is ‘an entry, by grace, into the life of the Blessed Trinity’. This is our lot in life, as adopted heirs of the Most High!

Still, though, many well-meaning wonderful people skip right over the Incarnation and fail to re-recall its enduring efficacy as the sine qua non of the Christian story. But, brothers and sisters, we must continually re-recall the wonders of the Redeeming Christ-Child, whose dwelling place - even now - is 'with men' (Revelation 21:3). Now is the time so to do.

So, too, in the spirit of re-recalling supreme joy, I want to re-think my simple whole roasted chicken recipe. I have been working on considering changing my tried-and-true version for some time now. And, you'll be glad to know, I'm now reconsidering the whole roasted chicken and what it can do for my readers who love the bon vivant - those who know the joie de vivre in the kitchen and sharing a meal around the table with friends and family.

I'm, of course, asking you to do the same thing with respect to the Incarnation: consider pondering it anew and with renewed vigour.

Now, of course, a chicken is just a tiny little aspect of joy - nothing like the Incarnatus Est - but it surely fits the bill at dinner time and makes people smile. After all these years, that simple little bird still thrills and delights even the most refined palates.

Charleston's Whole Roasted Chicken: Re-Appreciated, Re-Vamped & Re-Recalled


1 whole roasting chicken (brined, trimmed and placed in a roasting pan)
1 stick of unsalted butter plus 2 TBSP reserved for pan sauce
1 TBSP thyme
1 tsp oregano
1 tsp garlic powder
3 TBSP fresh cracked pepper
1.5 tsp black or white truffle oil
1/4 cup chicken broth or stock


The day before you want to enjoy this bird, brine the chicken. Follow to the letter the perfect brining instructions found at Cooks Illustrated website in a pdf:

Take into account the weight of your bird and the amount of time it will need to brine. You want a moist chicken, not a salty one. Because our commercial chickens grow so quickly, they lose most of their moisture content, so brining restores that juicy flavour you remember from childhood at Grandma's house.

Pat dry your bird and place it breast side up in the roasting pan. Melt the stick of butter and rub all over the bird, tugging gently on the skin to get butter inside the bird. Use the whole stick of butter and more if you're really feeling frisky. Sprinkle herbs on top and place in a pre-heated 425 degree oven. Bake for 30 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 and cook for another twenty minutes. Check the internal temperature of the bird by placing an instant-read thermometer in between the thigh and breast. It should read 155-165 degrees (it will continue to cook once removed).

Once the chicken is cooked, remove it and the roasting pan from the oven and set the chicken aside to redistribute for at least ten minutes. Meanwhile, place the roasting pan directly on the stove, add the truffle oil, some chicken broth and the remaining butter. Scraping up the drippings and thereby incorporating them into the sauce, boil until the mixture is reduced slightly and a bit thickened.

Slice the chicken as you desire, pour the sauce over each section, saving some for extra at the table, and enjoy. I am utterly convinced this is the finest way to cook a whole roasted chicken, period.


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Salt of the Earth

Advent is a time of gazing in two directions – the coming of Our Lord at Christmastide and peering towards the Second Coming, when, ‘Christ on earth shall return to reign’ (thank you Wesley for that splendid hymn). And keeping a proper Advent requires us to consider both epochs.

However, I’d like to talk about the 'in between' portion of Advent, by which I mean the time between the Incarnation, when the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us (hooray!), and the final eschaton, that time when the ‘The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together’, as Isaiah puts it. Because, you see, this time - this 'in between time' - is where we find ourselves right now, dear ones. And the way I want to do this is to talk about salt. Yes, I want to talk about salt with you.

As you know, salt is a powerful biblical metaphor. Our Saviour uses it often, weaving many memorable sayings into a tapestry that describe perseverance, endurance and zeal.

Perhaps the most famous mention of the majestic mineral is from the Sermon on the Mount: ‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men’ (Mat 5:13 RSV).

Naturally, the surface reading of this leaves us thinking that Jesus is simply saying for us to strive not to lose our zeal for the gospel. But a closer look, however, reveals a quandary. You see, the problem is that many times we do lose our saltiness. I think, therefore, we all know what it feels like to be ‘trodden under foot by men’.

And I propose to you that we lose our saltiness because, like love (thank you, Waylon Jennings), we’re looking for salt in all the wrong places.

Don’t believe me? Well, consider the first thing your heart tends to tell you when you hear Jesus say ‘be the salt of the earth’. Like me, you try to think of what you can do on your own merits to demonstrate that you are indeed genuinely salty. And virtue is a fine thing, folks; a necessary thing, really. We must cultivate habits (habitus, as the Angelic Doctor puts it) that mitigate against the deadly vices of sin. St. James is quick to tell us that 'faith without works is dead'. But that’s not what I mean here. I'm not talking about properly motivated good works. I’m talking about the very first thought that comes into your mind when you hear Jesus say ‘be the salt of the earth’.

