pull up a chair

where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

Tag: slow cooking

once, i had a dream…(or slowing time in real time)

harlene slow time

reading cornerslowing time circle

the wintry night couldn’t have made it more daunting. the roads were thick with snow, hadn’t seen a hungry plow. the winds began to whip. the flashing sign on the highway warned that it would take two hours, nine minutes, to snail our way (a mere 11 miles) to the spaghetti bowl of interchanges that only then could shoot us out the next long stretch of byway.

we were, with all our might, trying to get to the little town that once was home to frank lloyd wright and ernest hemingway. a bungalow, candle lit by then, would soon be filled with folk who’d come to taste a wintry eve of slowing time.

we’d be lucky if we got there by 10. and the evening was slotted to unfurl at seven bells. our bellies lurched as we did the math, realized the full throttle of our predicament. and then the car began to shake — convulse, more like it. i thought perhaps it was on the verge of blowing up. or, perhaps, merely screeching off the icy bridge. turned out to be the wheels protesting the ice that stood between the tire treads and traction.

by stroke of side streets, and the zany map in which chicago plows the backroads but not the main roads, we managed to get there at the stroke of half past seven. we’d zigged and zagged and beat the doomsday clock.

once we walked inside the golden-glowing house on grove street, we were soothed. slowed. wrapped in candle light and logs crackling on the fire.

the one who’d done the dreaming up of all of this — a lovely woman named harlene who lives to find the common thread that weaves us all together — she was stirring at the slow time pot, the name she’d pinned to the cauldron of three-bean chili, thick with chicken, zinged with squeeze of lime, the one she’d cooked all sunday.

i got predictably teary-eyed soon after walking in. i only knew four of the 30-some folk who were huddled round the wine, the chips, the hearth. they’d come, i whispered to my flabbergasted self, to hear a bit of slowing time.

oh, it takes a rather packed equation to make a dream come true. but what stirred as i slowly made my way to the stove, to sidle up to the one stirring the chili, was the knowing that i was walking through a dream.

the dream, born long ago, was something like this: what if, in a world that chatters so noisily few can make out any sense, what if we quietly carved out a sacred place, a safe place where words and hearts were shared, and harshness never was invited? what if we could mine the landscape of our simple ordinary lives, our messy stumbling fumbling lives, the one where day after day we try again to get it right? what if we might gather kindred spirits, and hold each other up, on the days when we wobble, yes, but even on the rarer days when we swear we just might glow a little hallelujah glow?

what if, from time to time, the holiness leapt off the screen, or off the page, and took shape in real time, with the flesh of human hands reaching across the table, or real tears slowly mapping their way down a cheek, across a lip, and off the precipice of chin?

what if there were real circles of real chairs in real living rooms? what if stories flowed, and hearts opened, and voices dared to speak beyond the whisper of talking to ourselves?

and there i was: inside the dream. surrounded by smart and soulful women. surrounded by women who’d left behind their day jobs, their kids, their noisy little lives to brave the bitter cold, the whipping snow, and the slip-slidey front steps, to slow time long enough to share a wintry evening’s conversation, to turn a page or three. and, not too much later, to step back into the icy night, behold the glowing arc of moon, and feel a heart a wee bit fuller.

these past few months — the months since slowing time (the book) was birthed — have invigorated and tested, and stretched and stung from time to time. but all of it, every butterfly in my belly, every sleepless hour of the night, even gasping aloud when i was called a “very pagan wiccan,” (yes, ouch), it’s all been the road to last night’s dream come true. and the even-longer potholed path to putting life to hope, to faith, to believing that — whatever it is — it might be done.

so here’s the wondering aloud: might we all not birth a dream? a simple dream, perhaps; maybe just to make it through a morning without the sound of harsh screeching from our throat. or maybe, take it up a notch and declare we’ll paint, we’ll write, we’ll knit till kingdom come — whatever is the shape and form you put to your creative genius (and, oh, yes, it’s genius, all right. every one of us was born with speck of genius, and is it not our job to figure out just how to let that genius out from wherever it’s been hiding all these years?).

what if we envision a world where unlike minds sit in quiet conversation? what if we pray all in one room — jews, muslims, buddhists, christians, wiccans, and, yes, druids, too? whether it’s filling the empty belly of one hungry child, or disrupting the hollow loneliness of the old man next door who sits all by himself, hour after hour. whether it’s tackling tolstoy at long last. or committing to memory every last line of emily dickinson, or maya angelou, or w.s. merwin.

