Spaghetti Dinner

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This evening’s edition: rigatoni and ground beef with Mid’s sauce

Like chili or tacos, spaghetti is one of those dinners I regret I can’t serve more often. If I make spaghetti more than once a fortnight, I risk seeming lazy or obsessed. Since I seldom cook my own sauce, spaghetti is indeed an easy dinner for me to serve, aside from that moment of juggling pans as everything seems to finish at the same moment.

Here in the Midwest, spaghetti is actually two different things, a product or a dinner genre. The difference depends on whether you are buying or making spaghetti. In the grocery store, spaghetti is what you’d call a box of dried semolina dough that is cut to uniform length and ~2 mm girth. When you cook dinner at home around here and call it spaghetti, it could be almost any combination of tomato sauce, pasta and ground meat. Actually the meat is optional. If it is present, it may be crumbled or shaped into meatballs.

Spaghetti dinner has the rare quality of growing with a cook throughout a lifetime. It can be both a starter dish for a beginner or the signature meal of a master. I have made several attempts at creating a decent homemade sauce, but I end up with a bland but nice looking result, like a Penney’s catalog of cuisine. Since these efforts have not yet been worth the time I’ve spent on them, I usually buy a tomato sauce and add meat. My favorite store bought sauce is Mid’s, which is a bit pricey but has a much deeper tenor than typical jarred sauces.

Spaghetti dinner can be varied to the point of using a starch other than pasta. A few years ago, I tried substituting polenta for pasta, with favorable results. I can now make spaghetti dinner twice as often by disguising it as a polenta casserole. The next time I make this casserole, I will post its simple recipe. It is just a bed of polenta covered in meatballs and tomato sauce then topped with mushrooms and mozzarella cheese.

I just had a vision of making a chili variation on the polenta casserole.

That’s what I need to make next.

If it works, I have an excuse to cook more chili, which is even more satisfying than making spaghetti dinner.

This could be how tamales were born. They are a taco variant of the polenta casserole.

Church and State

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Time and again I hear the claim that the loss of prayer in our public schools was the first omen of the disintegration of American society, a portent of future decadence and inevitable chaos. When I hear such sentiments, I appreciate the ardor of the speaker’s faith, but I disagree with the argument. Keeping religion out of government and its agencies such as schools does not weaken this nation. The separation of church and state is among our best defenses against enemies both foreign and domestic.

When I was a child, I asked my mom why prayer had been taken out of public schools. She told me, “Who would choose which prayers will be taught? There is no guarantee that Christians will always be in the majority. Would you want your future children or grandchildren to go to a school where they must say that Jesus was just a prophet or that Buddha is a god?”

I am a Christian, but I believe that I would do wrong by my faith and this country by insisting that my religion inform our laws. Once religion becomes part of a government power structure, religious freedom becomes vulnerable to the whim of the changing electorate, and that electorate could vote away some of its freedom or security. Think of all the dysfunctional regimes who were powered in part by the restriction of religious freedom. Here are just a few of them: the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, the Taliban and now ISIS.

Adding a religion to government may seem to be a win-win situation, especially when that religion values compassion and the sanctity of life. In practice, we have imperfect people picking and choosing which fragments of that religion to uphold. People have tried to use the Bible to justify all sorts of cruelty, like homophobia, sexism and capital punishment. Whatever happened to “Do not judge, or you too will be judged”(Matthew 7:1)?

There is no promise that Christianity will hold the majority into our country’s future, and majority does matter in a democracy like ours. I don’t want to imagine how another religion could be used to justify oppression, and I do not need to tap into my imagination in this regard. Just think of how ISIS is using an extreme caricature of Islam to justify all manner of atrocities.

Sausage, Greens and Beans Dinner

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If my mother-in-law Fannie were alive today, she’d be 101 years old. She learned to cook in the wilds of Magoffin County, Kentucky, with no electricity or running water. She was a master cook who could make hog’s head as tasty as fried chicken. Many of her recipes are lost, as she hadn’t relied on written recipes for years before her passing. I think of the following recipe as a fast way to bring a touch of Kentucky to our dinner table in Ohio, and I hope that Fannie would approve of its flavor if not its convenience.

As with most of my recipes, there is flexibility in this one for changes. I’ve tried this recipe with kale or spinach instead of collard greens, with good results. Different beans may be used as well. Feel free to lower the salt content through using reduced sodium broth, etc.

