Sunday, June 30, 2013

Heroes and Villains

It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.’ Matthew 15:11

As a writer who concentrates on food and all its implications for our spiritual lives, it was impossible for me not to be interested in the recent story about Paula Deen.  For the sake of full disclosure, I don’t call myself a fan.  I have never bought one of her books or watched her show on the Food Network, never been interested in eating a burger between two doughnuts. 

Even so, I find much of Paula Deen’s story to be remarkable.  Having lost her parents at an early age and a marriage not long after, Deen struggled to support children and other family, all the while battling agoraphobia.  Her earliest jobs involved selling insurance, working as a bank teller and hanging wallpaper before beginning a catering business.  The business became a restaurant which turned into books followed by a TV show, then an empire of products and publications and food.  A true rags to riches story.

A recent controversy – concerning the disclosure of her diabetes and the type of food she markets – didn’t put so much as a dent in her enormous fame.  But a recent unearthing of statements Deen made about African Americans has created a storm that seems to have cleared away a considerable amount of her popularity and her brand.  Sponsors have dropped her and, though her upcoming cookbook had a long line of advance purchasers, her publisher backed out.

I find myself overwhelmed by the swirl of noise surrounding these events and it makes me reflect very soberly about human nature, ours as well as Deen’s. 

We human creatures love to build heroes and villains.  We crave champions to lionize and scoundrels to despise.  We create narratives that offer us these very things and we have done so for centuries.  There was a day when crowds poured into the coliseum to cheer gladiators who fought to the death, or to witness Christians and other miscreants executed in satisfyingly grisly fashion.  Our modern tales are less bloody, however.  In the 21st century, they take the shape of soap operas, professional wrestling and politics.

The drive to revere or to loathe – often with very little reason other than the gratification it gives us – has led us to make a lot of poor decisions.  Wouldn’t it be better to keep our heads?  To have rational, civilized discussion?  Such conversation might help us to understand how easy it is to drift into offense without intending it, or to miscalculate the weight of careless words on people whose backgrounds are vastly different from our own. 

I don’t mean to excuse words that should never have been spoken, or to make light of the pain such words can cause.  Derogatory language is never okay.  But if it can ever be forgiven, I think Deen’s situation presents us with just such opportunities.  Her pejorative words were spoken in a private setting following a traumatic event.  Her less-than-sensitive description of an African American man was an injudicious attempt to illustrate a trusting relationship.  I won’t try to explain away the beyond-terrible idea of hosting an event in which African Americans play the role of slaves.  I have simply heard the heartfelt apologies from Deen and I wonder if it isn’t time to say “enough.”

I realize that I will never fully feel or understand the hurt that racist language can cause.  I will never have such words aimed at me or be connected to the excruciating history that makes them so sharply painful even today.  I hope, however, this doesn’t preclude me from talking about it.  In fact, my prayer is that we will all move from quick judgment to a more measured conversation about these issues that separate us, that remain so difficult because of the very tensions that still exist in our hardly-post-racial society.

I am sad to see this controversy over Paula Deen.  I am saddened for her because I believe her heart is better than the way it has been portrayed.  I’m disappointed because most of us are too ready to call villainy in others, while focusing comfortably little on our own thoughts, words and actions.

I am sad mostly because we have missed yet another opportunity to have a desperately-needed conversation about race.  I think it would be so much more productive to talk about how words can hurt even when they are intended to be harmless, how history doesn’t disappear, how hard it is to see through another person’s eyes and how frightened we often are – deep down – by the differences between us.

I would like to see us slow down and bring more wisdom to the table.  It is a long-held maxim that we are what we eat, meaning that we are just as healthy as what goes into our mouths.  But Jesus reminds us that we are what we say, that our character is contained in the words that we speak for good or for ill.  May we choose them wisely.

Monday, June 24, 2013

At the Beach

On Friday, June 21, a devotional I wrote was published in The Upper Room devotional guide (click here to read it).  I was also invited to write a post for their blog, which I thought I would also share with you.  If you are a regular reader of my blog, you will already know most of this information.  But some stories are worth telling more than once!  I am deeply grateful for The Upper Room for printing my writing and for their ministry to people around the world.

As I write this follow up post for the devotion about riding the waves, my family is eagerly awaiting another trip to the beach.  We have gone to the gulf coast in Florida at the same time every year since I was small.  Now my husband and children and I do the same.  Ours is a special trip that connects us to family and the common history that we celebrate.

Every year, our beach trip is meant to coincide with a very special event in the lives of our family.  On the first Sunday of every June, there is a homecoming at a small church in south Alabama called Shady Hill.  Built on an unpaved road among farms and forests, this church has a long history in its community.  It is also a significant part of my family history, and its homecoming has served as a kind of reunion for my kin.  We have been going to it for as long as I can remember.

