Sunday, January 18, 2015

Studies in Chocolate Chip Cookies

Sometimes I crave different aspects of chocolate chip cookies, resulting in a situation where there is no *perfect* recipe for me.  But I want to know which things to change in order to get what I want. So I've been experimenting.

~ I live in Colorado, not in the mountains, but considerably higher altitude than sea level.  If your altitude is lower, you might want to reduce the amount of flour you use.

~ Parkay margarine makes Stephannie cookies.  She's my sister, and around our friend circles, they are famous.  But I don't like margarine.  I want my cookies to have butter.  This brings up problems.  Because butter makes cookies flat.  In any case, Parkay is saltier than unsalted butter.  Use salted butter and/or add extra salt.

~ Use enough salt.

~ Adding flour does not fix flat cookie recipes.  I mean, if you add enough, they're not flat anymore.  But they're barely cookies anymore.

~ I read in some awesome cookbook at a friend's house one time, and it has changed my baking forever, that it is very useful to add other forms of fat than butter.  Go figure.  My first attempt has been to add an extra egg *yolk* (I think the recipe book suggested this).  I've tried a bit of coconut oil, which is supposedly a dough conditioner anyway.  I can't tell a difference.  I'm starting to wonder if I use a higher-quality butter if it would yield better (fluffier, but still tender) results.

~ If you brown at least some of the butter before using it, it adds a nutty and/or caramel dimension to the flavor.

~ Play with adding just a hint of spice, like cinnamon or nutmeg.  Add some flavor and warmth.  Everyone I know experiments with vanilla amounts, too - that is, they splash it instead of measuring.  Some brands of vanilla extract have a funny flavor; use a vanilla that you like.

~ Use a good kind of chocolate.  Dark, semi-sweet, and bittersweet, are by definition basically the same thing; different companies apply the terms to distinguish their products, but they don't have a definite meaning.  Different companies use varieties of ingredients.  I don't know what you like.  If you're a normal American, you might just want to go with Nestle semi-sweet chocolate chips for the comfort of familiarity.  I read recently that Guittard melts very smoothly.  70% bitter is not sweet enough, I know from my most recent experiment - especially when you're experimenting with reducing the sugar.

~ Don't reduce the sugar.  1 1/2 c. sugar (brown and white mixed, in different proportions), 3 c. flour, 2 sticks butter.  Those are the basics.  Don't skimp.

~ Use enough chocolate.  Chocolate helps the cookie to have structure.  Don't let your dough be too warm when you mix the chocolate, or it will melt.

~ Other firmer ingredients can also help the structure of the cookie, like other kinds of chips - toffee, for instance.  Or you can add dried fruit.  I also like some recipes that have uncooked oatmeal mixed in.

~ I'm curious, based on an article I just read whether the darkness of the brown sugar affects raising.  Does darkness describe levels of acidity?  If you added just a touch of a different sweetener, could that help?  Particularly, I'm thinking about a tablespoon or less of molasses.

~ Leavening: the Toll House recipe calls for baking soda.  My favorite oatmeal cookie recipe has baking powder.  My most recent attempt had both.  The jury's out, but I suspect baking powder gives a better rise, especially if you're letting the dough rest in the refrigerator for a while.

~ You must refrigerate your dough.  It enhances the flavor mixtures.  But the main reason is that it keeps the cookies from spreading too quickly.  Flat cookies mean all sorts of unpleasant things like crispiness, only one layer of chocolate chunks, or not fitting as many on a pan without them running into one another.

~ I've learned that baking powder, at least, responds quicker in a slightly hotter oven.  I'm considering starting hotter (425??) for a minute or two, then reducing the heat (350).  It's all about helping the rise.

~ The pan you use matters.  I think the metal, the shape, the color all contribute to how your cookies bake.  I don't know your oven or your pans, but if something works for you, take note and keep using that!

~ Do *not* over-bake.  Take your cookies out when the centers aren't jiggling, and the edges are beginning to brown.  Do not wait until the tops of your cookies are brown if you want a soft gooey cookie.  You can let the cookies rest for a bit on the pan before removing to cool.  Another thing you can try is to squish the edges of your cookies towards their centers after removing from the oven, to keep them from setting so flat.

~ If all else fails (and sometimes just because), supplement your cookies with cheesecake dip, ice cream, salt, milk, hot drinks - to complement the tastes.

~ Also if the cookies get stale for some crazy reason, carefully re-hydrate using steam (or butter?).

~ Try freezing extra cookies, and remove about 15 minutes before eating, for a cold chewy treat.  You can freeze the dough, too, but I have very little experimentation with that.

~ To reheat in a microwave, make sure you use power settings below 5 to prevent crunchy burnt spots.  I find that about 30 seconds on power 3 works best in my microwave.

To God be all glory.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Gifts: A Christmas Etymology Devotional Meditation

A friend recently asked me what are my family’s traditions for Christmas.  Besides a formal meal, we also purchase and decorate a Christmas tree, the latter usually to the backdrop of nostalgic Christmas songs and candlelight.  But the most familiar tradition, even an oft-lamented one in our materialism-saturated society, is the exchanging of gifts.  But I am convinced there is nothing inherently wicked with either the getting or the giving of presents. 

Gift and give are newer forms of a presumed old, old root, the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *ghabh- meaning “to give or receive”.  Before it reached English, it appeared in the Old Norse with a definition “gift, good luck”.  For a while it was pronounced yiven, before the guttural ‘g’ resurfaced.  An initial ‘h’ sound is also associated with the root, developing into the somewhat opposite word have.  Isn’t it interesting that giving and receiving are so closely linked that they’re all mixed up with the same family of words? 

