The personal blog of Frank Lesko. Award-winning writer. Non-profit entrepreneur. Activist. Religious professional. Foodie. Musician. All around curious soul and Renaissance man.

See also my professional blog: The Traveling Ecumenist.

Monday, December 31, 2007

Feet Soup

To christen my bran new, 16-quart soup pot (with snug-fitting glass lid) that I got from my sister for Christmas, I decided to explore what my hog had available. I didn't get any meat-on-bone pork shanks with my pig (duh, its my favorite cut, but its another testament to my poorly managed pig purchase). I did get a few neck bones, and pigs feet. I decided to try out a couple of pigs feet. I hear they are full of fat and flavorful, and that is the right composition for soup broth.

Pork with either split-peas or white beans is one of nature's best soups. However, I can barely stomach them coming from a can. The taste of fresh beans doesn't even come close to canned. If you've written off these soups and your only experience has been canned, then I surely recommend you give it another try!

One of the hardest parts about buying meat in bulk that is that you are much closer to the life (and death) of the animal. I know where it was raised, how it was raised. I even knew the day it was being killed, although that probably happened before I woke up (thankfully, I didn't have to schedule the butchering of the animal). Its one thing to buy some cuts of meat at the store, but to buy a whole pig makes me feel much more responsible for the life and death of this animal. It causes me to take my decision to eat meat much more seriously and consider the life of the animal with much more respect.

I've been thinking a lot lately about life cycles. In order for me to live, I took the life of this pig. I do believe that meat is nearly critical to my diet. I tried vegetarianism, and it didn't work (I'll write about that at some point). I could reduce my meat consumption, but some meat is going to be there. It is hard to sit with this. It is hard to appreciate life when death is so much a part of it. How do you hold both life and death together at the same time?

Nature reminds us that death is a part of life, but in our idealistic world we try to treat them as separate experiences. Without hunters, deer will over-populate and starve. The end result is the same. If I don't eat meat, I am not saving an animal as much as I am preventing one from being born. But it wouldn't be right to use that as a justification for the cruelty of feedlot-raised animals. Most of us don't reproduce at every given moment with the notion that "some life is better than no life at all", and even if we did the earth is close enough to human overpopulation to keep us in check. But most of us don't support the wanton killing of anyone, either.

Thoughts like these went through my head as I held a pig's foot in my hand. There was hair still present in some crevices where the shaver must have missed. On one foot, there was a bright blue "brand", some kind of State of Ohio certification. There is a blueish mark on some of the bacon, as well, which must have been a colored spot on the pig's skin. Things like that bring home the reality of this animal's life.

How do you continue to value life when you have come to value death?

In this case, I value the death of the pig in order to value my own life. I hate to put it into those words, but there seems to be truth there.

It is hard to make soup broth without any help from MSG or artificial nitrates. There is not a single store-bought soup broth or bullion cube that I trust in this regard, even the organic "no added MSG" products (they can get away without including MSG as an ingredient because it is produced during the making of the food and technically not added separately, or it is a component of another ingredient--you tell me if that's fair or not). I think they all have MSG in them, usually disguised as "autolyzed yeast extract", "textured soy protein" or hidden under "natural flavorings" or "spices" (check this page, especially the chart at the bottom for MSG sources in food, cosmetics, shampoos, etc).

The easiest way to avoid this stuff is to make your own broth. I have a reluctance to make broth the standard way, though. Doing that would involve cooking meat, bones, spices and vegetables until all the flavor were boiled out. Then you throw out the solids and voila! you have broth to which you can add even more veggies, spices and meat to make soup. I hate throwing out food, so I try to do it all at once.

So I thought the pig's feet would be a good starting point and threw them in my 16-qt pot with some water and salt and was off and running. I let it boil for a good long while, since there were precious bones within and every ounce of nutrition I could extract from them would be wonderful. They were very fatty, with very little meat on them, but they helped to create a nice, gelatinous solution. After a couple of hours I de-boned them and threw the meat and fat back into the soup. My habit is to continue boiling the bones in another pan--when the soup is nearly finished, I dump this water back into the rest of the soup. The goal here is to boil the bones for as long as possible, and this way I can do so without having to worry about picking through bones when I'm eating the soup.

I also added a good dose of liver as well as a giant ham steak (the meat that would have been a ham if it were cured and smoked--its kind of pork-chopish as it is).

The rest of the soup is comprised of a whole head of cabbage, the obligatory onions, carrots, celery and garlic. There are also some yellow split peas which never seemed to soften, despite soaking for 20 hours and boiling for a few (this sometimes happens when beans have been sitting too long in the bulk section of a grocery store). Also threw in some potatoes. The cabbage and potatoes don't need long to cook, you can throw them in and practically turn the heat off of the soup at that point. They'll cook plenty in the hot pot. Overcooking just dissolves them.

Another thing we didn't realize is that a 16-qt pot full of hot soup doesn't cool very easily in the refrigerator. Despite being in the fridge over night, the soup was still warm in the morning. I hope that doesn't present any problems for spoilage. Also, my orange juice was also warm-ish this morning, as well. I think the fridge was fighting a losing battle with the soup all night.

Friday, December 28, 2007

On the Bible and the Role of Tradition in Religion

This is a response to the conversation by Erin and others in "People Often Talk About 'God As Love'" below, but due to sheer length I decided to start a new post rather than extend the comments.

When I consider the myriad of statements in the Bible about life after death or what salvation could mean or what it takes to achieve salvation and/or life after death (which are not the same, who says we need to be “saved” in the first place? Saved from what, exactly?), its hard to see how anyone could come away with a definitive answer for what "the Bible says." Faith traditions have certainly come to an understanding of what they believe in this regard, but to say that "the Bible says" and have one solid answer would not be reading the Bible accurately.

James says it takes "faith and works", Matthew 25 says its about loving the poorest of the poor, John 3:16 talks about the necessity of belief in Jesus, the first letter of John goes back and forth talking about belief in Jesus and then it talks about how God is really love and the extent to which we love is the extent to which we are close to God (or something to that affect). And the list goes on and on. Paul suggest further journeys after death, I believe.