Serves 4

  • 1 lb bulk breakfast sausage, such as Bob Evans Original Roll Sausage
  • 1 cup beef broth
  • 1 lb collard greens, chopped, or 2 14 oz cans collard greens, drained
  • 1 15.5 oz can pinto beans, drained
  • 1/4 t garlic powder
  • 1 t dried oregano
  • 1 T white vinegar

Crumble and brown sausage in a dutch oven. Add beef broth and bring to a boil. If using fresh greens, gradually add greens to pot and stir gently until wilted. If relying on canned greens instead, just stir them into the pot. Next add the beans, garlic powder and oregano. Simmer covered until the greens are tender and add vinegar.

Serve with cornbread.

Finding Balance

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Nearly two months have passed since I sprained my knee and began a hiatus from daily mindfulness about diet and exercise. In that time, I have seldom exercised beyond physical therapy and walking. I am pleased to report that I have not inflated in size and am enjoying a break from my workouts. This injury was not a setback but a call to balance. Looking at my Fitbit logs was starting to make me feel like I’d become something of a hamster running on a wheel, a daily grind whose reward did not justify neglect in other matters, such as the dust and unsorted piles of paper in my house.

I am emerging from this break thinking that I’ll focus on walking for exercise and do a harder workout once or twice a week. My sprain was an overuse injury, so higher impact exercise was not as helpful as I thought it was. If the price of all that intensity could be arthritis or a knee replacement in my later years, I would rather be walking, especially since that type of exercise seems to work best for me at controlling depression.

This week I recalled the moment that made me bold enough to believe I could walk away from a lifetime of poor body image, which was crucial to my later weight loss. Several years ago, I had a brief delirium during a bout with the flu. I looked at myself in the mirror and in that reflection was a hallucination of my body perfected. Instead of seeing a morbidly obese women with tangled hair, I saw a supermodel in that mirror. I have held onto that image ever since. Not long after that fever, I met the man who would become my husband, and I started slowly losing weight. How I thought of my looks made all the difference.

As I make less of a priority of watching my weight, I am not so worried that I will fall off the proverbial wagon. I am enjoying getting back to the kinds of things that can’t be multitasked so well with working out, such as writing. Even if I were to fail eventually with my weight, I have the comfort of a good body image that I’ve held so long that it would be unshakable even if I were to become super jiggly once again.

The Lamp

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When I was a child, many of my peers asked me a puzzling question, “Are you Death?”

Since they looked irritated rather than scared, I figured that they hadn’t mistaken me for the Grim Reaper. I certainly didn’t have the right girth, height or clothes to resemble the Grim one. The context of the question provided the clue for its meaning. It would be the answer to the second or third time I’d ask a child, “What did you say?”

I had a unilateral hearing loss when I was a toddler. Between having a good ear and getting three years of speech therapy, I navigated the world of sound fairly well except for problems with apprehending the words of others at times. Aside from the annoyance of being asked if I was Death, life went on. Some of my hearing errors in later years could lend interest to conversations if I told people what I thought they’d said. For instance, imagine if Bruce Lee Mania had once ruled Italy instead of Mussolini. Moving onto theology, is it exegesis or Extra Jesus?

At times this hearing issue has helped me parent my daughter. When I first heard the Calorad radio commercial, I told her that it sounded as if they were singing a jingle about cataracts, and I had her attention for a short lecture on the history of patent medicine from snake oil to The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994.

Recently I had an experience that informed me that I need to say aloud what I think someone has said if I have any doubt whatsoever of their words. One of my coworkers had mentioned several times that his daughter had entered a lamp into some sort of competition and that he’d be taking off work for her demonstration of said lamp. When he’d talk about this matter, I’d imagine that his daughter must be quite precocious to be entering a lamp she wired and designed into a science or engineering fair during her first few weeks of high school. Actually, she is a year younger than her classmates and is at the top of her class. I considered that the lamp probably had a paper thin LED light and was powered by some alternative form of energy.

When he returned to work the day after his daughter’s competition, I was ready to ask him how her lamp had fared and what sort of questions were asked about her design. Before I had the chance to ask, he told me and another coworker that he had pictures of the event. On his phone, there was a photo of his daughter at a county fair standing next to a lamb with delicate fleece fur.

At the risk of being asked if I am Death, I need to keep asking people what they’ve said or tell them what I thought they said, or else lambs will light the way.

Since When Does a Bathtub Cost $6,400?