Present specifically carries the notion of something offered, freely, but before it is received.  It is set in the presence of one, placed “before their face”. 

The word receive has a more Latin than Germanic heritage, entering English c. 1300, about 200 years after the Norman French conquest of England, from the Old North French, meaning at that time “seize, take hold of, accept”.  I like the emphasis on the fact that a gift cannot simply be thrust on someone; the action is interactive, with the receiver willingly taking the gift.  In earlier forms, found in Latin, the word meant “regain, take back, recover, take in, or admit”.  There’s a sense of vengeance contrasted with the sense of hospitality. 

Hospitality is, in Greek, xenia, especially referring to the “rights of a guest or stranger”.  There is a city in Ohio named for this word.  I think that is a lovely motto of which to be reminded every time one’s city is mentioned.  It is not so much seen in our country as in many other nations, including the Israelite tribe whose generosity to the poor and stranger in the land was mandated by the Mosaic Law (see also this passage). 

Hospitality is also a French/Latin borrowing, also since the 1300’s.  It comes from a word meaning “friendliness to guests”.  Compare this to the word host, whose entry at Etymonline.com goes further than the longer form hospitalityHost goes back to the PIE *ghostis- which is supposed to have referred to both the host and the guest, with an original sense of referring to strangers, on whichever side. 

In the 1993 movie, “Shadowlands”, based on the life of C.S. Lewis, there is a scene about Christmas in which he is discussing the fate of the season in their mid-century culture:
One [Inkling] laments, “I’m afraid Christmas, as I remember it, is rather a lost cause.” 
Jack, as his friends call him, and sounding rather like his voice is echoing out of far-away winter-bound Narnia whispers, “It’s because we’ve lost the magic… You tell people it’s about taking care of the poor and needy, and naturally they don’t even miss it.” 
To which his friend, a Roman Catholic priest, responds, “The needy do come into it: ‘no room at the inn,’ remember?  The mother and child?” 

I do like to remember that.  I like that older songs remember that.  I like that my friend this year asked for suggestions of how to make our holiday reflect the truth of this verse, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.” She wanted to know how to celebrate being made rich and to imitate Christ’s poverty-bearing, rich-making love.

There is a tradition of being charitable particularly at Christmas.  (This is in the line of other, biblical feast-days, during which kindness to the poor was encouraged in response to God’s blessings of abundance that were being celebrated, especially in the harvest-feasts of Firstfruits and Tabernacles.  It is a way to recognize that it is God’s undeserved blessing that provides enough to survive or feast.  If we, by pleasing Him, do not relinquish His grace, we are to expect His continued blessings.  And He is pleased when we remember the poor and have charity towards them.  We can give like the saints in Philippi, depleting our own storehouses, knowing that the God who is using us to care for the poor will faithfully provide for us as well.) 

This responsibility to the poor is communicated by the history of the word generous, which originally meant “of noble birth” (same root as genus, referring to biological descent and classification into kinds or races or families) and only by implications of the duty, of those blessed with more, to share with those who have less did it come to mean “magnanimous”. 

Benevolence, “disposition to do good”, is a compound word, from the Latin bene “well” and volantem “to wish”. 

Alms is another term for this benevolence.   In Old English it was ælmesse, occurring also in German, and Latin, where it is spelled eleemosyna.  This was, in turn, borrowed from the Greek eleemosyne, referring to “pity, mercy”.  In modern English, though rare, it means a gift, especially of money or food, given out to the needy. 

Charity is from the Old French, “charity, mercy, compassion; alms” from Latin, “costliness, esteem, affection”.  Isn’t it instructive, the impulse of expressing love by costly, sacrificial giving?  It can be satisfying, and blessed, to give.

Love is, by own definition, the giving of a treasure.  Treasure comes from the same Greek root as thesaurus, and it means “hoard, storehouse, treasury” – presumably of something worth enough to be collected and kept safe.  Can stores be shared?  What does it say when one is willing to disperse a hoard? 

Donation is attested in Latin, donum, “gift”, from the PIE *donum.  The same word is found in Sanskrit: danam “offering, present” and in Old Irish dan, “gift, endowment, talent”. 


In my family’s tradition, the focus is more on expressing love to one another than to those less fortunate.  Our gifts are an exchange, late 1300’s, “act of reciprocal giving and receiving”, from the Latin ex- “out” and cambire “barter”.  Cambire is supposed to be of Celtic origin, the PIE *kemb- “to bend”, developing in the sense of altering the current state, then specifically changing something by putting something else in its place. 

At Christmas especially, the packages under the tree are almost always wrapped, so as to be a surprise.  Unexpectedly, this word used to mean only “a taking unawares; unexpected attack or capture”.  The roots are sur- “over” and prendre “to take, grasp, seize”.  It might be ironic that though we think of thinly cloaked gifts as surprises, at Christmas they are not always unforeseen or unexpected; who hasn’t made a Christmas wish list?  In fact, it is perhaps a disadvantage of our custom: that gifts come to be expected, or even demanded, by the recipients. 

When the word wrap appeared in English around AD 1300, it meant “to wind, cover, conceal, bind up, swaddle”.  I think we do this to increase the ornamental feeling of festivity, not as a symbol of the baby Jesus being similarly wrapped before being placed in a manger. 

Swaddle seems to come from a word meaning a slice or strip. 

Ribbon, which often adorns our gifts, might have a similar historic meaning, if it is related to band, “a flat strip” and “something that binds”, a rejoining of two divergent threads of Middle English, distinguished at one point by different spellings, band referring to joining together and bande to a strip or even a stripe (where it likely morphed into ribane, a stripe in a material).  The original root of band is, PIE *bendh- “to bind”. 