I think most people tremble for a millisecond and then their fear factor kicks in and they think ‘Well, I’ll try next time to be more salty, okay God?’ Now, you may not describe it that way, but I’d bet if you were in the audience when Jesus commanded the disciples to be salty you’d be thinking just how you could demonstrate to Him that you were salty – even if it happened way back when. You’d turn inward, think about it and determine to show it, never thinking once that we aren’t born with a salt mine lurking deep within our psyche.

Woe is the man who looks inwardly for his preservation!

You see, the point of Jesus’ statement wasn’t to force people inward, nor was it so they’d simply stop trying to be salty, as the Lutheran crowd so often interprets the Sermon on the Mount. No, it was to drive them back to the source of all comfort, joy and grace; namely, to Christ Himself, the God-Man made flesh to restore us and preserve us forever.

Had Jesus said 'look inside yourselves for preservation and self-actualisation', it would be a salty metaphor alright – yeah, like having salt rubbed in a wound! If we only looked to our own hearts for salt, we’d be left to say, as doth the Psalmist, ‘My wounds grow foul and fester because of my foolishness’ (Psa 38:5 RSV).

You see, salt – in the eternal sense of the metaphor – isn’t something we just pull off the store shelf when we think we need it. In other words, we don’t make it and distribute it as we wish. Rather, it must be sprinkled upon us from something outside of ourselves – and sometimes we need a whole lot of it and at other times maybe not as much. But we always need it. If fact, we can’t live without it! And we certainly cannot cultivate a virtuous life without it.

So Advent, that season of the now-but-not-yet, is a time to consider that our bland natures need the preservation and enhancement that only Christ’s Incarnation can bring. For He comes full of grace and truth – mighty to save and quick to heal.

This Advent, then, I propose that you consider allowing God to sprinkle you once again with His love poured out for us in Christ Jesus. This Advent, this time of eager anticipation, consider allowing God to be your strength and preservative instead of trying to prove anything to anyone, let alone to God, who knows the secrets of men (Psalm 44:21). This Advent quit trying to think about what you can do to be worthy of Emmanuel, God with us, or how you can pretend to be salty. Instead, focus only on the source of our preservation, Christ among us, as the genuine path to preservation, good works and abundant joy.

And oh yeah, go out and get some Maldon sea salt for your larder. It is the absolute best salt on the market today. And don’t tell my Francophile friends that it’s actually British! Yes, Virginia, there is good food in Britain.

Maldon Sea Salt

Unlike crystalised salt, Maldon is flaky salt skimmed right off the waters of the southern coast of England. Use it on meats, vegetables or to finish off your favourite Christmas dish.

Available at, Williams-Sonoma and a host of other retailers.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Ode to the Black Truffle

'I don't remember the first time I encountered a truffle. And that's probably because it was unmemorable. For most of us, the first truffle experience comes in the form of a black speck in a slice of foie gras or as a tastless, overcooked disk floating in a bowl of soup. And we say to ourselves, almost in relief, 'Just another rare and expensive ingredient I don't have to care about'. We put it on the 'life list' and forget about it', so says Patricia Wells, the 'talented ambassador for the truffle'.

But Wells' quote is to get the cart ahead of the horse, so by way of introduction, let me say that last night was not the normal Sunday evening in the Wilson abode. Instead of a simple Sunday supper, Malacy and I, together with our dear friends Jennifer and John Keller, were among the fifty or so lucky people who made their pilgrimage to Lakepark Bistro to honour Patricia Wells, the Milwaukee native-turned-expat-Grande dame of French cooking, and to sample delicacies from her new cookbook, Simply Truffles: Recipes & Stories That Capture the Essence of the Black Diamond, which was released last week.

As we sipped Champagne and let our noses capture the delicate aromas released into the room from the truffle-themed dishes being created in the kitchen, Madame Wells gave a lovely little mini-lecture on the history of the 'black diamond', the tuber melanosporum. Her knowledge and passion for French cuisine and its most famous fungal accountrement is matched only by her charm and quick wit.

When I acknowledged the elephant in the room, i.e., the limited availability and the high cost associated with genuine truffles Stateside, she was quick to offer two practical guidelines.

First, shop around on the web for the best price, that is, don't buy from some flagship gastronomique shop in Paris or from some fine food purveyor on Madison Avenue in New York. Rather, check around and find the best deal on fresh truffles. The closing pages of her book offers no less than nine purveyors of the black truffle (p. 199). A quick search (more searching will yield a better price) for me revealed 4 oz. of fresh Burgundy truffles (tuber uncinatum) going for $500 in Paris and New York, but for $135 at Alma Gourmet in Queens, New York.