A lot of people have worked really hard to reconcile all of these together into one definitive statement, but they are really irreconcilable.

Religion is all about human limitation--trying to see the Divine through a foggy glass, as Paul says. The Bible is included in that--it is a foggy glass, trying to show you something, but it is hard to put into words. It is trying to point to something, over there, just beyond the horizon. As a reader, you are asked to do your fair share of the workload, because it won’t spoon-feed.

Religion is important in my opinion because it is a collective experience of God, passed down through the centuries. It is not just my own experience of God and my own interpretation, but it is the experience and interpretations of countless people through the centuries. Together, a living and always-evolving portrait of God is developing.

You can see this evolution in thought in the Bible. In the Old Testament, God is more vengeful. Moving on through Isaiah and the New Testament, God is much more loving. However, you can see the loving nature of God in the OT, as well. I really am undecided as to whether God changes much or not, as Process Theologians would say. But I do believe that what we are seeing in the Bible is more of the evolution in human understanding of God than the evolution of God.

So much of what we believe as Christians today is considered "later theology." In other words, there are ideas in the Bible that after thinking and meditating on for centuries we have taken them to a level possibly never even intended by the Bible authors. Did the early apostles really understand Jesus as God incarnate? I think they took his statements and actions and put them together, and 2 + 2 got them 4, but that was after going home and thinking on it a spell.

There is nothing wrong with this. Religious thought has always been in evolution. All too often, we have an assumption that there is something wrong with religion because it does not give us a static answer, but if you consider that we are meditating on great mysteries of the Divine, then how we know anything at all is the biggest mystery of them all!

The Bible is a not a book of answers. It is a book of questions, suggestions, stories, observations, and some advice of some very good people who have come before us. It includes some of their answers, as well, but for us to read that looking for answers for ourselves would be the wrong approach, in my opinion. It is a living document that demands our own interpretation today and which we have to come to an understanding about. It is important to consider the conclusions of past generations, though, but not to rely on them exclusively.

I don't think God appeared to Moses and had a conversation and gave clear indicators about what he's all about or hard fast rules to follow. Those people who hold onto that seem to base their faith on the testimony of past generations. That is not what faith in God is all about, in my opinion. That is faith in Moses. Faith that Moses was telling the truth and that the truth is recorded in the Bible. The people during the Bible times didn't have any more "experience" of God (probably) than we do. They were all trying to make sense of this world with sometimes faint, sometimes powerful, sometimes mysterious experiences of something beyond themselves that they tried to put a framework around to help later generations understand what they themselves were trying like hell to understand. Its all of us fumbling about in the dark. However, as Dr. Finan says at ODU, the basic assumption of theology is that we believe there is a God and that we can actually know something about this God.

We’re all in the dark, but if we form a human chain then I can feel this wall and you can feel that wall back there and we can communicate our “findings” to each other and somehow or another we can put a picture together that we otherwise would have a hard time doing by ourselves. It is like “the blind men with the elephant” story characterized so well in the blog of mysticalseeker . . . Religion is truly the “blind leading the blind”, but we are still better off together than by ourselves!

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

People Often Talk About 'God As Love'

People often say that God is love. They describe a God with so much love, who expresses love as such a totality of being and action that love is at the root of what it means to be God. The concept of God as love is expressed in the First Epistle of John in the New Testament, and the idea is present in much of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

It is worth exploring where this comes from theologically speaking. It may be hard to think of God as love if you have difficulty rationalizing an anthropomorphic God with human emotions. Is this just a whimsical notion? A trite, over-simplification? (and who is to say that "whimsical" is not a gateway to the Divine!) It feels good to think of God as love, but where does that idea come from?

I see the relation between love and God when I look at God as Creator. God creates. Look around you. Look what's there. Its created. God makes stuff. God brings life into the world. I think it is therefore fair to say that "life-giving" is a qualitiy that is very God-like.

If you sit back and think about what it means to be "good" or "evil", your definitions probably resemble something like this: Killing is "evil" because it takes life away. Charity is "good" because you can save someone from suffering, perhaps even save a life. You would probably assign the label of "good" to actions that support and promote life, and "evil" to the opposite. You would probably do the same with the word "love": Love supports life, evil the opposite. Something is "bad" because it hurts someone (it is worth pondering whether human conceptions of "pain" and "suffering" are truly negative from God's vantage point, or whether they are simply another way of experiencing life which may benefit us later).

This may be a very moral view of theology. Others may see a relationship with God in more covenant terms, i.e. God has rules that may be hard to understand--in fact, they might be completely arbitrary. Yet, keeping the commandments is therefore considered "good," and breaking them "evil." I hold a more "moral" theology (I'm not sure if there is a better word for it than that) in that I find the Godliness in the goodliness of the world. That which is "right" is that which is "good", i.e. that which supports and enhances and promotes life. Therefore, something like homosexuality is not "evil" because there is no inherent negative impact on the world. In fact, there is a positive impact. Homosexuality is people in relationship, and how people act in relationship is more important than who they are in relationship with. There is no reason to believe that a man loving a man brings any loss of life to the world in any sense. In fact, it offers more opportunities for the giving and receiving of love, so it is a good thing--it is better to have homosexuality than not to have it.

My moral compass is "life," and what is good for life I believe to be good for God. Why? Because life is very much important to God. God is a creator of life. That's a key attribute: God the Creator. I hold that the act of creation itself is an act of love. To bring life into the world is to love. Just compare the act of creation to the definitions above for "good" and "evil"--Creating is life-giving, and giving life is good, and goodness in action is love. So God the Creator is a model of love. That same swirling, creative, myterious energy that gave us life and which gives us life today is something we can share in as we co-create in our world today. When we are loving, we are creating and we are sharing in this creative energy of God.

This is why love is key: The extent to which we can love is the extent to which we share in this thing called God. When we love our brothers and sisters, we are doing what we can to support, nurture, protect, enhance and promote the life around us, which is what God does when s/he creates life. This ranges from protecting the physical life of someone to promoting their well-being, joy and fulfillment. That whole range of activities is life-giving. When we do this, we are co-creating with God. When we see this universe around us, it is very much created by someone or some thing that is life-giving--by definition. And we tend to think of life-giving as good and loving. So here we are: God is love.