Something else we use to hold things together when we’re wrapping them?  Tape.  My cousin says, “tape, lots of tape.”  This Old English tæppe is a “narrow strip of cloth used for tying or measuring”.  It could be formed from the Latin for “cloth, carpet”, tapete, or it might be related to the Middle Low German tapen, “to pull, pluck, tear”. 

(These words are so fun, the way they communicate the action by which the thing got to be – or the state that inspired and enabled an action.  What was life like for the people who named a strip of fabric tape?  Well, maybe they were pulling on cloth {reminiscent of one of my favorite Christmas movies, “Little Women”, where the ladies of the house spend time tearing old sheets into strips to be used as bandages for those soldiers wounded in the American Civil War}.  Why would they do that?  To have something with which to bind things together.  It’s a different world from our manufacturing-driven lifestyles, where tape and ribbon and string are purchased in packages off of shelves.  They’re things made originally for their purposes, not improvised from something else.  It’s like a history lesson in a word!) 

The other reason we think of gifts during the holiday season in which we remember God’s entry into our world in human flesh is because His birth was honored by gifts from wise visitors from the East.  These men recognized that Jesus was born to be the King, the long-prophesied King of the everlasting kingdom.  And though this God-King could have turned stones into bread, and summoned armies of angels, He chose to experience poverty.  Though He experienced the lowliness of being born to a poor mother and living as a refugee, a stranger, in Egypt, he was honored by costly gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh when a very young boy. 

Such is the nature not only of love, to give sacrificially, but also of worship.  How remiss would any of us be, to overlook the presence of the Highest King?  Not only is His worth expressed by Kings giving Him treasures; it is demonstrated by the “sacrifice of praise” every person can offer:  The Christmas carols sing that the wise men have “come to pay Him homage,” Old French “allegiance or respect for one’s feudal lord”, from Latin homo, “man”.  Or in “What Child Is This?” we are bid to “haste, haste, to bring Him laud”, also Old French, “praise, extol” from Latin laus, “praise, fame, glory”.  A cognate, or brother-word in Old English was leoð, “song, poem, hymn”.  He is worthy of the richest treasures.  We owe Him everything we have, everything that is.  We also owe Him our allegiance, our praise, our songs. 

To God be all glory. 


Many thanks and credit to the resources of www.Etymonline.com and www.Dictionary.Reference.com in compiling these definitions and histories.  Also to www.BlueLetterBible.org for Scriptures.  

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Culture

What Makes A Culture? 

Can an individual have their own culture, or must the aspects be shared by a group?  How much can be absent or altered without losing (collective) culture or (personal) identity?

When I think of culture, one of the first things to come to mind is food.  When I get a chance to visit another country, I want to experience their food: the tang in the air, the flavors, the different ingredients.  I’m curious whether food is mostly served at home or at a restaurant?  If Asian markets are any hint, pre-packaged foods are popular in China.  But Asian cooking involves all sorts of raw ingredients I’ve never heard of here in the United States.  Here also we have one of our cultures that only eats either frozen foods or fast foods or snacks.  But aren’t there still places in the world where cooking from scratch is an art?  Some cultures encourage bonding over sharing food in various degrees from a family meal to a family-style where the food is served all in giant platters into which people dip their hands to hospitality.  On the other end of the spectrum is the more formal dining experience, at a restaurant, with plates individually prepared, courses served.  There are cultures more receptive to buffets (my grandparents from Kansas *loved* them), or short-order cooking.  There is something special that some cultures encourage about preparing food together.  Some places esteem cooks highly, while others relegate the cooking of food to the lowliest classes (or women or slaves).  In some cultures dessert is a special treat, for holidays maybe – while some have a dessert at least once a day!  Which cultures care about nutrition?  Which about presentation?  Which about exotic flavors and innovative dishes?  Which focus more on comfort food and cravings?  What are considered comfort foods in various cultures? 

I’ve noticed that different cultures have different modes of posture.  Some use chairs, and some cushions.  Some have sofas, others benches.  There are places where squatting is more common than sitting “Indian-style”.  Related to this, I think, is hygiene: how often do the people bathe, and by what means?  What are their toilet facilities like – or do they use fields, dig holes?  How do the people view health, view disease?  How do they treat it?  Do they use prayers or rituals?  Exercises?  Medicines?  Drugs?  Herbal remedies and nutrition?  Oils?  Mineral baths?  Other practices like chiropractors would employ?  Do they gather the sick together in hospitals or tend them at home?  Are there doctors?  How much treatment is limited to professionals?  Do they believe in preemptive medical care like scans or vaccinations?  At what points do they choose not to treat a person any more? 

How are drugs and alcohol viewed?  Sometimes there are whole cultures built around the common experience of these substances. 

What do people wear in various cultures?  What are the conventions; that is, is it normal for anyone to wear pants?  Robes?  Hats?  Certain colors or fabrics?  What is the style?  How often do fashions change?  How are they changed?  Does appearance matter as a form of art or more a form of modesty?  Is clothing more about the aesthetic or the functional?  How is clothing used to demonstrate distinctions in gender, age, class, employment, marital status, etc.?  Do people alter their bodies for the sake of appearance: foot binding, neck stretching, piercings, tattoos? 

It seems to me that different cultures hold different ideas about acceptable risks.  Is it acceptable to let a child play near a fire?  Jump off a log?  Play where he might encounter a snake?  Get into a fist-fight with another child?  This is not exclusive to children, though.  In some cultures taking risks is involved in a rite of passage.  Risks are joined in together, to form social bonds.  Other cultures are much more conservative and careful, I think.  What do people put on the other side of the scale when they’re weighing risks?  Are fun and excitement of any relevance to them?  Competition?  Appearance?  Or do they only consider practical things like preparing for invasions or hunting for food? 

