14 July 2008

Love, Your Belle

I write to understand as much as to be understood.
~ Elie Wiesel

In a recent reorganization of my boudoir/library, I came across Alexandra Stoddard’s classic book on missives: The Gift of a Letter. It was like finding a letter from an old friend and I eagerly picked it up for a re-read. One of the first points she makes is that in today’s fast paced, technologically overwhelmed society, a real, honest to goodness, handwritten letter still opens doors that emails and text messages simply cannot.

There are so few letters written today, in spite of the fact that almost everyone enjoys receiving a handwritten note in the mail. I have posted here before about letter-writing in general. This time, I am not talking about letter-writing per se, but one of the key virtues that is needed in order to be an excellent letter-writer: vulnerability.

Vulnerability is a much overlooked virtue, especially in 21st century, make-it-alone-or-die America. To write down one's thoughts in black and white is to expose one's soul. My scribblings here on this page are vulnerable to some extent ~ but there is still a layer of anonymity, especially for my readers who have never met me.

But a letter. A well-written, honest, completely open letter, between friends, between lovers. That is a window to the depths that lie behind walls that time and past hurts have erected in so many of us. And those walls were built very carefully. Put a window in!? Are you crazy!? Someone might see in! Or worse. They might not answer my letter.

I once read a quote from C.S. Lewis: "I do not pray because it changes God. I pray because it changes me." Letters have an analogous effect. Since I think in terms of words and outlines, notes and lyrics, putting pen to paper is a more effective way for me to communicate well. I do not write letters in order to receive a response. I write to express what is in my heart and to gather my too often scattered thoughts. Writing changes me. And if it changes or affects the recipient, so much the better. But I cannot control that end of the process.

Now, I admit that when I do receive a hand written note in reply, I am overjoyed and such an event is treated with fanfare and special attention. You may be sure that if you take the time to write to me, I will take the time to savor each word, each sentence ~ candles lit, music playing and no interruptions allowed.
Sometimes, when in the midst of composing a letter, I have no idea where it will end up. I may be regaling my reader with a dramatic retelling of an embarrassing event that happened that day or that week and by the end of the letter, I am musing on how that brought up old memories, or made me think of a loved one. There are times I think that I know where I stand on an issue, only to realize in writing my thoughts down, that my position is unreasonable or unsupportable or overly emotional.

But what about my readers who do not fancy themselves letter-writers? Never fear! One need not be Cyrano de Bergerac to write heart stopping prose. It does not even have to sound heart-stopping to you, the author. I assure you, even if you are the worst writer in the history of personal correspondence, the person who receives a hand written note from you will treasure it for years to come. Why? Because you took the time and the courage to open your heart and your soul and let them in. Does conversation do this? Of course. But not in the same way that a letter does.

If a friend and I run into rough spots in our friendship, as even the closest of relationships are wont to hit now and then, it helps smooth the way for reconciliation if there are letters in the possession of both that serve as a tangible reminder of shared joys and even shared tears. This happened to me recently and because I had no intimate shared correspondence with this friend, I found myself questioning whether there was even a friendship there worth fighting for. The end result is that the friendship has to be rebuilt out of ashes. In essence, it will be a new relationship.

So even if you are better at communicating in person, practice putting your thoughts and feelings down on paper. It will be appreciated by the recipient. The beauty of a letter is not in the style or even the script, but in the openness of the heart on the other end of the pen.

Vulnerability is indeed difficult and frightening. But it is not only worth practicing, I think that in some measure, we need to be vulnerable. Our heart cries out for it. To write a letter is an act of love in and of itself. And love entails risk. But anyone who has ever loved would admit that But despite the risk, despite the potential pain, it is worth every tear. As soon as the heart heals, it aches to get back out there. Because let's face it: we are built for self-gift and we will never be fulfilled or realize our full potential until we give ourselves completely and unreservedly to another.
Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

07 July 2008

The Art of Smoking: II

But I will place this carefully fed pig
Within the crackling oven; and, I pray,
What nicer dish can e'er be given to man.
~ Aeschylus

I promised you more about my smoking adventures on the 5th, but I was busy hostessing until the wee hours of the morning and then Sunday I was busy recovering, so part two had to wait to be written until today.