God also created a world where people die and in which evil is all-too-possible. Does this rob God of the identity as being love? I don't have the answer to this. "Process theology" would hold that God is not necessarily all-powerful, and this would give God an out here. God is the force that brings life into the universe, but what the universe does with it is another story. But what I do know is that when we support life, we are co-creating with God, the wondeful life-giving force that created this universe.

The Pig & I

If you were to tell me I was crazy for buying a whole pig just weeks after stocking my larder with a half-cow, you wouldn't get any argument from me. This whole ordeal has been mismanaged from day one, but it turned out okay in the end.

It all started when I went a-searching for bulk meat at a local farmer's market. I browsed around for a while and ended up talking at length with a pig farmer from Marion. I gave a verbal agreement to buy a pig and offered to mail in a check. He told me not to worry about it, since the demand for their meat was high right now. I got the impression that if I didn't pony up there would be other takers. So I was fine with that. In the weeks afterwards, my cow came in and I was knee-deep in beef livers and rump roasts. Suddenly, the phone rings and I'm told my hog is "getting ready," and they are anxious for my payment. Very anxious. Apparently, they aren't that happy with verbal agreements, and they guy who made that arrangement was given a talking-to.

I had the grounds to walk away, but against my better judgement I caved to their pressure and bought the pig. Then came the conversation with the meat processor (even though I bought the meat in Columbus and the pig was from Marion, the meat processor they use is located at least a half-hour's drive in the opposite direction in Galion, but who's complaining). They were set and ready to smoke my pig with nitrates from top to bottom, until I pulled in the reigns. I told him I bought a "naturally raised pig". The guy told me that's true for the way the pig is raised, but he needs to use some chemicals in the processing. It seems too obvious to have to come out and say that that defeats the purpose, but there I was. The guy gave a long argument about why nitrates/nitrites are essential to the production of bacon and that they aren't that unhealthy in the first place. I'll consider those points for the future, but for now I'm going-all natural.

My pig does not meet anywhere near the same criteria for quality that the cow has. It was raised on non-organic corn and beans, rather than pasture fed. Pasture-fed pigs are quite rare these days. But there was a time when pork was a red meat instead of the white/gray color it now has. That has everything to do with diet. It is kinda like the way farm-raised salmon has to be artificially colored pink, because the diet they are fed won't give the pink color they have in the wild. (Don't believe me? Check the label next time you buy salmon, and it'll say something like "pigment added".) Pasture-raised pork is red, grain/bean-fed is white. But overall, my pig was well-raised and hopefully had some pasture time. I don't remember all the specifics, but I remember that the way it was raised was pretty good. The meat and processing are still of a high quality compared to the garbage in conventional grocery stores. Driving 1.5 hours each way to get the pig wasn't very fuel-efficient, either (not sure how that compares to the fuel usage of store-bought pigs, though).

Because of my insistence on not getting any added nitrates or nitrites in my meat, I took everything as plain as can be. That includes the bacon. Although I can't really call it bacon. Without the curing and smoking process, bacon is just really a lump of gristle. By itself, it cooks into a grey rubbery band of fat in the pan. I got packages of what looks like bacon, but its called "fresh side" and its the unprocessed meat. Bacon is really quite the invention, and it takes some work to make this "fresh side" look and taste like what we know of as bacon.

First, the side is packed in salt and "cured", often for several weeks. The salt sucks moisture out of the meat which condenses the meat and thus the flavor. It is also packed in sugar, as well. After that, it is coated in nitrates/nitrites and smoked. Even in traditional times, the nitrat/ites have been present in the smoking of bacon in "saltpetre". Without it, the meat would spoil in the worst possible way (botulism) while it is smoked.

What I got looks and tastes in absolutely no way like bacon. Seeing bacon in its natural color and shape may make you re-think eating it if you have any aversion to fat. However, I took some of this fresh side and threw lots of salt and sugar on it and left it in the fridge over night. In the morning, it cooked up nicely and after a while even took on a crispy, bacon-like coating. I'd go as far as to say it tasted like bacon. Some say you can't get a bacon-y taste without the smoking, but I think I did alright. The only problem was that it was beyond salty. I needed to throw out the salt that it was packed in. Other than that, I think it was fine.

In other news, I took packages of ground pork and loaded it up with spices to make sausage patties. Salt, pepper, paprika and a clove of garlic started it off. My mom and I had a good time with this. We also threw some "Italian Seasoning" on some of them (Erin's recommendation) and they turned out great. The meat was fresh and tasted great. Never knew sausage could be so easy, just one more item they make you think you can't make on your own, but it was exceptionally easy.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Newton's Laws of Emotions

Newton's Laws of Physics offer us a great way to understand emotions in our lives. 'Energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transferred from one form to another.' This is how emotions work in us, as well.

When someone hurts you, for example, you are a changed person. Energy has been directed toward you. It has an 'equal and opposite reaction' in you. You can't wish it away or pretend it is not there. Their action has led to a reaction in you. Let's say that reaction is anger. If you try to ignore it, that anger will nevertheless still be there. It will probably eat away at you. Your need to squash it down in order to conduct your daily business will impact your ability to share emotions in other spheres of your life, because it takes energy to hold it back. The only option for your health is to find a way to release it.

One of my favorite songs is Van Morrison's "You Don't Pull No Punches, But You Don't Push The River." The wisdom in the title of the song follows much of what I'm saying about Newton's Laws: Energy can't be pushed or forced completely contrary to its nature. The energy we are talking about can be a particular emotion (like anger) or the overall flow of your spirit. That doesn't mean you give up and quit working hard in your life. i.e. you don't pull any punches. We are more than creatures of impulse. Just know what you can and cannot do.

You can't push a river. Imagine jumping in the Cuyahoga and trying to push against the flowing current with your hands. It is asurd. What you can do is channel the river.