Art is such a huge sphere for culture that I don’t even know where to begin.  Cultures have their favorite mediums, subjects, colors, motives.  I can only suppose that certain fonts are the preferred writing of specific cultures, since the fonts on grocery stores appealing to diverse cultures are unique and identifiable even in the United States.  People groups have their own favorite sounds of music, their customary scales in which their music is played or sung.  Some have more instruments than others.  Dancing varies from culture to culture in complexity and energy and purpose. 

There are other forms of entertainment that vary depending on the culture.  Even the predominance of entertainment can be a mark of a different culture.  Sports are observed as entertainment, or played for entertainment; in some cultures it seems to be one more than the other.  Some sports are preferred by certain cultures, probably by way of other aspects of their culture (energy, reserve, risk) and inheritance (what did their parents play or watch?).  The complexity of toys, items used for play and entertainment, is also different in foreign places.  Some toys focus more on athleticism, others on skill and focus, and others do most of the work for you, performing for your enjoyment.  Toys can be scientific or domestic – little representations of the working world.  On the other hand, they can be silly escapes from the real world. 

Architecture is probably a form of art, too.  But I think it transcends art in that buildings often serve additional purposes.  So, is the architecture of a culture about efficiency? Beauty?  Community?  Symbolism?  Do they use materials found at hand, or manufactured, or transported to the building site?  How big are they – are they too big for one family to raise themselves?  Do people try to live in the same place their whole lives, or are they ambitious for bigger buildings?  Do they live in natural formations like caves?  Do they dig out holes in the ground?  Do they live in trees?  By rivers?  Do they dig wells or irrigation trenches?  Do they build dams?  And how much do all of these things influence other aspects of the culture, like family and friends and food and business? 

An aspect of culture in my own country so glaring that I failed to recognize it at first is materialism.  How many things do people own?  Is it a status symbol to own more?  Is sharing encouraged?  Do people show love through gifts?  How do people feel about financial sacrifice?  Do they invest in material things or in businesses – or adventures?  Where do they keep their goods?  Are things owned by individuals or groups or everyone?  Is there a distinction between land as property and removable objects as property? 

Cultures have their own stories.  “Own” is here used loosely, because I have found common threads of story in many different cultures.  There are fables about the origins of things, and love stories, and stories of wars and sacrifice.  Some stories even have comedies, the sense of humor varying from culture to culture (and individual to individual).  What is seen as a hero?  Is it the man who slays the most enemies?  The man who rules the most living men?  The man who sacrifices himself?  Different cultures have their different monsters.  They have their own dominant fears, just as they have different favorite virtues. 

Values shape cultures.  It seems that in America the dominant culture values independence, and speaking our mind.  I’ve heard of cultures that value the good of the whole.  Some value honor, others hold preserving life as a higher value.  Some value youth, and others value the elders. 

Religions are often associated with and intertwined in cultures.  Is there one sovereign God?  What is He/he like?  Are there many gods worshiped?  Are certain animals or plants revered?  How is worship carried out?  Through song?  Pilgrimage?  Sex?  Sacrifice?  Sacred words?  Eating? 

Cultures have often established their own rituals to recognize significant events like birthdays, coming of age, marriage, and other accomplishments (like graduation).  They have special ways of holding funerals.  They bring their own unique takes on holidays.  What fun, to see images and artifacts from Christmases in other places or ages! 

Language is one of my favorite aspects of culture.  Is it important to the culture?  Is it precise or more personal?  Is it written or mostly spoken?  Is it tonal?  How appropriate are metaphors, slang, and profanity?  What are the customary greetings?  Besides the words spoken, what other gestures are included?  What gestures are seen as essential to good manners, and which ones are abhorrent?  Which ones are just the convention?  One tribe I heard of rubs its nose while thinking, but it is more common for my culture to scratch our head or chin – or to frown.  Does the culture encourage more or less expression of one’s own thoughts – or feelings?  Which is predominant: thoughts or feelings?  Is expression mostly communicated by gesture, action, word, or art?  Accordingly, are the people of the culture more generally reserved – or exuberant?  Are they loud or quiet?  Does everyone speak at once?  Do they take turns at anything they do? 

How intimate are their friendships?  How many friends does a person tend to have?  Do they share their friends with their whole family, or is it a private affair?  How do they play?  Is playing part of friendship?  How do they show honor?  How do they respond to dishonor?  Is dishonor a casual joke or a serious offense?  How are reconciliations brought about? 

There is diversity in any culture, large or small.  How is that balanced?  Is it suppressed or embraced?  Is there competition more than cooperation?  Do they try to come to unity, or to sameness?  Are differences displayed?  Analyzed?  Intentionally created?  What things are used to emphasize (or manufacture) what they have in common?  I know in some places religion does this, in others wars bring people together against a common enemy, and in others it is the common experience of standardized schooling that prepares them to respond in similar ways to things. 

I don’t know if there are cultures without classes, but given that in most there are, how are relationships between the classes?  Is there mutual respect?  Is there resentment?  Are people generally content with the life to which they were born?  Do they practice cruelty or charity towards the classes that are more needy?  Is this voluntary or institutionalized? 

How big is one’s sphere in their culture?  Who does a culture encourage friendship with?  Who does it encourage responsibility towards?  What are members encouraged to aspire to?  How much is proximity a factor?  What kinds of transportation do people use (walking, driving, biking, boating, flying, carting, carrying)?  Do people travel for social reasons or economic ones?  Or are there environmental reasons to practice a sort of migratory lifestyle? 