Success!! Not only did I have enough pork to feed everyone, there was even some leftover. Whew! I think this had more to do with the fact that the second pork butt did not (alas!) cook all the way through on the grill/smoker. So I had to finish it off in the oven at 350 degrees. That took awhile and everyone filled up on ribs, the other 8 pounds of pulled pork and all the Southern sides: fresh picked green beans, homemade coleslaw (you cannot have pulled pork without coleslaw), Vanessa's hamburger buns (which came out perfect this time!) and Cornbread Salad, a recipe I found over at Foodnetwork.
The salad was an unexpected hit. My friend Kathy took one bite and promptly asked for the recipe. So I have included it in the link above. I did not have all the ingredients and I am huge believer in using what you have. This outlook comes in handy when you are running low on time or want to conserve gasoline! Instead of pinto beans, I used garbanzo and instead of green peppers I used artichoke hearts. And for the first time, I used fresh tomatoes from our garden! That in itself was very exciting and soul-satisfying. We also had fruit salad, apple pie, chery-blackberry pie, chocolate torte and of course, gallons and gallons of sweet tea. ;-) The chicken never did make it to the grill.
Smoking meat is an involved art, but it was well worth the time, effort and expense to hear the satisfied "mmmmmms" of my guests as they chowed down on another delightful Southern culinary tradition.
Oh? You are wondering what happened to the chicken I bought? Sadly, it never did make it to the grill. It is happily marinating and awaiting a chance to shine at the next dinner party. Now where did I put my planner?
Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

04 July 2008

The Art of Smoking

Mustard's no good without roast beef.
~ Chico Marx

And a Fourth of July weekend is no good without pulled pork. So today I entered the mysterious world of smoking. Meat that is. I had never been in this culinary realm and so did as much research on it in the preceding weeks: Alton Brown, Bobby Flay, The Meatwave. You name it, I have probably read it. All the masters of the grill looked to pork butt as the cut to go with. So that is what I bought. Over 17 pounds of it. Like all my Southern female ancestors before me, I live in terror that there will not be enough food. In the South, it is practically a mortal sin. Even 17 pounds does not sound like enough for 25 people. So I also have a couple of racks of spareribs (both pork and beef) and some chicken.
Brining the pork butt beforehand also seemed the way to go, so when I got home late last night, I made up a brine of water, salt and molassas. I owe this new knowledge to The Meatwave and Alton Brown. While the salt was dissolving on the stove, I took out the pork to get a closer look and to take some of the excess fat off. Whew. I seriously need to sharpen my knives! I have never encountered such tough, hard fat on a piece of meat! Luckily, I did not want to take off all the fat, because you need some for flavor and to protect the meat during smoking.
Once that was done, the butt went into the brine and I stuck them in the fridge to sit overnight and moved on to make the rub for the ribs. Here I also took a cue from The Meatwave and followed his recipe almost to the letter. Only I didn't have cayenne and I didn't have mustard powder. So I used red pepper instead and hoped for the best. One of my housemates walked in while I was rubbing the spices into the meat and said that it looked therapeutic. Hmmmm. Not really. Kneading dough, now that's therapeutic!
This morning I woke up and set to work preparing the fire. This is very sad, but I must confess I had to call a male friend to get instructions on the best way to light the charcoal and keep it going. Once that was done, I checked the temperature until it was between 225-250 degrees, added the wood chips and then placed the pork butt on the grill. For the pork butt, I took matters into my own hands for the rub and made up my own consisting of black pepper, curry powder, garlic, chili powder and fresh basil and rosemary from the garden. I also added rosemary to the fire on one of the grills. I had a little trouble with the first grill. The temperature would not drop below 400 degrees for the longest time, but I put the meat on it anyway since I cannot be up until the wee hours. We shall see how that affects the meat.
More tomorrow!
Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

02 July 2008

A Crust of....Biscuit?

Food is not about impressing people. It's about making them feel comfortable.
~ Ina Garten, The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook

Thank goodness my friends have great senses of humor and a memory for past foodie triumphs. Both serve them well when I have either a disaster or mishap in the kitchen. And I love them so much, I give them plenty of opportunities to have a laugh at my expense. ;-)

Vanessa! Mea culpa! I do not know what I did wrong, but your beautiful hamburger buns became delightful biscuits in my confused yet capable Southern hands! :-D I was absolutely mortified. Here I was in charge of providing a suitable throne for Meg's oregano-infused hamburgers, yet no golden crusted buns appeared out of the oven. I showed them to Meg, saying oh dear, "these look like biscuits." Our Randy said, "Honey, those aren't something LIKE biscuits, they ARE biscuits!"

Despite their failure as hamburger buns, they proved to be delicious. And at least 5 of us opted to eat our hamburgers on a biscuit instead of the somewhat stale store bought versions we ran out and bought. I must say I am now a fan of the hamburger biscuit. Meg thought her hamburger would be too monstrous for just one biscuit, so she used two: one on top and one on the bottom.

As a cook, however, I am still determined to make Vanessa's Hamburger Buns actually look like Vanessa's Hamburger Buns. I confess I did not let the dough sit for 6 hours in the fridge as suggested. Was that my downfall? There is only one way to find out!

To Be Continued....

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela