Friday, August 23, 2013

Tomato Line Dancing

Years ago, my aunt and uncle gave me a bushel of vine ripened tomatoes.  Those tomatoes were to be split between my brother's family and me.  But they had a new baby girl and my dad's needs were on the front burner; they didn't have time to deal with the little red beauties.  So.  Me.

I decided to make tomato sauce and freeze it.  No jars.  No little freezer containers.  I had none of that stuff and since it was likely none of it was coming my way, I settled on freezer bags, the pint variety.  I made the sauce in batches.  Not every tomato was exactly at it's peak and my pans were mid-sized. We could wait on some of that.

I cooked away.  I cut the tomatoes into quarters,  gently settled them into a cook-down, fished out the peelings, put them through a colander with cheese cloth to gather up the seeds, back into the pot.  I didn't even put in salt.  It was the purest, most sweet and succulent sauce ever.  Vibrantly tomatoey.

While the sauce was still warm, but no longer hot,  I gingerly filled the freezer bags and put them on the counter, letting them cool a little bit more before they were frozen.  That's where the problems started.

The stuff moves.  Like a dozen little red poltergeists.  The heat creates enough energy in the bags that the sauce rolls.  Imagine stacking your product on the counter, allowing it to cool over night, and then waking up the next morning and none of the baggies were in the same place.  They rolled all over the place.  A few of the bags opened up and spread tomato sauce all over the counter, all over the floor, on the stove (OK, that was me), and some of them broke open when I tried to put them in the freezer.

I wore a substantial amount of tomato sauce—my cheek, my arms, my pants, my t-shirt all had tell-tale patches of tomato.

The moral of the story:  when you finish one step in the cooking process, let the food cool before you move onto the next.  Patience is not only golden, it's probably sanity, not to mention—effectiveness.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

300 Kids and Me, All Week

Mornings last week I spent with 300 kids and 150 adults at Vacation Bible School at my downtown church.  Talk about controlled chaos.  The morning started off with raucous music, 300 kids singing at the top of their lungs, doing their superman poses, shrieking "Stand Strong."  About a dozen times in half an hour.  The kids were dancing in the aisles, using the Irish jig moves they'd learned at school.  Our pastor and our youth pastor were racing up and down the aisles, moving with highly playful dances, high-fiving the kids.

You didn't have to be there.  You could hear it six blocks downtown.

The first few days, the noise alone wore me out.  Our leaders had a really interesting and effective organizing strategy.  The kids were broken up into groups of six kids with an adult as a team leader, and if we were really lucky, an older child as an assistant team leader.  That way, every child had an eyes-on adult with them every step of the way.  The kids moved in age groups through a story time, a short animated video, a really cool crafts session, and some times outside to play.   The teachers stayed put; the kids moved.

Our church is a downtown church with a ministry to homeless people, sometimes people newly out of prison.  So,  safety and security strategies were taken seriously; but they were inconspicuous, i.e.  somebody had to accompany a child to the bathroom,  scope it out, then allow the child into the empty bathroom, and stand guard at the door.

I was lucky enough to have four sterling girls between 10 and 11, headed into 5th grade.  I was devastatingly impressed with them,  They were such smart, beautiful, well behaved kids, friends from school.  I will pray every day for them, but they have got such a handle on life at such an early age, I have no fears for any of them.  They were a little uptight at the first of the week; by the end of the week, they were dancing in the aisles, giggling, and laughing.  Their real selves were beyond delight.

My assistant team leader took the lead in getting the kids to the bathroom, of getting enough snacks for them, for getting their badges and their crafts.  Wondrous help.  Her shyness abated a little bit too.  We were safe for her.

Then there were the Two Little Boys.  When I volunteered to help, I decided to pay attention to the Vacation part of Vacation Bible School, that the goal was to assure that the kids had big fun.  So unless the kids were doing something overtly wrong: disrespect for me, other people, or each other, for starters, I wouldn't get in their way.  My assignment was to watch over each one of them and to use each child's name in a loving way every day.  