The best way to handle anger is not to unleash it on whoever happens to be in your vicinity. The anger is a river, and it must flow. You can direct that anger toward a punching bag or maybe write about it in your journal. You can scream at the top of your lungs or go for a run. You can participate in healthy conflict resolution with other people, which will effectively resolve the anger while at the same time not passing it on to someone else. That often involves going directly to the person who has hurt you and talking out your feelings in a calm manner. One way or another, that energy has a force of its own and must be dealt with--or it will deal with you.

Like Newton says, you can't create it or destroy it. If you make someone else angry, you are most likely transferring your own anger to them, or triggering some of their own hidden anger. You are turning their love into fear, which begets anger. This is why violence and all evil is a chain reaction. One person's hurt compels them them hurt another, which in turn causes that person to lash out at someone else. This continues until someone breaks the chain by turning that anger back into love. Christian tradition has had an intuitive understanding of this in seeing Abel as the source of violence in the world. Its as if people knew that violence was an unbroken chain, and someone had to have been the first to set it in motion.

In a likewise manner, we can't simply will ourselves to change our very nature. I have seen this countless times when people have tried to impose a rigid system of morality on themselves only to "relapse" and fall completely to the opposite. You are who you are. You can't--and shouldn't--try to change yourself to your core. What you can do is cut yourself some slack. You are God's creation and remember God said that you are "good." This doesn't mean that we go through life abdicating responsibility for the consequences of our actions just because they are "in our nature." Like I said earlier, we are more than creatures of impulse. The point I am making is that whenever we are able to "do the right thing" in this life, I think it is wrapped up somehow in working with our nature rather than completely against it.

The good news is that love is an energy, just like anger. I have found that the energy of love is much more subtle, but more more powerful. Its like slow cooking rather than flash and burn.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Loan Sharks

There have been times when I have decided to gamble against the 'powers that be'. I would apply for one of those 0%-interest-for-a-year credit cards. I figure I could hold some of my credit balance there, giving me enough time to pay it down without accruing interest. Its a risky venture, since we all know what can happen: After a year's time, you end up still broke and now your 0% interest has turned into 22%. By the time you are able to transfer balances again (if you even have the option), the credit card company has made more on their part of the gamble than you saved. You: 0. The System: 1.

People have often warned me against trying to play against the system like that. Its not financially wise to gamble in that manner.

However, we all play that game every time we interact with our regular bank. One bounced check At Huntington National Bank recently cost me $34 and change. Plus $7 a day until I had my balance up to zero.

Did it really cost them anything? All they had to do was simply not pay the check, and as long as other banks weren't changing fees, then my bank wouldn't have to, either. I also have to ask: Why do I suddenly have to owe my bank for a debt that is between me and another party?? Its really none of their business. I can't imagine it takes them any longer to process a check returned as "paid" than one returned as "unpaid."

You can (rightly) claim that this is simply (one way) how banks make their money. When you apply for "Totally Free Checking," you are essentially playing against the system no different than if you were applying for a limited-term, low-interest credit card. Banks are making their money. The matter for a gambling man is that you have the chance to beat the system. Or lose drastically.

You could also argue that this is a fair system, in which the vigilant and "responsible" can get away with a free checking system while those who mis-manage their money pay for the rest of us. I find it harder to sympathize with a system based on exploiting the vulnerable. Anyone who has been through some rough spots in life can tell you that even the most vigilant of us can fall onto hard times. And when hard times fall, its not just a downward slide, but rather a decline more akin to exponential proportions. If someone has enough financial problems to the point that they aren't able to pay their debts on time, why in the world do you think they have the financial resources to pay additional fees and penalties on top of that? It can become one hell of a snowball effect. Its uncomfortable to think that the "totally free checking" service taken advantage of by business execs and others well-to-do is a service paid for by single parents and others struggling to keep their heads above water who pay fees when they have the least amount of resources to do so.

I'd rather banks compete. I'll take a checking account with a yearly service fee in lieu of penalties and fees for overdrafts. What would a checking account cost with all fees up front like that, with each participant paying an equal share? How much less would banks make if they had to compete out in the open like that?


Its bad enough that banks are taking my money and investing it for profit without sharing any of that earned interest. Ok, so most of us don't keep much of a balance on our checking accounts, but still, I'm sure the banks use what they got.

In the end, a responsible person needs to do what they need to do to survive. If that means becoming more financially savvy, then that's what needs to be done. But somewhere along with a tough line of personal responsibility should be some compassion, as well. Do we really want a system where those who make mistakes pay the share for the rest of us? It seems like we can do something better than "survival of the fittest". I'm all for people paying for their mistakes and making good on it, but when you consider bank fees, you are looking at someone paying a lot of money to some middle-person (the bank) just because they didn't have their ducks in a row.

We live a society where there is considerable pressure to maximize our consumer spending and our credit. People are responsible for their own decisions, but they are also vulnerable, too, and we can get hit at different stages of our life and education. There are times when you just don't know better. If we were not so vulnerable to this pressure, then the advertising and marketing industries would not be so lucrative. So its a trap: We know people are going to overdraw, and we penalize them when they do.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Its So Easy

Despite having passionate environmentalist ideals, it has only been recently that I have actually started to recycle on a regular basis. Looking back, it seems astonishing that I didn't start earlier. I think this is a common phenomenon for many of us.

The real kicker is how easy it is to recycle. I just have two bins of trash in my kitchen--one for recyclables, another for other trash. You don't have to separate your trash any further. A decade ago, recyclers were asked to separate metals from cardboard and to further sub-divide plastics based on the number of the plastic (the number that is inside the triangle). Even as recently as a few months ago, Columbus, OH, was only accepting plastics #1 & 2 in their public recycling bins. Now, they accept all plastics.

All I do is rinse out plastic bottles, cans or whatever and throw them into the bin. When its full, I haul it to one of the hundreds of neighborhood drop-off locations, dump it in and go. Most of them are at schools, fire houses and other public, easily identifiable locations. That's it. You do need to find out what your city or town offers.

I can't believe I didn't recycle before. I think I never knew how to do it--do I sign up for curbside recycling, do I separate trash a multitude of different ways, etc? It was just laziness.