what if we dig down deep and pull out our wildest dream, and then day after day, sometimes after weeks have slipped away unnoticed, what if, little by little, we added flesh to the bones of that dream, and one cold winter’s night, we walked into a bungalow, where bowls of oranges and chocolates waited by the door, where chili bubbled on the cookstove, and women’s words whirled through kitchen and keeping room, dining room and parlor?

what if we all believed that, given time and hope and the great gift of friends who pick us up every time we stumble, skin our knees, or feel our hearts get knocked around far too achingly, even our wildest little dream might come tumbling true?

what’s your dream?

libationslowing time kitchenharlene at the chili pot

and how might you begin to make it come to life?

and here’s an invitation: perhaps you too have a circle of souls you love — or even ones you barely know — and you, like beautiful harlene above, might put a pot of something bubbly on the cookstove, pull chairs into a circle, and softly, quietly, openly, invigorate the night with what you know to be beautiful, and holy, and deeply needed in this aching, sometimes scary world…(p.s. of course i don’t mean a slowing time night, per se, just a night in which you gather with great good souls and carve out time for what deeply matters. in real time. slow time…)

and from the bottom of my heart, harlene, bless you and thank you and thank you…..

sacramental supper

sacrament supper

it came over me as if i’d been out on a splintering raft in the middle of the swallowing seas, as if for days and days i’d not seen dry shore. nor steady mooring to cling to. but there, not too far out of my reach, was the sea-battered timber planted in the sandy bottom. the end post of a barnacle-crusted dock i couldn’t quite make out, and it came out of nowhere.

looked like hope to me.

so i reached for it. reached into the meat bin at the bottom of the fridge. hauled out the pack of cubes of cow (so sorry, cow). then i hauled out the cook pot, the one so hefty it could break a toe. a pack of toes. i glopped in a spill of oil, olive oil slick across the now-sizzling surface. and in plopped the cubes of beef. i browned and hummed. that’s what cooking on a thursday morning does.

i was burrowing into the holiness, the sacrament of middle-of-the-week, because-they-need-it, because-we-all-need-it supper. it would be ladled at long day’s end, when, for a moment, hands would be clasped, prayers raised, then forks. and a certain emptiness, filled.

that’s the mystery and alchemy of all-day puttering at the cookstove. it’s the only thing some days, some weeks, that beelines to the crannies in our heart where words can’t go. that seeps into hollows hungry for so very much.

since this was sacramental, after all, i set the altar while beef cubes sizzled: old chipped blue willow plates, ratty napkins that could use a spin through the sewing machine. cobalt glasses, ones that all day long catch the light, spill streams of blue across the old maple planks of the handed-down kitchen table, the one that still wears the imprint of third-grade homework from back in 1965 (or so i calculate, judging by the particular child’s scrawl and the certain words pressed into the wood).

sacramentum, the latin dictionary tells us, means “sign of the sacred.” is it sacrilegious, then, to call a plain old supper, one that simmered on the back burner all day long, one thought through, from splattered sheaf of follow-along instructions, clear through to pop-from-a-tube biscuits, is it sacrilegious to call a lump of root vegetables and beef, ones swimming all day long in thyme and bay leaf, crushed tomatoes with a splash of red wine vinegar, is it sacrilegious to call it sacramental?

i think not.

to serve up what amounts to depths of heart, to say in mashed potatoes and irish butter, “i love you dearly, and i’m so sorry i’ve been distracted. so sorry i’ve been heating up old soup, chicken pot pie from a box.” to say, with store-bought pumpkin pie, under a swirl of canned whipped cream (i splurged on the one that shouted, “extra creamy!”), “forgive me for making it seem like something else might have been more top-of-the-to-do-list than carving out the holy half hour (let’s not be greedy here) when we all sit down and savor pay-attention cooking. and each other.”

because, really, i think we can taste the difference. oh, umami is umami. and sweet is sweet. but don’t the hours of stirring, of simmering, of thinking something through — not whipping it off in the last 10 minutes before the hunger sirens screech — doesn’t it all find its way deep down into the deliciousness that doesn’t come through short cut piled atop short cut?

