Summertime Series: A Virtual Four-Course Meal

Summer in Houston is hot.

And in a bad way.

By mid-March, the air feels so close you could touch it. A man’s heavily starched shirt collar wilts faster than a woman’s neatly coiffed hair-do. Muggy at best, unbearable the rest of the time Summer in Houston is the antithesis of its oft romanticized, idyllic portrait.  Streets are bare. Playgrounds are empty. Swimming pools are silent. The sound of A/C units churning echoes eerily throughout suburban neighborhoods.

But wait. Didn’t 2.6 million people show up for Rodeo Houston last month… a primarily outdoor event? That’s just about half the population of Houston. Two reasons for this, really: food & entertainment. But not just any food. World Championship Grillmeisters, armed with their best cuts and secret sauces. And not just any entertainment. Rodeo happens to be the State Sport of Texas (naturally) , and in a place where everything is bigger… what better venue than Reliant Arena for the Nation’s best riders to test their mettle? Add a star-studded list of  music superstars, and you end up with two expectations which must be met and (if possible) exceeded before any self-respecting Houstonian would brave the Summer swelter:

  1. Undeniably great food
  2. World-class entertainment

Miraculously, this blog post sprung from dirt I found myself sitting in, waiting for Tim McGraw to take the stage. If I were writing a noob’s guide to Houston, “things to do in Summertime” would really only have four subheadings. Nothing else is worth it, really.  Like peanut butter and chocolate, these pairings were meant to be and are always met with  unanimous approval when considered for forays into the outdoors:

  • Crawfish & Zydeco
  • Barbecue & Rodeo
  • Bratwursts & Baseball
  • Burgers & Beaches

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Houston happens to sit at the perfect crossroad of American, Creole, and Texas cultures required to sample each pairing. Over the next four days, we’ll go on a virtual tour of Summer festivals and sample a few classic recipes (fried ‘gator, anyone?).  Mostly to satiate my cravings for Summer to get here already (Spring is such a tease), but I hope it also serves as a guidepost if you ever find yourself stranded in Houston during the season affectionately known as “Hell.”

V.

Joe Bennion & Horseshoe Mountain Pottery

Leaning on the information desk on the 3rd floor of the BYU library was a daily ritual of mine for several years. Mostly due to a cute boy who worked on the other side of said counter…. but that’s a post for another day. One such day, I found myself fiddling with a bunch of pens in a mug. My fingertips grazed the rim and instantly recognized the texture: pottery. Hand-thrown and fired. I picked the mug up and was instantly transported home. Not to Texas per se, but that spiritual home that only exists whenever and wherever family is gathered. At first I couldn’t believe it, but that weight and shape were unmistakable . I rolled the mug over and sure enough, the stamp stood along the base proclaiming quietly to any who would take notice: this is one of Joe’s pots.

I have two distinct memories of Joe and his pots. The first is more a movie montage of long drives through the mountains South of Springville twice a year to visit a strange man in a small shop. We’d stay for what felt like an eternity and always head back North with several odd-shaped pieces of brown butcher paper.

The other is decidedly more concrete and a medium I relied on  once we moved to Texas: The Potter’s Meal, a short documentary by Steve W. Olpin about Joe’s life and the philosophy behind his pots.

The first time I saw this short film, it transfixed me. I swear it lasted three hours (28 minutes in reality) and opened my eyes to a few key concepts that a life-time of Sunday School lessons had never hit on. For our purposes, we’ll keep it to one: The Meal as a ritual communing (to communicate intimately). Digging around, I found this is not a new, strange, nor unique concept in any part of the world….

But let’s back up first. Ritual. You know the word, and you’ve probably participated in a few throughout your life. From secret handshakes at Girls’ Camp to ordinances performed in modern-day Temples. You recognize something different about the time and space a ritual exists in… but have you ever asked yourself why? Here’s an answer from Eliade:

The religious festival (ritual) is the reactualization of a primordial event, of a sacred history in which the actors are the gods or semi-divine beings. But sacred history is recounted in the myths, hence the participants in the festival become contemporaries of the gods and the semi-divine beings. They live in the primordial time that is sanctified by the presence and activity of the gods…. The religious experience of the festival — that is, participation in the sacred — enables man periodically to live in the presence of gods. … In so far as he imitates his gods, religious man lives in the time of origin, the time of myths. In other words, he emerges from profane duration to recover an unmoving time, eternity.

… It is not with the morphology of the festival that we are concerned; it is with the structure of the sacred time actualized in festivals. It can be said of sacred time that it is always the same, that it is “a succession of eternities” (Hubert and  Mauss). For, however complex (or simple, like family dinner) a religious festival may be, it always involves a sacred event that took place ab origine and that is ritually made present. The participants in the festival become contemporaries of the mythical event. In other words, they emerge from their historical time… and recover primordial time, which is always the same, which belongs to eternity. Religious man feels the need to plunge periodically into this sacred and indestructible time. For him it is sacred time that makes possible the other time –ordinary time–the profane duration in which every human life takes its course.

In Eliade’s terms, the religious festival we’re concerned with here and now is The Meal. Throughout Christianity exist examples of the highly complex ritual Meal to the simple “breaking bread.” Included are Meals with formal names like Passover and The Last Supper, Meals that punctuate intense periods of spiritual instruction, and Meals immediately following significant spiritual events.

[ I should note here that these scriptures depict more than just the institution or the execution of the Sacrament. While the Sacrament is definitely a ritual Meal, it’s morphology– to borrow from Eliade– is specified and unique enough that it deserves its own study. ]

But what about the everyday Meal? Is that not a ritual, too? A religious festival worthy of study? I say yes. Apparently Joe does, too:

“I think everything is connected, whether we know it or not. Quite often we function as if it isn’t. We walk in a straight line and don’t think about the returns we have in our life…. In making pots, in gardening, in raising a family you realize these circles – these cycles – and these things that come back. Science and faith and art all come together and should work together as part of the same system instead of being separate disciplines.

At one time, in more primary cultures this connection was taken for granted. For instance, the act of making pots… was seen as much a spiritual endeavor as offering sacrifice or working in the Temple. I like to think of the home as being an important temple. It’s a place where art and spirituality all come together.”

– The Potter’s Meal

Unsure of the details of our pre-mortal experience, I hesitate to pin one ab origine to the daily festival of the Meal, but what I can tell you with surety is this: it’s vital to our continued existence. Science tells us we can only live so many days without food, that physical nourishment provides our bodies with proteins and amino acids required for basic functions. Faith tells us we must continually draw nearer to the Lord, seek spiritual rejuvenation through reactualization of sacred space and time.

Members of the LDS faith have this scheduled like clock work — weekly partaking of the Sacrament, monthly Temple attendance, yearly interviews and check-ups with Bishops and Stake Presidents. But how often do we just “grab something” on the way toMutual, Institute, Dessert Night, Break the Fast, Presidency Meetings, Welfare Meeting, etc.? Are we missing the daily opportunity to communicate intimately with our Creator?

Sadly, yes.

Rewatching The Potter’s Meal, I noticed Joe is an enthusiastic gardener and makes the connection described above between organic spirituality and meal preparation in the home. The ritual Meal is not just about eating, but the connections discovered and created. Connections between Earth and mankind, between parents and children, between brothers and sisters, between God and mortal. I suppose in those connections is where Eliade’s reactualization takes place — mortals are given a chance during The Meal to suspend profane time and enter sacred time not only for themselves but with those around them, with their family. And this is where Joe’s pottery comes into play:

I am fascinated with the idea that we are the children of a benevolent creator. The influences that most powerfully shape who we are seem to be located in the household and family. I want my pottery to be there and to promote and influence that growth, however small it’s part may be. The family dinner table is sacred space and the venue of first choice for my pottery.

— driving philosophy  behind Horseshoe Mountain Pottery

 

 

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Some of my favorite things from Joe in recent, blogging history:  This is about home and pottery in it’s natural habitat. This is the best window into Joe’s personality. This is the house I remember Joe and Lee living and gardening in.

V.

PS: this is how innocently this post began, a footnote in an old journal of mine. “*duality of a meal — eating to fill the hole vs. recreating sacred space through gathering family, friends and breaking bread; Christ, appearance of food at sermons, moments of religious significance

photo by Vanessa

Chinese New Year: The 2011 Rabbit

The first week of February found me down at the Chinese Community Center in Houston, TX. Decided to be a complete 外国人 and use my official-looking DSLR (that’s really just a Nikon D60) to give myself access to all kinds of places.

Dragging my sister, L, out of her shell was more of a challenge. She’s currently the photo editor for her high school yearbook, but wasn’t blessed with the pushy gene that I landed in spades. Needless to say, the first hour was a drag. But once she realized that Asians are more flattered than annoyed when you snap a few photos in their direction, she relaxed.