Between composting in my backyard and recycling, I hardly ever throw out much trash, anymore. It is actually shocking when I see people throw out easily-recycled materials such as cardboard boxes or stacks of paper at work. That was me, not too long ago. Its the kind of thing that makes me cringe now. I would not be surprised if we don't have to separate out our trash at all, in the future. There may be ways to pick out recyclables out of all of our trash. I have no idea when or even if that will happen. Its a bit easier to mechanically sort through relatively clean recyclables of different material composition than sifting through piles of rotted and filthy garbage. Right now, we can easily do the work ourselves.

It just didn't involve a radical change in my lifestyle at all. I now have one very small additional errand that I run, and I have to be aware of what I'm throwing out and where. However, there is virtually nothing to it.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


My apologies for some unsubstantiated assumptions in this blog. In previous posts, I have been rather sharp in my boasts that I eat organic foods and still have an overall food budget cheaper than the average bear. I was shocked when I tallied up my grocery totals from my credit card statement. The numbers are frightening, surprising as well as embarrassing: For the months of October and November, I spent approximately $450 each month at the grocery store!! That does not include my 1/2 cow (or pig, which its on its way) nor does it include restaurant expenditures (which were actually low, but would still add another $30-50 per month).

I seriously don't know where the money goes. Or went. Its gone. I still wonder if there is some kind of mistake, because that's outrageously high just for groceries.

This does not refute the actual cost of certain recipes quoted in previous posts--those costs are very real. Somehow, someway, though, my overall food expenditures went through the roof and to parts beyond. Its easy to see how a chip habit could run me an extra $20 or so, but when I'm hundreds of dollars beyond where I should be its obviously a problem greater than just one or two guilty pleasures. Its something more systemic.

In response, I am watching my spending more closely, and careful to put myself on a plan that is easy to follow, nutritious, delicious and economical (my favorite food criteria).

Here's a rough sketch of a daily plan:


Piece of fruit (costly, but important) $0.50-$1.00


Oatmeal with some whole sugar. I often add some berries, which are also expensive but worthwhile. $0.10-15 for the oats plus about $0.20-80 for a handful of berries. Let's estimate $0.30-$1.00. (Its amazing how a 10-cent bowl of oats becomes 8-10 times more expensive just by putting in a handful of berries!)


Trying to perfect Beans & Rice. They seem like simple foods to make, but hard to get just right. I like Cuban Black Beans which have onions, garlic and hot & mild peppers cooked with plenty of seasonings and bacon grease. Chipotle-Style Rice usually has a touch of salt, cilantro and lime juice. Can't be more than $0.50-$1.00 per meal for all this, and that's over-estimating.

A dish like that can be topped off with some fresh tomatoes. Let's give that another $0.50. I dunno.


My chicken soup would be about $2.00 for a large meal.

Considering my cow and pig, there is plenty of room for roasts and casseroles. I made Fighting Irish Potatoes and Liver the other day. Keep in mind that root vegetables and standard soup stock ingredients are rather cheap. Load up your crock pot with turnips, carrots, onions and potatoes. Find time in your life for beets!

Eggs, hash browns and some whole-wheat toast could be made for $1.00-2.00.

Burritos are an almost daily occurrence in my diet, as well. I like Trader Joe's whole-wheat shells.

Chili should not be forgotten.

I think I can do anything on this dinner list for $1.00-2.00 per serving.


These are harder to estimate, mostly because I don't have a handle yet on costs and quantities. I drink only juice, water, milk, tea and coffee. I haven't had a carbonated beverage on purpose for probably over a year (had some sips both by accident and out of necessity recently). My rough estimate has $30/month for all this.


Cooking oils and spices--not included in this list, although I'm sure their cost adds up. I buy a bottle of olive oil every 2-3 months.

By no means is my diet this simple, but the goal here is to center my food around simple, cheap, organic ingredients like oatmeal, beans & rice, eggs and potatoes. The prices quoted above are for organic ingredients. Worst case scenario has it at $180/month. Add another $66/month for the cow and pig. Not exceptional, but not that bad.

The next step is to be careful not to exponentially increase the cost of a meal with expensive sauces or other, perhaps unnecessary, ingredients (there isn't a sauce in this world you can't make at home). If I'm going to lay down some higher bucks, its going to be for a good cause like whole fruit or meat.

Since starting this "diet", my overall starchiness has increased. I'm not sure how I feel about that. However, more than 50% of grains are whole (some days it's 100%). I also have beans almost daily and sometimes more than once. That is a big nutritional plus. Fruit is almost daily as well, including berries, which are at the top of the nutritional ladder. Meats are organic and (primarily) pasture-raised. The fruit as well as the occasional salsa or tomato salad help me get something raw. Buying the whole cow and pig has also stocked me with plenty of soup bones and organ meats. I'd say this diet covers much of the nutritional spectrum. I'm a little light on the green leafies.

I'll keep you "posted" how it goes. I enjoy perusing the local organic co-op and cooking so much that its not hard to come home with a big bag of vegetables ready for some new recipes. But I also like the challenge of doing it economically, as well.

Old Folks and Mission Trips

I was going to write a response to the comments by Erin (and others) in a number of posts below such as "Good Religion", "Karate Kids Explains Liturgy" and "Invoking Nazism", but thought it was worthy enough for a post all of its own.

What does it mean to be “church”?

Do I pick a church based on finding a community of people I generally agree with or people I generally do not agree with? Do I find a place that I can help grow or one which will help me grow? Conflict in any community is inevitable, and you can't grow if you are only around people you agree with, but its also hard to practice a faith among people you are completely at odds with.

In the recent Catholic past, you often stuck with the faith you were born into and very often the Church told you which parish to go to based on geography. In some ways, I like that system. You work with what you got. You build church where you're at. That makes a lot of sense to me, since I have trouble finding other criteria to pick a church.

Some people believe that "church" is the people you interact with in your normal life--work, school, neighborhood, family. They may not understand driving 30 minutes across town to another parish if there is one at the end of your street, regardless of denomination. Others may prefer worshipping with people they do not otherwise see in "regular" life—being removed from your daily routine, they can give you an outside perspective.

Fr. Ron Atwood (St. Francis Parish, Columbus, OH) told me to dig in and get into a parish, because that is where the world is, not just people I agree with (that by itself is an interesting concept, because many people would say they go to church to congregate with like-minded people as a refuge from the world!) Maybe it is a matter of balancing parish life with small-group activities like a Bible study or outreach group where the temperament and beliefs are more akin to mine.

I have found church in a couple places throughout my life. Growing up, I have the fondest memories of the old folks at church. I hung out with my mom at the Quilting Bee, running back and forth to play in the old church attic with my sister. I remember helping my family clean the pews after mass and set up booths outside for the annual Chicken Dinner. I have a wonderful image of my grandmother sitting among the church ladies peeling potatoes and telling stories. Those are some of the best people I have ever been blessed to know. I remember that wonderful feeling leaving mass, with the organ still playing in the loft and the summer sunshine of a warn, Sunday afternoon.

I found church again (or better said—church hit me square in the eye) as a senior in high school. I went on a week-long service retreat. I spent a week in deep community prayer, service to the poor, and community living. My life was changed forevermore, and I still think of my life in pre/post Nazareth Farm, WV, terms. I have since sought out mission trips, community living and outreach to the needy as both a vocation and how I like to spend my free time. I have really found my faith in those “mountaintop” retreat experiences and in the out-of-the-way groups like the Catholic Worker. Simply attending mass may be dull for the average Catholic, but the faith on the margins of the Church is jaw-droppingly powerful.

Fr. Atwood also suggests that truly experiencing parish life means actually attending on a regular basis. Going to a church service 1-2 times makes you a spectator, not a living part of a parish. Some of the greatest joys of parish life are only really experienced in the week after week, year after year belonging. In that, parish life may not be so dull at all.

Perhaps I’m answering my own question in that “church” is some sort of blend of all of the above criteria. But a few things are for sure: The era of your grandparents church is winding down, as Fr. Atwood says, with Quilting Bee’s, church-made pierogies and colachi (nut rolls--my family pronounces them "co-LAH-chee", but I've never see any kind of spelling out there that resembles that), beloved but fading traditions. The ethnic churches of the Catholic past are still strong, but only for recent immigrants, just like they were for my grandparents. Church is also rarely the “huddled masses” of the tight-knit, early Christians who risked persecution. Today, church seems less about the fabric of your life and more about an extra-curricular club you join. Church is seen as an option rather than something that everybody does. At least, that's how it is in my neck of the woods.

In this discussion, I see a couple of different models developing: There is the family/neighborhood arrangement, where church is woven through your life. There is the detached support group model, where people gather to retreat and regroup. There is the more mission-driven approach of a tight-knit, closed community. There is parish life with extra-curricular groups within, and there is church itself which is an extra-curricular activity to the rest of life. Are there others I'm missing?

I still do not know why I have been unable to re-join parish life again. There are good parishes in Columbus. Fr. Atwood believes that the main reason people do not belong to a church as an adult is that they have not mourned the loss of their childhood parish. There are not any more Quilting Bee's or old folks standing around speaking Slovak. For better or for worse, those days have passed. Let it be said right here and right now that those days and those people are sorely missed. But there is a new day, too. It was rare to have a Bible study or a mission trip in the parishes of 50 years ago. Today's new ecumenism brings possibilities for sharing faith life with people from all denominations. My life is ever the richer for my friendships and faith-sharing with people from other faiths and even other parishes, for that matter. For better or for worse, this is the day that is here.

No, these parishes of today will probably never hold a candle in my heart to the old farming church I grew up in. But its not fair for me to be putting these churches in competition. That was then and this is now, and going to a new parish is not a replacement for the church of my past. I'm simply where I am right here and right now, and they are the church of today. I need them, and they need me.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Bacon Grease

One of the tastiest things I do in the kitchen is save bacon grease. Once you're done cooking bacon, just drain the pan into a ceramic bowl (don't pour hot grease into plastic!) and put it in the fridge. When its time to use it, I just scoop out a bunch of grease (it will solidify after it cools) and plop it in the pan. Its truly phenomenal with eggs.

Besides eggs, it is often used for Cuban beans, which I love. You cook up some onions, garlic, and hot & mild peppers in some bacon grease. Then you dump in some beans (which you have been soaking for 8 hours--dump out the soak water). Cook it all up together with fresh water until the beans are soft, which should be a couple of hours.

I've seen bacon grease in recipes for liver, as well. For that matter, you could use it in any recipe in place of cooking oil.

With all the talk about heart disease and weight gain in our society, it may be shocking to hear this kind of recommendation. However, there are many who recommend a diet high in fat, much like our ancestors ate. It could be that the confusion over fat in our society is related to the way the animals are raised. The fat is better for you if the animal was at least partially pasture-fed. Pasture-raised animals tend to have more even levels of omega-3 and 6 fatty acids, while grain-fed, factory-farmed animals are way high on the 6's but extremely low on the 3's. High omega-6 consumption without the 3's is linked to high blood pressure and heart disease. Not surprising that there is such a push for omega-3's in the health product business to balance this out. The common sense argument is this: Consuming animals that have eaten a natural diet that suits them and who are themselves healthy is going to make you healthy.

I have some pretty strict oil guidelines. I cook only in olive oil, butter and bacon grease. Absolutely no hydrogenated oils like margarine. Olive oil is expensive, but it is a strategic, well-thought-out purchase, and I feel it is worth it. Saving bacon grease cuts the cost of my oil usage. It also makes sense--why throw out something that is immensely useful!

Bacon is actually very good to have around if you don't like a lot of meat. A few strips of bacon can add a meat dimension to a plate without having to overpower it, and the grease can flavor meals even without the meat.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Can't Believe How Delicious

I've been immersing myself lately in handmade hash browns. The obsession is real: I even fantasize about them in the waning hours of the afternoon at work and rush home to prepare them for supper.

They meet all of my favorite criteria for food: Cheap, nutritious, delicious, and easy to make (I'm not overcooking anything and only using olive oil, so yes, I can claim "nutritious" on this one!)