Here in the United States we have many cultures living side by side, some whose “boundaries” are only a block or two from a significantly different group.  And with technology the way it is today, we can converse with people far away, travel quickly to see them, view photos they took, and purchase art created in foreign cultures.  How aware are people of other cultures?  (How aware are they that theirs is distinct?)  Are they interested in them?  Do they want to integrate good things from other cultures into their own?  Do they integrate foreigners?  Is this by means of cooperation or an initiation and instruction?  Are they willing to adapt their own culture?  Do they resist change?  Do they try to replace every culture they meet?  Do they replace the cultures of peoples they come to dominate?  Do they have compassion for foreigners or other cultures?  Do they feel superior?  Do they covet what other cultures have or are? 

To an extent, family structure is different in cultures.  How do husbands relate to their wives, and what is expected of each within the home?  How do people come to be married?  How many wives may a man have?  How do parents relate to their children?  Who else bears the burden of child-rearing (community, grandparents, school, nannies)?  What kinds of discipline are used?  Are children seen and not heard?  Are they seen as trophies or contributors?  How important is extended family?  Is family more important than friends?  Are there specific obligations towards family members?  How does a family unit relate to the rest of the world?  How much is the government involved? 

Some people view laws and government as providing order and security, or as being the at-the-ready conflict resolvers, while others expect the government to oversee all of the individual’s (and group’s) needs.  Some expect the government to enforce justice, and others are content with a system built on bribes.  Do the people believe it is their place to submit, or to reform, or to revolt?  In some places, the government is not only expected to take care of needs, but to take on big societal problems, and solve them.  Governments tend to look out for their own interests, but whether the peoples are ok with that or not is not so universal.  Some governments take in a vast number of citizens, whereas there are some whose range is limited to the immediate family of a Bedouin tribe. 

Is business conducted in a personal way?  Does a person go door to door offering their goods or services?  Is there a public common market or do consumers seek out goods and services at specific phone numbers, websites, or stores?  Is a transaction considered between equals, or are service providers a lower class?  Are the servants recognized as members of a household or anonymous functionaries?  Is there a mindset of professionalism?  Who desires the professionalism – professional or consumer or both or neither?  How influential are corporations – the idea that no one person is responsible for the good or service being sold? 

There is such a variety of technology, and tools, that are used in different societies, and these can be both representative and influential.  What things are used for communication?  For building?  Transporting?  How much of life is taken up by work? 

What is the general schedule?  What is the work week?  How many hours in a day are work?  Is work a means or an end?  Which hours are devoted to sleeping?  When and how do people wake?  When do they play?  When do they have social activities?  Do they work together or finish their work and then spend time together?  When do they eat and how often? 

If a group’s language is forgotten, and they move from the land of their buildings and ditches; if they stop playing with their old toys, and their clothing no longer distinguishes them clearly from one class to another – but they carry on a secret family recipe from the old, old days when all those things had been in place, have they lost their culture?  Can they share their recipe, market their spices and vegetables to other people groups, and still have their culture?  When do we say a culture has become distinct?  When do we say it has merged with another? 


Should we try to preserve cultures?  Or is a way of life gloriously defined by the personalities and abilities and histories of the people who make up the group?  Is there a difference between dissolving a culture and replacing it?  What harms does the structure of tradition found in a culture cause?  What benefits does it provide? 

To God be all glory. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Man of My Dreams

I remember reading the Anne of Green Gables series, how well it taught the lesson.  Anne turned down a silly farmer who asked her to marry him via his sister.  She said no to Gilbert who’d been her rival all through school.  She was disappointed when her best friend agreed to marry the ordinary local, Fred.  But maybe her friend Diana was onto something.  Maybe Anne’s tall, dark, handsome, charming ideal wasn’t what Anne really needed.  As fiction conveniently wends its way, Anne met with such a man at college.  They courted for months.  And in the final breathless moment when he asked her to be his wife, she realized that she’d been wrong.  Her girlhood husband list had been dreamy and foolish.  There was nothing so wrong with this man.  But her heart wasn’t in it.  The truth was, she had been meant for Gil all along, only her stubborn fantasies had kept her from accepting it. 

Having a list seemed to help me when I was in high school.  It reminded me that love and marriage were about choice, not just feelings.  I still like my lists, even if only for self-knowledge.  In my case I was over 20 years old when I realized that a man doesn’t have to have a career plan for the rest of his life to make a good husband.  Many of the men I have ever respected (including my own dad) have been hard workers, caring for others, but trying different things, or whatever work they could find.  In a changing world, myself even desiring a bit of adventure, how could I demand stability? So my list has been modified.  As I've gained humility about my own certainty of how the world should be, I've grown a bit more relaxed about some of the things.  

Never mind the unforeseen and unknown; what selfish attitude is it that tells me that I can decide what I want and demand that I get that or else?  How was that affecting my relationships with men?  Is that what marriage is about?  Is that what life is about? 

I know lots of examples of people digressing from their lists as they matured:

A friend said she’d never marry someone in the military.  Then she met her husband on a military base in Japan, and she changed her mind. 

Another friend said her husband would have to own a top hat.  Would she really turn down an otherwise perfect match because he didn’t own the ideal accessory?  (The answer was “no”, she wouldn’t turn him down!)

Some friends wrestled with more serious questions.  Could they marry someone who was not a virgin?  What if his views on finances (debt, saving, spending) was different from hers?  If God was calling her to ministry, could she marry someone who didn’t have that same calling? 

I suppose it goes both ways.  No doubt men have their own hang-ups.  One man I know struggled because his family owned many animals and the woman he was interested in had severe allergies.  I’ve heard that many men planning to be missionaries look only for women who are pursuing the same goal. 