yesterday, the day was afghan autumnal, all gray and woolly, the sort of day when you hunker inside, when the cookstove yodels to you. when the burners itch to be cranked. and the bins of rutabaga and turnip and parsnip — all those underground offerings that soak up what the earth’s deep dark soil has to share — they beg for vegetable peeler, and chopping block, and long hours surrendering to flame.

it was the sort of day-after-hubbub when quiet invited me in for a long slow visit. nothing rushed about the day. a day to breathe deep, breathe slow. to fill my lungs with quiet prayers, the prayers of lavishing love on the ones so dear to me, the ones who deserve nothing less than the very best dinner i could chop and stir and taste-test along the way. and while i’m at it, why not take it up a zany notch? just because there’s never enough oomph in an ordinary day. and what day, really, deserves to be plain old ordinary?

by supper time, when the tableau beyond the panes of glass went inky black, when the glow of the kitchen lamp spilled gold across the table, the vapors that rose from the big red smash-your-toes cook pot, the hot breaths that trespassed out of the oven, they crept up the stairs to where homework was being done.

before i’d said a word, the stovetop’s incense was deep at work. the house was filled with something surely holy, for what else can you call it when you claim a whole long day to aim for higher?

to say in smell and taste and temperature and touch what words alone just might not say: “you are worth it to me to spend a whole day cooking, just for you. i’ve not lost sight of my holiest calling, to carve out a hallowed space here in this place of walls and windows and creaky floors and solid roof, to be the one reliable source of all that’s good, that’s edifying. to fill you with warm spoonfuls — as much as you want, there’s plenty here. and i’ve made it beautiful because you are, because beauty speaks to the deep-down whole of us. and you so richly deserve each and every morsel i can muster.”

the day was chilly brisk. i did what i could to make the kitchen glow, the holy light of heaven here on earth. and to fill those who came to the chairs at long day’s end.

far as i can tell, that’s a sacrament, a sign of the sacred. with a fat splat of butter drooling off the plate.

beef stew

like all the best recipes, i start with something on paper, and then i riff. i zig when instructions say zag. add a dollop instead of a dab. the beef stew recipe i’ve decided is the one worthy of a long day’s cooking is one from that gloriously down-to-earth pioneer woman, ree drummond, and it’s one she calls “sunday night stew.” even on a thursday.

your thoughts on the sacrament called slow-cooked supper? or how do you best dollop extra helpings of plain pure love? 

meatballs en masse

first you multiply. then you forage. then you start rolling.

it’s meatballs en masse, the roadmap:

ten pounds of steer. quarter acre tomatoes, chopped, pureed. bag of onions. eggs by the half dozen. breadcrumbs, a handful or two. dried crinkled leaves, ones wearing the nametag sweet basil. garlic, don’t forget the garlic. we decidedly did not.

the garlic, the onions, bathing in oil of olives, that was the point. we didn’t want just to feed our friends at the shelter with a mere plate of food. we wanted to feed them all afternoon with the sounds and the smells of somebody cooking. somebody cooking for them.

we wanted them in on each act of the production, as they stood in the alley, huddled on the stairs, waiting for the man with the key to please let them in from the cold. very cold.

we made meatballs for forty. started hours ahead. we wanted to slow cook. with two hours to go we had a flotilla of balls, all adrift in an ocean of thick, red, tomatoey sauce.

there is an alchemy to cooking on slow that does not happen when you wham-bam the dinner. an alchemy especially rare at a soup kitchen.

but we carved out a whole afternoon for this slow dance, me and my 13-year-old. we chopped, and we poured. we stirred and we seasoned. we wanted a feast for our friends.

and they are our friends. t-bird and papi. robert and eddy. the elegant man in the soup kitchen line with his navy blue blazer and shiny brass buttons. the lady who religiously wraps her plate in cellophane before she puts on the food.

they are, some of them, full of hope. papi, for instance, has a dream that he and his sweet potato pies will some day shove mrs. smith and her apples off the grocery store shelf. and just last night t-bird mentioned how he wanted my friend sherry’s chicken wings-and-sausage-and-meatball recipe, cuz it was going to be the first thing he cooked when he got his apartment. some times they tell you month after month, sometimes for more than a year, that their apartment is coming, any day now.

so every third sunday of the month, we feed them. feed the hungry. feed their tummies, yes. but even more, feed their soul. slow cook for them. put tulips on each table. offer brown bags and a basket brimming with brownies and oranges, strawberries in the deep core of winter. take leftovers and turn it into lunch for the next day.

as my friend elizabeth mentioned last night, it had been a very long day squatting at a sandwich shop from 7 in the morning, an hour after they’re kicked out of the shelter, ‘til 7 at night, when they are allowed back in. “i thought i would lose my mind. i had nowhere to go,” she told me, piling her plate with spaghetti, forgoing all but one of the meatballs. she came back for brownies and pound cake and raspberries three times.

for a very long time i have cared about feeding the hungry. i once criss-crossed america, trying to find out why so many, in so many places, were so hungry. from potato farmers in maine, to salmon fishermen tucked into pacific coast towns in northern california, to old wizened folk in chinatown in the city by the bay. from iowa farmers to out-of-work steelworkers in the sooty hills of west pennsylvania. from the rio grande valley to the high plains of the navajo reservation. from the bare-bottomed children of cottonwood, mississippi, to the big-eyed ones right here in chicago. children going to bed at night with a pain in their bellies. mamas and papas going to the same bed, with the same pain, worried sick. not knowing where in the world they’d find food for tomorrow.

and so, one measly sunday a month, me and my boys we slow cook. the little one, now old enough to scoop, always begs to dish out dessert. then he fills a plate, wanders into the dining room, takes a seat, strikes up a conversation.
there is nothing like watching your children learn what it means to slow cook, to deep feed the hungry.

feed vt. 1. to give food to 2. to provide something necessary for the growth, operation, etc. of 3. to gratify.

some of us spend much of our lives feeding. to consider the act of feeding, the gestalt of it, not merely the chopping and stirring and spooning of x, y and z onto a plate, is to have something to ponder. please, pull up a chair. pour out your thoughts on the transitive verb, to feed, in all of its unspoken definitions…

chop, saute, edit…

it is delicious, the way the day unfolds when i weave back and forth from cutting board to keyboard, in my slow dance toward dinner.

2 c. onion, chopped.

one story cobbled, edited.

1 sweet red pepper, seeded, chopped.

one phone call, dialed.

i am a writer who works from home. i am a mother who needs to feed children. i am also a woman who savors the adagio toward dinner.

as the january chill slipped in through the cracks and the crevices of this old house some time yesterday morn, and as i realized dinner would eventually be upon us, i walked into the pantry and starting eyeing the shelves.

black beans, i saw. grabbed for the bag. ticked through the means toward the simmering end, a bold steaming soup; beans the color of midnight, hot-sausage-studded.

and so the rhythm began: onions and garlic, chopped and sauteed. beans set to simmering. two phone calls made. story re-read, cut by 200 words.

there is something that soothes me, inhaling the onions, the garlic, the simmering beans. all the while tending to stories and editors and sources not yet discovered. knowing that dinner is coming the slow way. not something rushed in the 15 minutes before everyone crawls to the table, famished and grumpy and harried.

it is the blessing of working from home, stirring with one hand, typing with the other. it is rare, and i know it, to be home alone with the smells and the sizzles and the sentences growing.

i have given up much, not being in the newsroom. but i cannot imagine not being here where most everything matters. it’s my own cockamamie invention, the place where domesticity meets deadline. and i love every drop. (except for when i’m pulling my hair out.)

perhaps it’s the post-winterbreak quiet that, this week, is so particularly sweet, now that the big yellow bus rumbles down the lane and swallows up my littlest boy.

but what it really seems is that the broth of my life is richer, is deeper, when i’m here on the homefront doing two things at once. and doing one of them slowly.

as the sweet scent of the beans and the cumin rise from the pot and curl under my nose, i feel less like a mad scrambled mama, more like a soul who is blessedly tending my flock.

be it a soup or a stew or a fat roasting hen, there is a certain elixir in the kitchen perfume as it comes ’round the corner to me and my keyboard.

maybe it’s nothing so much as the sweet simple knowing that, while tracking down editors, i am aiming toward dinner, that most sacred time when we all come together.

more than deadlines and drafts one, two and three, it’s that time towards the end of the day that most deepens my soul. and when it unspools not in a rush, not in staccato, i am soothed, i am stoked by the slow dance to dinner.