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This week our bathtub cracked and leaked into two rooms. After we cleaned up the mess, my husband patched the tub, and we decided to shop for a new one. Step one was a home visit from a full service bath replacement business. The salesman tried to sell us a $7,800 bathtub on sale for the low, low price of $6,400. When my subtle attempts to decline the offer didn’t work, I told him that the only thing I’d ever bought for more than $6,400 was the car in the driveway. I also admitted that my washer and dryer were free. He laughed at me and suggested I was a thief. I told him, “No, I didn’t steal them. Someone no longer needed them and gave them to someone who did.”

Once this man left the house, I got to thinking that the bathtub situation reflects much of what I do not like about national politics. Find me someone elected to serve in Washington who wouldn’t or couldn’t buy a $6,400 bathtub. Either they’re bathing in something at least that price, or they are being lobbied or otherwise courted by someone who does.

The $6,400 bathtub people are out of touch with the daily choices of most Americans. They are baffled when we are generous with each other, such as when one of us gives away gently used furniture or appliances. They would rather keep us in constant class warfare so we don’t notice things like how much of our post-Recession economic gains went to the top 1%. It’s not so hard for them to stoke the resentment of the middle class towards the poor when our shrinking middle class is disproportionately burdened with funding entitlements. Unlike the rich and multinational corporations, they can’t afford to offshore or otherwise shelter significant amounts of their income from taxation.

Now that so many have slipped from prosperity, class warfare alone isn’t enough to keep us distracted, so all of the clamor over the Affordable Care Act has been useful to divide us further. It’s like Obama held a banquet at which he served universal health care, and the powers that be who dined on it shat out a long-wicked missile designed to drive prescription sales and resentment of the sick and poor. As they walked to their limos after that banquet, I imagine they joked that they could persuade the press and then the American public to nickname their mess after Obama. In attacking the ACA, they had the best divide and conquer weapon yet because through maligning it they could get us to resent anyone who needs health care. They want you to hate your fellow Americans, with your Lipitor prescription in hand, eager to eat the shit sandwich of self-funded health care.

As that salesman left this evening, he joked that I would never get anyone to give me a bathtub. I don’t want or need anyone to give me a bathtub. What matters is that I am the kind of person who would help give someone else a bathtub, just not a $6,400 one.

Tiny House and the Decline of Leisure

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A 500 sq ft house in my town that predates the Tiny House movement by about 80 years

This weekend I read an exquisite article on the decline of free time by Stephanie Buck entitled “Our parents discovered leisure. We killed it.” In this essay, Buck reasons that the rise of hobby-based careers has eroded the peace we once enjoyed through pursuing leisure activities. Now that some people have made a living through their hobbies, there is a pressure to make a profit from such activities.

I am part of Generation X, and this article helped me make sense of several culture changes I’ve witnessed over the years. Back in my day, some of us went through a Peter Pan phase of sorts in which we hoped to eke out a living by writing novels or releasing albums on indie labels like Sub Pop. I don’t remember hearing that anyone was hoping to throw over a profession like teaching or engineering to sell cupcakes or fusion tacos for a living, yet these sort of dreams are widespread now. I think the Tiny House movement is related to the decline of true leisure, too. Let’s downsize to the point where one can leave a disliked job and live off a monetized hobby, and that hobby could be selling the story of building and living in as super small house.

I think the Tiny House movement does have value, but I also believe it’s strange that people are pressured into monetizing that experience by blogging about it, etc. Tiny House is crucial because in that movement we finally have an antidote for something we call McMansion here in the U.S., where people built 4000+ square foot homes based on mass-marketed building plans just because they could afford to do so. I think of McMansion as the terminal point of the conspicuous consumption of the late 20th century. Other signs of this sort of consumption were skin-tight Sergio Valenti jeans, watches with solid gold wrist bands and sports cars like the Mazda Miata that had little muscle under their hoods.

Someone needed to stop this mania for buying more and more just to show others one could afford to buy those things. While it is regrettable that there is now an expectation that one should profit financially from a hobby, at least we are moving away from the trend of consumption and spending as a measure of success. It is possible that my grandparents’ generation (born in the 1920’s) had it best in striking a balance between work, leisure and consumption. I think of my paternal grandpa in particular. He worked on the railroad, never drove a car and helped raise five children in a 846 square foot house. His hobby was carpentry, and he used that hobby not for profit but to help furnish his home and give gifts. When I look at the bookshelf he built for me and my siblings, I hope I live to see an era where his sort of life would be considered a great success.