Smells of a Chinese street market coaxed us outside between “lion dance” performances. Tents lined both sides of a narrow parking lot, facing the crowd between with the difficult choice of which line to brave first. L and I found the crawlspace behind the vendors and set about maxing out our memory cards.

The whole event left me craving my favorite street fare — chuanr— for weeks. So, here it is. Straight from the streets of Xi’an to your suburban backyard grill:

Ingredients:

  • meat*, cut into thin strips against the grain
  • cumin, fresher the better
  • red pepper, flakes or crushed
  • table salt
  • sesame oil (optional, if meat is really lean)
  • flat bread, like naan or Navajo bread; flour tortillas will work in a pinch

Utensils:

  • clean bicycle spokes (trust me on this one), sharpened on one end
  • open flame, preferably from hard wood or charcoal but a typical American grill will work

Directions:

  • light charcoal / heat up grill
  • thread strips of meat on bicycle spoke, leaving about four inches on one end and one inch on the other
  • be sure to add at least one chunk of fat to the middle or ends of each spoke
  • place a few raw chuanr over open flame, keeping your spices nearby
  • season to taste while rotating to ensure even cooking
  • be careful — spokes are made of metal and conduct heat!
  • grab a piece of flat bread; treat it like a plate to transport finished chuanr
  • … and repeat!

How & Why:

  • *meat — this dish originated in the West with the Uygurs and (for obvious reasons) usually uses lamb. Beef is what my parents used when I was a kid, usually a tenderloin or a top sirloin cut. Try to get something with a prominent ring of fat still in tact. For this reason, I’ve never used chicken or leaner meats. If you’re watching your girlish figure, you are welcome to use sesame or olive oil…. but you’ve been warned: the flavor will be completely different. If you have a butcher you trust, tell him what you’re up to and he can recommend a good piece of beef.
  • bicycle spokes — in a city where the population density doesn’t lend itself to everyone owning a full-sized sedan, bicycles run rampant. Which translates to a stockpile of replacements for parts that bend easily… spokes. Cheap, reusable, easily sharpened.
  • flat bread — to collect all those juices, of course! When I’m in a hurry or didn’t have access to a grill (… college dorm, anyone?) I found the quick and dirty way to get my fix of that distinct chuanr taste: flank steak and a sauce pan. At the very end, I cleaned the pan with a couple tortillas, mopping up all the sauce. Turned out to be my favorite part of the entire experience.
  • social —  every so often, you’ll run across a true craftsman behind a chuanr stove. He’ll only be cooking 8-10 spokes at a time over a box stove no more than 14 inches across. That’s how these should be done at home — buy enough meat for 100+ spokes and invite the neighbors over. Chill your favorite drink and grab a patio chair or blanket. Get everyone involved in threading the spokes, take custom orders for the spices. If you’re lucky, the evening will feel suspended in a slice of perfect space and time.
  • outside — remember, this is currently popular street fare in all major Chinese cities. Its the kind of dish a man from the West could come into the city with, buy ingredients for cheap, and sell to starving students just outside the University gate.

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photo by Lisette

First Post: Two things…


… but not the two you’d think.

1) It’s tax season. Which means one of two things: you’re either broke or have just come into some money.

2) We’re well into 2011 and those New Year’s resolutions are looking more and more like my grandpa’s potato fields. I heard a radio ad for a local church last week, actually, that tugged at these very heartstrings. “You wanted to be a better person, to seek God, and be happy. It’s almost March. What happened?”

Given that both my parents work long hours w/ teams in foreign countries and my sister has more extracurriculars than a set of triplets, the role of House Elf lands on me. This includes but is not limited to cooking, cleaning, running errands, and general servitude. I secretly love the domesticity of it all.

Each Sunday night, I perch at my kitchen bar and jot down a rough menu for the week while chatting with my dad about the Sabbath Day’s proceedings. It’s always a lively conversation and reminds me what a beautiful pair (pear?) good food and the Gospel make.

So, tonight, let’s take your two things, add them to my two things (preparing for a mission and being a more consistent blogger), and see what we get.

I promise to blog at least twice a week: once about something from the reading list and once about the week’s latest culinary adventure.

And you promise to set aside some of your tax money to pick up a book or a new ingredient at least once a month.

Deal?

Done.