First  Little Boy was such a prince, getting his behaviors pointed in the right direction, from day one.  Then there was Our Little Guy.  He had an excess of energy and decibels.  Other team leaders knew him by his first name by the end of the first day.  But He had me by the first day too.  He had the ability to look at you with such love and tenderness, as if he understood every thing that had ever happened to you, could read everything that might happen to you.  He was the most loving of children.  So all week, when ever he shrieked too loud or ran ahead of us too fast, or raced to the snack table too quickly, he was guided with gentle words, with a touch on the shoulder, with a game.

Here was the payoff.  The Two Little Boys and I became fast friends.  We sat together a lot of the time; they snuggled in.  Once, they came down from the high seats in class to the lower seats, where we were, because it was more fun with us.  They would calm down during the skits and the wildly appropriate sermons from our two pastors, and get really comfy and quiet.  They were safe with me and my girls.

One of the flukish things that worked really well:  I picked up my camera from home and brought it, thinking that the kids were going to be really cute and we should get their photos.
True enough.  But in a flash of inspiration, maybe a God thing, I suggested that the kids could take as many photos as they wanted to take.  They took over 1,000 and the little cross at the top of the page is one of theirs.  Maybe we discovered some budding photogs, a great career for anybody who can't sit still.  

Our pastor came over to say high to each of the kids.  His presence overwhelmed them a little bit.  But he high-fived everybody and used their names in a beautiful, high-energy way.

They got something that they might not get so much in regular life.  They were adored and, within that kind parameter, they flourished.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Chicken, Collards, and Cassavas.

A city park.  A hot, lazy Saturday afternoon.  People bringing food in large vessels, food covered carefully so it would stay hot, food with a cultural history,  food that feeds the soul.

Cities everywhere, I think, have weekend picnics to celebrate their heritage and the places where their citizens came from.  That's particularly true in the West.  Because, of course, we all came from some place else. Our lineage here, in this pretty little city, only goes back a little over 150 years.  In fact, we are celebrating our sesquicentennial this year.  If you are unfamiliar with the word, I didn't know it either until it popped up in the news.

Hence, we have a German picnic, we have an Iowa picnic, we have a Scottish picnic.  We are all part of a large family, somehow, who traveled from some where.  The people who were here first were the Utes, who lived across the Great American Dessert in the West.  The rest of us came later.  My own family came West in the 1880s, one of the last families on one of the last wagon trains.  It turned out my ancestor was a philanderer, and his wife had had it.  The family went West, dad and 8 children; mom went East.  We don't know what happened to her.  We're what happened to him.

So yesterday, I was in our city park with people who came from somewhere else.  The Caribbean.  Island people.   I seriously fell in love with them.  They were gentle people of great strength and a shining integrity. 

I loved the men, who were the guys that if you were having trouble were the ones who came to help you without being asked.  Kid can't get the lid off the licorice canister.  A big guy come along and popped it off.  Tables not in the right place or in the right amount.  The men would be lifting and hauling tables.  A toddler who outran everybody.  No problem.  A guy came shooting out of the crowd, tracked him down, and brought him back to grandmom.

 I loved the kids, who were ever-so well-mannered and well-behaved.  The parents had brought games for the kids to play and they played them.  Nobody fussed, nobody cried, nobody pouted.  The kids were gorgeous, all boys, except for one young lady whose long, lean limbs and her beauty made her a stand-out.  She played in all the tag and chase games along with everybody else, up for big fun.  My favorite little guy wanted something from the dessert table, something still with a lid.  He asked.  That's right.  He asked if he could have some.  And there was the beautiful toddler.  He had me with those big, beautiful eyes.  

The women shared a deep sensibility of community, of faith and a blessing of the table, of laughing and talking, and sharing their truths.  The food was extraordinary: fried chicken, several kinds, rice and beans with delicate, exotic  herbs and spices, a potato salad with waxy spuds and sweet potatoes, celery, onion, and radishes in a creamy dressing, macaroni and cheese, home made with crusty, baked cheese on top, and my favs, the collard greens.  That and Marcia's kale salad with the cashews.  I got to taste cassavas, a sort of a sweet potato, except longer and leaner, with a infamously tough skin.  Those were peeled and fried.  Never had a cassava before, they won't grow here.

All in all, a really delicious afternoon.