The homecoming has two particular elements that make it special.  Its main attraction is a Sacred Harp singing.  The shape note hymns are pretty unfamiliar to me, but its tradition is well established in south Alabama.  Though I was grown before I stepped inside the sanctuary to participate in the music, my family named the occasion by this special part of it.  The event was The Singing.

The other special piece to this day is the dinner on the grounds.  Served in covered dish style, much of the meal will have been grown in gardens and farms within a mile of the church.  When I was young, I loved to watch the cement tables fill, little by little, with the mouthwatering, traditional foods.  The meals I eat on this hallowed ground are still some of the best I ever have.

Our attendance at the Singing always comes with the family trip to the beach.  My children love to romp in the surf, my husband likes to snorkel, while I never fail to be amazed at the awe-inspiring beauty of the place.  We adore the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.  It has been a part of my grounding since I was small.  So nowadays when my family visits the gulf coast, as we roast in the sun and sink our toes in the sand, as we cook and sing and ride the waves, we remember our deeper connections to all of our kin, and to the One who makes beaches and music and family.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Getting Back to the Garden

You cause the grass to grow for the cattle,
   and plants for people to use,
to bring forth food from the earth.
                                     Psalm 104:14

I didn’t plant this year.  During the cold days of February as I was busy preparing for Ash Wednesday and making plans for the Lenten season, I wasn’t in the mood to get seed starter under my fingernails.  I lacked the patience to water dirt for weeks until something green finally chose to appear.  On my mind was also my terribly neglected plants of 2012, my weedy plot at our community garden, and the pots on my deck, abandoned way too soon.

So this year I didn’t try.  I have nothing growing. 

This decision was on my mind during our beach vacation, among my dear family, as we discussed that special annual event, The Singing.  I have long believed that the vast majority of the food there came from local farms and gardens, with occasional gatecrashing by some Kentucky Fried Chicken or grocery store potato salad.  I thought that the field peas and the greens and the pecans that filled sugary pies had all grown up nearby.  Turns out, I wasn’t quite right.

Certainly in years past, this had been the case.  When my grandmother and aunt Florence worked together to make our family’s contribution to the feast – having shut everyone else out of the kitchen – nearly all of their ingredients had come from either their own garden or other nearby resources.  Today, this is still probably true of a certain percent of the dishes that appear on the church’s cement tables.  And yet, I had failed to notice that this is not the standard it used to be.  While the tables still contain their share of fried okra and green beans (even the universal and wonderful deviled eggs), many people now make the choice that I did: to bring dessert.

For years, I chose cookies because they were easy to keep and transport.  Desserts are always popular and I knew what I brought was likely to be eaten. This seemed logical at the time, but now, I’m not so sure.  Lots of people have been choosing this option to the detriment of our waistlines and our gardening abilities.  There just aren’t as many farmers and gardeners as there used to be.  Lots of people still come, but they bring items that are easier to prepare with ingredients available in their local Food World.

It is hard to grow food.  There are a thousand things that can go wrong and many steps required in making them go right.  Plants are needy.  They require a lot of attention in the form of water, fertilizer, weeding and plucking off little green worms.   Few of us remember the length of time and the enormous work involved in preparing food before this age of convenience.  Previous to microwave dinners and brownie mixes, cooking for a family might be a full time job.  It isn’t surprising that folks aren’t keen on doing it the hard way.

Like many things in life, however, the hard way can be the good way.  A few modern conveniences are great, but laboring for our sustenance probably comes with plenty of character-building qualities.  And “eating off the ground” is generally considered to be the healthiest way to go.  What is grown in the soil comes directly from the hand of God.  While this doesn’t mean that everything in nature is edible, most of the things that we human beings have devised – from Mars bars to frozen pizza – are a sad choice compared to a peach or tomato.

So . . . as soon as I publish this blog post, my next act will be to place in some potting soil my first and maybe only plant of the season: a nice basil plant that I bought at our local farmer’s market.  And next year, when the time comes for The Singing, I will decide what vegetable to cook.  Maybe something from the garden.

Blessed eating!


Below is the recipe for what I hope will be my last dessert to take to Shady Hill Baptist Church.  Though it may not be out of the garden, it was really good!

Coconut, Cream Cheese and Caramel Dessert
Put pie crust in a 9x13 inch dish and brown.  Brown about ½ bag of coconut with a 1/2 c. of pecans and a little margarine in the oven.  Mix together:  1 can sweetened condensed milk, 8 oz. cream cheese.  Add 16 oz. Cool Whip and blend with a spoon.  Put one layer of creamed mixture over baked crust then a layer of coconut mixture.  Repeat.  Drizzle the top with caramel topping.  Refrigerate overnight. – Mrs. Bruley

Note: The coconut and pecans do not absolutely have to be browned.  For me they worked just fine plain after my attempts to brown them nearly alerted the fire department!