Some of these things are generally good wisdom.  A pastor I know counsels people to marry only if they’re physically attracted to one another (successful legacy of arranged marriages notwithstanding).  I know couples who were not attracted at first, but as they proceeded with their relationships, gained such feelings.  I myself would rather not marry someone in the military because of the demands on time and loyalty.  It’s a good idea to be unified about things like money and children and ministry.  But they’re not essential.  And sometimes, especially when we’re young, we don’t know what we need.  One artist friend knew God would provide her with an artist-husband, whose soul could understand hers.  Another artist friend has been married for decades to a man who’s good with numbers instead. 

Still other friends now happily married look back and think their "lists" or ideas were lacking some significant points, like respect for parents.  

In our society we barely know what marriage is really about, let alone what makes for a good one.  Sometimes parents and mentors advise us.  Sometimes they’re just taking a guess and pioneering new territory they never ventured on in their own relationships. Some of it is good advice, general wisdom.  A lot of it is promoting self-interest.  Some of it is universally-useful advice about trusting God and loving others. 

Are there legitimate deal-breakers?  Is it wrong to have a list of things we’re looking for?  What guiding principles are there for deciding to get married?  What is marriage?  What contributes to a good marriage?  If you choose rashly at first, is there hope for a good marriage in the end? 

But the fuss we make about who to choose… 
~ Miss Austen Regrets


To God be all glory.  

Because I Met David

There once was a handsome young man named David.  What happened to me through knowing him probably had something to do with growing up – with turning 20 and getting my own car and being exposed more to the general world than this homeschooler was used to.  He walked into my life when I was 19 years old and I immediately went into such a daze that I didn't even remember his name, but I remembered his smile.  We found ourselves shortly thereafter attending the same Bible study.  I was so thrilled to see him there, and that he gave my elbow a little pinch when he recognized me, that I felt sick the rest of the night...  C'est la vie.

Because I met David, I realized I wasn’t 16 anymore.  And not-16-year-old women shouldn’t be looking for the qualities of a 16-year-old boy in a man they’re thinking of dating, or marrying.  I began to remake my list, but I didn’t even know what being a grown-up meant.  What was it to be an adult?  How was it different being an adult, marriage-ready man from an adult, marriage-ready woman? 

Responsibility, a sober view of the world, selflessness – these are some of the traits I came to realize were important.  Discerning them wasn’t as simple as checking off a list like: no, he doesn’t drink; yes, he has a job; yes, he says he’s a Christian.  A drink here or there doesn’t prevent realizing that we get one chance at this life and that everything we do has consequences.  (At the time, I was met with a lot of young men who didn’t take the consequences of alcohol very seriously.  But they were breaking into my mind the possibilities.)  In David’s case, irresponsible men can have jobs.  They use them to fund and further irresponsible lives.  And though true Christianity has to do with imitating Christ, who made Himself nothing, saying we belong to the Church is only a tiny part of participation in that kind of life.  People can lie.  People can be deceived. 

Because I met David, I learned to be patient in developing relationships.  I wanted more, more, more of people whose company I enjoyed.  I wanted to rush, rush, rush to see where it was leading with this man.  But it had to be OK some weeks at Bible study to just see him and ask how he was, waiting for the deeper conversation here and there.  That way I was learning more about him than just my urgent questions.  When you’re friends with someone, you get all of them, not just the parts whose relevance you can foresee. 

Because I met David, I had my first opportunity to really make the choice between going with my feelings and going with my principles.  I had been in a low place spiritually, but this choice began to wake me up. 

Because I met David, I discovered how sick hope could make me.  I hoped the charming bright-eyed conversationalist would line up with my principles – if not right away, then later (*soon* later, but I didn’t know about assuming “soon” back then). 

Because I met David, I began to face some facts about marriage, among others: that it would be two broken people working together, helping each other.  I was still inspired by the idea of matrimony, but I started to realize that I wouldn’t marry a perfect man, that I didn’t deserve one either, and that being good myself didn’t guarantee that the man I married would always have been good. 

Because I met David, I realized that the call God makes on Christians is not, “go be friends with potential husbands and men with no risk to your own heart, but be sure to steer clear of anyone not interested or unworthy” – no, God says, “love your neighbor” and especially to love those in the Church.  So even though David chose not to pursue me seriously, and even though I was disappointed, and even though I was still attracted to him – I couldn’t just run away.  I had to keep being his friend, keep desiring good for him, while also surrendering my plans for him. 

Because I met David, I still kind of believe that I have beautiful eyes and a great smile (particularly when inspired by a man's attention).  I took a break for a while from being on the watch for a potential husband.  I realized that even playing it safe with relationships can hurt.  I stopped believing in fairy tales and started believing in love. 


To God be all glory. 

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Specials of Our Kitchen

My first unusual gadget was a great can opener my mom got for us to help her in the kitchen.  It attached with the blade parallel with the top of the can, and it cut off the whole lid with no sharp edges.  This is the kind I learned to use, and it’s still my favorite.  Oxo makes one, but Pampered Chef also carries one which I’ve seen more often.  I found a website that recommended this version by Kuhn-Rikon.  The one drawback is if the can is *very* full, in which case a little liquid will spill over.

I also like the measuring cups that sit flat on the counter but have a little diagonal ring inside so that you can see how much (liquid, especially) you’ve poured in already.  If you have ever seen a carpenter use a level, you know how not-accurate it is to just guess with your hand.  Same for measuring cups.  I got mine at a hardware store.  Apparently carpenters know how the world should be. 

I have been fascinated ever since I heard of Danish dough whisks.  They’re a curly-q wire firmly attached to a wooden handle.  The wire is thick enough that it won’t bend with normal use.  And it moves softer doughs through the successive swirls to get things mixed.  My good friend got me one when I excitedly described one to her.  So far I think their target use is for baked goods like muffins or quick breads.  They would probably work on doughs as stiff as cookies, but I wouldn’t use it for regular breads, at least not once you start adding flour.  The best part about Danish dough whisks?  Clean up.  The wire is easier to clean than hands or spoons.  The next best part? Letting kids help with it.  Dough is harder to fling when there’s no flat surface for it to adhere to the utensil.  Let them get a little crazy!

When the time has come to use a spoon for mixing, our family loves to use wooden-handled “ice cream scoops”.  These don’t make nice round balls to go into cones, but rather islands of frozen yumminess.  Or they are sturdy for all sorts of mixing.  We use them to stir hot things on the stove, too.  But when we make brownies, I’ve come to love the one-utensil strategy of a rubber spoonula – a slightly scoop-shaped spatula that mixes, ladles, and scrapes the sides of the bowl.  Pick one-piece models like this one for easiest cleaning and durability. 

One kitchen appliance my mom thinks no home should be without is a George Foreman electric grill.  It sits on the countertop without melting even cheap plastic surfaces.  In less than ten minutes it is preheated good enough to cook basic things like hamburgers, chicken, or grilled sandwiches.  The grease slides down the grooves into an accompanying tray.  This makes it hard to sear in flavor, but is a plus for those people who are looking to cut out extra fat.  When you’re done, the non-stick surfaces are easy to clean.  If it is still warm, usually just water will work to wipe it clean.  If it has cooled, a little bit of soap and a sponge still make for easy clean-up.  We keep two in our kitchen, and my mom usually has an extra one or two (garage sale and thrift store finds) on hand to replace ours as the non-stick coatings wear off or to gift to friends. 

We’re not so great with knives in our house.  I think my parents wanted everything dull for years because they had small children running around and emptying dishwashers and helping in the kitchen for about 16 years.  Then they just got in the habit.  Anyway, to compensate we have kitchen scissors – 4 pairs, at present.  They’re useful for slicing into plastic packaging (cereal, cheese, boxed brownie mix, bacon).  But they’re also pretty good for cutting up chicken.  I don’t know why we have 4 pairs; surely we aren’t cooking *that* much chicken.  I wonder what else we use them for? 

Do you know what I love?  Collapsible things.  I had a cup made of concentric rings when I was little, that collapsed to about ½ inch height.  It was fun to play with even when not officially in use.  They’re just fascinating things in the category with Slinkys and yo-yos.  I have a collapsible colander that will sit on top of the sink.  It’s pretty great.  Just don’t get a colander with a hinge.  Those are nearly impossible to clean.  I would caution against collapsible measuring cups, though; consistency of shape seems to be necessary to their function. 

In the past few years everyone in my family has become a fan of brownie- and cookie- in-a-mug recipes.  Especially when we crave something warm and gooey, or with ice cream on top for a yummy sundae, the simple recipes available online are perfect for a single-serving dessert.  No left-overs to get hard on the counter or take up space in the freezer.  We use our big cozy microwave-safe mugs for this.  And with the knowledge I’ve gained comparing recipes, I’ve even invented little cobblers as snacks for kids while I was babysitting.  A lot of mugs are even oven-safe.  Be on the look-out for multi-use tableware that can be repurposed as dessert ramekins. 

Since I began culturing yogurt at home, I’ve tried making other things out of it.  I’ve also tried my hand at cottage cheese and ricotta.  Several recipes call for straining these dairy products.  Typically I use an old flour-sack tea towel set inside a regular colander for this.  But recently I ran across a yogurt funnel.  It’s a semi-circle of plastic lined with a fine mesh.  When you curl these up into a cone shape, it snaps together.  Yogurt goes inside, closest to the mesh.  Liquid falls through the mesh, catches on the plastic and is funneled down to the point where there is enough of a hole in the way the solid plastic curves together that it lets the liquid out.  Not only is this kind of thing good for straining curds; it is also the kind of thing you want when brewing loose-leaf tea. 


What's special in your kitchen?

To God be all glory.  

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Two Mites

The widow gave two mites to the Temple treasury while Jesus was watching. I've always thought about it as a sacrifice. But it's more. How inadequate and pointless must she have felt, dropping pennies into the donation pile? That woman had to have humility, a willingness to let God have the puny bits she could offer. And she had to have faith, that God being mighty and all, He could make good use of her mites. Loving God probably helps with all that, too.

Sometimes I'm tempted to be so ashamed of my own weakness and imperfection that I don't offer them to Jesus.  

And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury, and He saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites.  So He said, "Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had."
~ Luke 21:1-4

To God be all glory.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Place

Tonight I’m thinking about how I'm not sure what my life is accomplishing. But on the bright side, I just made bread without a recipe, and it seems to be working.  I just kind of scooped and sprinkled and dumped, with yeast and oats and whole wheat flour and a handful of bread flour and honey, chia and flax and butter and milk (no yogurt since the stuff I had didn’t smell quite so great).  It was a fun experiment.  Recently I heard someone saying they don’t like baking because you have to be too precise.  I tend to disagree.

How ought one to communicate that they're desperate for affirmation - as in, one cannot, on one's own, perceive how God is making good use of them?

And, having begun asking such questions, how does one communicate need for time, need for physical affection, need to be given things/provided for?

At what point does hunger classify as a need? Or just a desire? "I'd like a snack" vs. "this is getting unhealthy" vs. "if I don't get food soon, I'll probably die"? Because I can tell I’m hungry for those things that communicate love.  I feel the lack, see how I could be a stronger person if I had them.  But if I’m not in dire need, is it right to be so bold as to ask for other people to give me attention?  Is anyone obligated to give attention to my needs?  Is there any point where it would be right to be “demanding”? 