Now, of course $130 for a four ounce truffle is quite a bit of money (yikes, aye?). However, Patricia proved to us that 4 oz. is more than enough to create a multi-course feast for four people, which means, we're only talking about ponying up $35 per person. And while I know $35 per person is a significant investment, I can also promise it's easier to spend more than that on going out somewhere on something sub-par (e.g., two drinks, plus an appetizer, salad, entree and dessert is easily more than $35)! From wasting money on subpar food that robs us of so much joy, Good Lord deliver us! But I digress.

Her second point to my comment is related to the first. Once the little gem arrives in the mail, nothing is wasted. After peeling away some of the skin and before using a mandolin to slice the truffle, the skin should be finely minced and added to fresh whipped butter, which itself can be sliced into small portions and frozen for use throughout the year (think 'Spaghetti With Parmesan & Truffle Butter' on pg. 119 in the book). Fresh truffles, moreover, can be stored together with cracked eggs in a sealed container that keeps either from touching. The aromas from the truffle will permeate the eggs, and who wouldn't want a dozen eggs -- poached, fried or scrambled -- that were infused with black truffle?

The point is simple: a little truffle goes a long, long way, and we must remove from our minds the spurious notion that truffles are only for garnishing the plates of the rich and famous. Truffles are for anyone who wants to enhance their joie de vivre.

Now, here's the theological link. Hold on to your hats and hold on to your theological presuppositions when I tell you that the truffle -- its efficacy, learning to stretch its versatility and the joy that comes from being in its presence -- is somewhat analogous to our Saviour's Real Presence in the Sacrament of the Altar. And, oh yeah, I know that all metaphors, allegories, analogies and illustrations, when pushed, collapse at some point, especially in the face Ultimate Truth. And, oh yeah, I know that comparing the Most Blessed Sacrament to a fungus may rub some the wrong way. But hold on and hear me out.

If we think of the truffle not as some little fancy over-priced scarcity reserved only for the rich and think, instead, of it as something that is truly delicious, something worth acquiring, something worth stretching out so that we receive the most from every little bite, I believe we're getting closer to my analogy. If we think, moreover, of the truffle not as some silly fungus hidden on a tree trunk but as something simple and earthy that God wants us to seek and enjoy, something truly delicious and something to share, we are getting closer.

I'm saying, albeit circumlocutorily, that Mass is usually too short, too contrived and too much of a logistical nightmare to really contemplate the riches of Christ's Real Presence among His faithful people. We may be there physically, time tends to stand still, the chasm between heaven and earth are bridged, all the Saints in concert sing (thank you, Wesley) and we truly feed on Christ in the Sacrament. But to be such a big deal -- yes, it's that big of a deal, folks -- it's sure over pretty quickly, no? You know the feeling; the usher comes by, you get up, go to rail, kneel, receive Communion and exit stage right. You sit down, you pray and it's over. 'Up, down, turn around' is what I'm keen to call it.

I'm saying that our time spent truly 'communing' with Christ in the Eucharist is far too short for us to receive the fullness of joy that comes from the Numinous One deigning to sup with us. I'm saying that although we receive the 'most precious Body and Blood of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ', we sure seem to forget that what just happened was nothing less than 'the forgiveness of our sins, the strengthening of our union with Christ and one another, and the foretaste of the heavenly banquet which is our nourishment in eternal life' (Book of Common Prayer, p. 860).

I'm saying that our usual experiences at Mass serve as a stark contrast to the disciples' encounter on the road to Emmaus (St. Luke 24:13-35), when, after having spent the better part of a seven-mile walk with the Risen Jesus, their eyes were finally opened to the Messiah in their midst, and they were left only to say, 'Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road'! Their hearts burned because they were united to the flame of Christ's Most Sacred Heart, the burning heart of radiant love that rescues us from sin and death and gives us new life! Their hearts burned because the encounter was prolonged, that is, stretched beyond their normal realm of meaning-making; it wasn't simply over and done. And we must note that the blessings they experienced were more than transformative for a minute or two; St. Luke tells us this prolonged encounter led them back to Jerusalem where 'with great joy' they 'were continually in the temple blessing God'. Such is the efficacy of the Eucharist, the primary means by which we are spiritually fed.

Their joy, dear ones, is the joy of the one who marvels at Christ on the Altars of His holy Church! Their joy is the joy of the one who stretches the encounter, the one who, 'down in adoration falling', joins all the company of heaven as they cry: 'Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb! Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever!'

And this joy, of which the truffle is only a mere shadow, is the delight of those who, above all, cherish our Saviour's promise: 'I am the Bread of Life. He who eats of this Bread will live forever. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him' (John 6:55-56).

Amen, I say, amen!

P.S. Go out and get a copy of Patricia's new book and start cooking with truffles!