I take a normal vegetable/cheese grater like the one in the link. Erin has a nice hand-held one that's great, too. I shred a couple of washed potatoes with the skins on. I like the shoestring consistency and avoid making mush. I then shred the better part of an onion and mix them together.

There is something glorious about the combined smell of the onion and potatoes. Very earthy.

The next step is essential: Wring it out! You'll be sitting at the stove for an hour waiting for your meal to cook down if you don't. I like to squeeze the mixture in my hands. VeganYumYum suggests you wring it out with paper towels, but I don't like paper towel bits in my browns (the link also explores cheese as a topping).

Salt, pepper and a coating of paprika follow. [Paprika is a wonderful spice that should be generously applied to everything. Besides adding atmosphere to your food, it can also assist you in cooking--you can tell whether you have completely flipped over something in the pan or not.]

All that's left is to throw the mixture in a heated pan with olive oil. I cook it slowly for about 10-20 minutes, turning over as necessary. The trick for me is to find that level where its not too burnt but not too raw. Just right, as baby bear says.

Another 75 cent supper.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Parable of The Widow and Her Coins

He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.’

New Revised Standard Version, Luke 21:1-4

Its so easy to complain about the wealthy people of this world. Mansions with billionaires who all seem to have criminal levels of wealth. How can anyone really justify having so much in light of the suffering in the world? We scoff at the inequity, and certainly look down our noses at more than a few people along the way.

The widow reminds us: What did you do? You judge the millionaires, and she--by her example--judges you. Many of us have convinced ourselves that we "need" so much of what we have. We tell ourselves that its the millionaires and billionaires who could stand to reduce their standard of living, but the rest of us are just "getting by." Tell someone starving to death that you "need" your car or your new clothes or your jewelry more than they need to eat.

These are some of my favorite verses in scripture. To me, its all about judgement. Or at least, a caution against it. Who can really judge the giving of another? If we have such a difficult time managing our possessions and giving what we have in service to the needy, we should be able to understand the difficulty someone else has in parting with their stuff, as well--even the very rich. There is something in the human condition that makes intentional poverty a very difficult thing to do.

Its too easy to say, "Yeah, I have a few extra dollars I could give, but they have millions they could easily give without even batting an eyelash." But did you give your few extra dollars? Did you give another dollar that wasn't extra? Careful who you judge, because while you may shake your head at the millionaires and billionaires, there might be someone in the third world who could shake their head at you.

I'm not trying to lecture anyone here, because I wrestle with this every day myself. The more we have, the more we convince ourselves that we need. While these verses are a reminder to us what 'gospel giving' really looks like, it may also help us to have compassion on the "rich" people of the world who hold onto their wealth. They are not that different from us.

There is nothing comfortable about this parable.

Matthew 25

"For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

Matthew Chapter 25 includes some of the most famous lines in scripture. It forms the core of the Corporal Works of Mercy. It has so inspired our own Columbus Catholic Worker community that we have chosen to include it in our mission statement.

Its very clear in what it asks. While I am certainly open to many and myriad interpretations of any text, certainly on a literal level this one is rather upfront about its call for food, clothing, shelter, hospitality, comfort and dignity.

What I find most striking is what it does not say. It never says how much we should do. How do you live out this commandment? Do you give of your spare change and your free time? Do you put aside a set percentage of your resources? Do you work tirelessly?

Any of those answers (even the one about working tirelessly) would be easier than what Matthew offers: Silence. I've shouted this question out to God many times, only to hear the reverberation of my echo in reply.

But it is a reply, nonetheless. That is because the question is not to much to God but really to ourselves. The Bible invites us into a relationship with ourselves. Thomas Merton does a fine job pointing this out in Opening the Bible To think it out, to sweat it out, to wrestle with it, as Daniel Berrigan might say (Ten Commandments for the Long Haul). To sit up late at night. To try it. To immerse ourselves in it.

Its not supposed to be easy. Its not about checking items off a list, even if the tasks or sacrifices are costly to us. The answer is to personally involve ourselves in the question, as well as the answer. Bottom line is: You can't mail this one in (even though you may, after much soul searching, decide that mailing in a check may be the best option at a juncture).

“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

New Revised Standard Version Matthew 25:35-36 (above), 40 (below).

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Karate Kid Explains Liturgy

Religious ritual can be boring. So can reading the Bible. Or attending one of the many deadpan, hurried masses. I'm all for a more deeply connected religious experience, but how to do you explain all the monotony that happens between those more connected moments? Is it just filler? Is it something you endure just to make sure you are present when moments of connection do happen?

Bruce Springsteen has made some extremely eloquent remarks on this. He talks about growing up Catholic, but then becoming distant from it. As he grew older and went through more struggles, he found the symbols and themes from his Catholic past ringing true in ways he never would have expected. It was good he had that experience of chuch at an early age to sow the seeds.

The Karate Kid is one of the most significant religious movies of our time. You wax on, you wax off. Its a drudgery which only seems to benefit somebody else (maybe your parents), or absolutely no one at all. Still, you paint the fence. Then one day it comes together: You have been in training and did not even realize it.

The karate studio across the street sure looks exciting. Its flashy, its popular, and participants are learning skills they can directly use right away. Ralph Maggio is in training waxing cars and painting fences.

My Uncle John warns against a Christianity that becomes nothing but self-help in Jesus clothing. Is that the flashy karate studio across the street? Maybe religion isn't as much about getting something as it is about cultivating something. I'm all for self-help and modern psychology, but its not the end-all, be-all and let's not make a false idol out of it.

You paint the fence, you repeat words. You wax the cars and go through rituals, smell incense and sit on wooden pews like the wood of the cross and you come forward to take the bread and slip away down the sides and sand the floor. Much of it seems to float on by, but you stick with it and do the good work that needs doing. Then one day it all starts coming back to you, and in a roundabout way, in a way you never would have expected, maybe--as Peter Maurin would say and which Ralph Maggio found out--you've become better off by simply trying to become better.

Good Religion

Its very common to hear someone say the following: "I don't need religion. All I need is to be a good person, and that is my religion."

Is that really what religion is about?