I've also been wondering, how do people keep going, who don't know God? How do they survive the loneliness? Is it possible to be intentionally more numb to it, by being less self-aware and more focused on, say, entertainment?

Or would it solve a lot of these problems if I was more others-aware? But then, can you really give, give, give when you feel starved?

I’ve been focusing on random things.  Is it worthwhile to know things like improvising bread without a recipe? The history of medieval Spain? The way that purple and blue and orange go together? How to teach cube roots?  The work of the Holy Spirit during the pre-Jesus days?  Maybe these things go together.  Maybe they’re good in themselves.  Maybe someday they’ll combine to usefulness for a different stage of my life. 

I read another quote from Anne of Green Gables today, but I can't get myself to agree with it: "I believe that the nicest and sweetest of days are not those which anything very splendid or wonderful or exciting happens, but just those that bring simple little pleasures, following one another softly, like pearls slipping off a string."

While my bread was rising, and earlier in the day, I searched Pinterest making fanciful plans to visit Scotland – or less fanciful ones to do an afternoon trip to Ft. Collins.  I am feeling restless.  I want to be beautiful and in beauty and seeing beauty.  I want to go places I’ve never been, and really soak them in – not just drive through.  I want to see old things, but they might make me cry if they’re abandoned, and so many old things are.  Who abandons *castles*, after all?  If you ever don’t want your castle, give it to me; I’ll see that it’s inhabited! 

What is my place? 

To God be all glory.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Creator Who Gives Being

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  And the earth was without form, and void…

One of the things I love about how God created the world is that He both created from nothing, spoke things straight into existence, – and also formed things.  This is something true of God.  He is abundantly powerful, and everything has its source in Him.  He is the Alpha.  And also, He is a God of life, of living and growing and progressing and moving.  He is the Omega, both Beginning and End.  He is the eternal I AM, but He created a world of experience - not just existence. 

When God created the world, He began a story.  When God created Adam, Adam was fully formed and when God breathed into him the breath of life, that is when Adam became a living being.  But God started with Adam a dominion, a mandate, a command, a purpose.  That purpose is being unfurled still, across the generations, covenant to covenant.  Each life is like this, too.  God forms us in our mothers’ wombs.  He begins our stories, and we don’t come into this life “finished” or complete.  Our purposes are yet unfulfilled. 

I don’t always like it, that God takes time.  That God begins with seeds that must sprout and grow and blossom before they bear fruit – that is hard for me to wait on.  But it is beautiful.  It is glorious in that we get to partake of imitating God, of acting and producing. 

These thoughts coalesced as I thought about Pope Francis’s recent comments about the nature of evolution.  I don’t know the intent of his comments; I’m pretty sure I disagree with some parts of them.  Maybe he was pointing out that even evolution and the big bang don’t have an explanation for the beginning of things.  But the concept of evolution: that things once started do tend to develop – this is not inconsistent with what we know of God.  He starts things that change.  “He created beings and allowed them to develop according to the internal laws that He gave to each one, so that they were able to develop and to arrive and [sic] their fullness of being,” said Pope Francis, “… [God is] the Creator who gives being to all things.” 

I don’t believe God started the world with the Big Bang.  I don’t believe He started humanity from a single-celled organism in a primal soup.  Maybe, though, the appeal is for all of us, evolutionist or creationist, to recognize this truth about our world as God has set us in it: that we’re progressing towards the end of the story.  And, as Pope Francis went on to say, “Therefore the scientist, and above all the Christian scientist*, must adopt the approach of posing questions regarding the future of humanity and of the earth, and, of being free and responsible, helping to prepare it and preserve it, to eliminate risks to the environment of both a natural and human nature. But, at the same time, the scientist must be motivated by the confidence that nature hides, in her evolutionary** mechanisms, potentialities for intelligence and freedom to discover and realise, to achieve the development that is in the plan of the Creator. So, while limited, the action of humanity is part of God's power and is able to build a world suited to his dual corporal and spiritual life; to build a human world for all human beings and not for a group or a class of privileged persons. This hope and trust in God, the Creator of nature, and in the capacity of the human spirit can offer the researcher a new energy and profound serenity…”

To God be all glory.

*I suggest this applies to humans, to Christians, and to Christian scientists; it is not exclusive to researchers (see Genesis 1:28)


**I am not sure whether in the context, the term “evolutionary” is exclusively referring to the scientific theory of evolution.  I am inspired only by the aspect of evolution in this definition: “any process of formation or growth; development”.

Monday, September 29, 2014

What Is Not the Boss

My little friend Prudence is 3 years old.  She's in the process of being potty-trained.  So the other night her mom told her to go use the bathroom.  She objected that, "My body isn't telling me I have to."  First, this is a necessary thing to teach children to recognize, when their bodies are telling them to use the toilet - and to get them to act on that and go, on their own initiative.  However, a much more important lesson came in my friend Amie's reply to her daughter, "Who's the boss?  Your body or Mommy?  Your body is not the boss of you."

Your body is not the boss of you.  We should absolutely be teaching children this.  And then, maybe when they're adults, they'll know it, too.

Interestingly enough, it rather aligned with the article by GK Chesterton that Prudence's dad read to us the same night.  In it, the author was responding to a critic who insisted that since his bodily impulses for pleasure were natural, they were legitimate.  The critic was also interested in pursuing these pleasures while preventing natural consequences of the actions.  Yet another valuable lesson.

Consequences are natural (and therefore legitimate?).

To God be all glory.