I certainly hold that most of the world's religious traditions have come to the understanding that being good is an important, if not an essential manifestation of being "religious." But I think it comes as a result of a long meditation on who we are, where we come from, and how we are all related. "Being good" is therefore the natural consequence of religion.

It may go something like this: You somehow, someway come to an understanding that there is something beyond us, beyond the 3 dimensions, and you end up calling that something God, and you come to understand that we are somehow in relationship to this God, and are actually related to God in that we are God's creation, sculpted right from the Divine hand, in fact, and that therefore all humans are really brother and sister to each other, or maybe appendages of the same body, so that another person's happiness is related to our own happiness, and I'm not fulfilled unless they are fulfilled, and nobody wins unless everybody wins, and their life is precious and so is mine, so doing all we can to support, protect and encourage life just flows naturally from all that. Capice?

However, if you believe that "God is love" (as I do), then simply being good is a sure access point to the Divine, so in the end it may not matter if you belong to a church and practice a formal spirituality (i.e. religion) since all roads lead back to Rome, in a manner of speaking.

People often eschew religion because they see a gap between an ideal of goodliness and what is done in the name of religion. All I hear in that statement is that religion is actually good, its just not living up to its own ideals--but thank God for high ideals. Its ironic because the word "goodliness" is a derivative of "Godliness", so that which is good is that which is of God. These notions are embedded within our own vocabulary and worldview. And the notion that "religion = being good" is in fact a very Christian idea itself! (Not that it is absent from other religions, either, but the flavoring is very Christian influenced.)

So then does it matter to "do" religion at all? I hold that it does. Its about meditating and pondering who we are and how we are related to each other. Where do we come from and where do we go. Science is approaching this from the deductive side, but we need to engage from other angles, as well. We are not purely deductive creatures. Its part of the natural romance of being human, that quest to explore and to see what is up-river, and that thirst to know and one day ultimately return to the source of our life and being.

If you don't feel a need to do religion, then who am I to say you should? I do know that many of us need to go to the well to drink. We have a thirst and to know what is out there and to be in relationship with what is out there.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Invoking Nazism

I look at the absolute treasure trove of Catholic tradition, but see empty pews and disinterested participants at mass. Despite a tremendous history of diverse prayer styles, profound theology, the witness of the saints, monastic traditions, wonderful music & art and social justice activism--just to name a few things that come to mind--Good things are happening, but I do wonder where the energy and enthusiasm is for the average church goer.

Theologically speaking, I am incompatible with Protestant fundamentalism. Even on an emotional level, I have almost always had a nagging hesitation about it and have had real trouble relaxing into their spirituality. Yet, it is apparent that the fundamental/evangelical/pentecostal churches are active, their assemblies motivated. Their members keep their services new and fresh. Bible study groups abound. I've been influenced by them in many ways, as well.

I started to wonder if maybe the lack of enthusiasm in the mainline churches is really an indication that they are missing something important that these other churches have found. I was talking about these concerns with a college professor several years ago. My prof's words hit me like a boulder: "The Nazi party had plenty of energy and enthusiasm."

These words sound inflammatory, but they do not have to be. The point is a very valid one: Energy and enthusiasm are not by themselves an indication that Truth is present. Many energetic and enthusiastic people have done horrible things. This is difficult for Christians to wrestle with, because we often see "joy" as being evidence of true discipleship (it is worth noting that joy does not necessarily manifest itself as energy and enthusiasm, either, as joy is often something more quiet).

[I'll keep my professor's name anonymous to spare any flames that always seem to find you when you invoke a Nazi analogy. I'll leave it to your imagination whether my prof was making any sort of comparison between Nazi's and those churches, but the comment does not have to be taken that way.]

This raises an even larger issue. So often, we prize qualities such as "hard work", "ambition", "determination", "sticking up for one's beliefs". However, those qualities are morally neutral. In fact, manifested in the wrong person, having those qualities is actually worse than not having them. It is not commendable when a Nazi is hard-working or stands up for his beliefs! As George Carlin says (paraphrase)--'show me someone who's just sitting around playing video games, and I'll show you someone who is not hurting anybody.'

There is nothing inherently good about being an "ambitious" person. What are you working for? Who are you working for? Bob Dylan says, "you gotta serve somebody," and in light of this, I think he may be right.

My professor did add that Catholics have a healthy spirituality. I think there is a lot of truth to that. Its a faith that's quieter but possibly more long-term. The spirituality is gentle, but authentic. No one is going to rush up to you with a big handshake and a fake grin and say "Welcome to our church! Sign our guestbook and receive our mailings!" when you walk through the door. In fact, they may not acknowledge you at all, for better or for worse.

Each church has blessings in its approach but also dangers. A gentler spirituality among Catholics is as real as the earth, but when it gets off course it can just dissipate away, leaving you feeling abandoned (but with strong roots, I wonder if it comes back later). On the other side, the active spirituality of evangelicals is more focused, but can be bombastic and pushy when not properly rooted. In the end, energy and enthusiasm are not enough by themselves to indicate the presence of Truth.

Bulk Logic

The bulk section of the the grocery store contains its greatest treasure. However, it is often the section that is the least-traveled. Just doesn't have the romance you may find in the exotic fruit section. Its plain and simple--by definition. Its solidly within the jurisdiction of the smart shopper, but not much for impulse purchases.

If you need romance in your shopping, just pretend you're waltzing into a general store in the Wild West, scooping out your ration of flour and beans from large barrels, dodging gunfire from the shootout across the street. Cue the player piano. Does that help?

Breakfast costs me 7 cents when you consider that the local co-op sells organic oatmeal for $0.69/lb. Its locally raised, to boot. Bob's Red Mill oatmeal is about 5 times the price. Its still a good deal with breakfast at 35 cents, but why buy that when you can buy it in bulk? Its not like Bob is doing any extra processing for the price--oats is oats is oats, its just more packaging and advertising.

I estimate that dry beans are also about 5 times cheaper than canned beans, as well. Granted, even canned beans--like Bob's oats--are a good deal considering other items at the grocery store, but it goes to show you the enormous deals when it comes to buying bulk, dry foods.

You can find some exotic and gourmet foods in the bulk section, as well. Wonderful turbinado sugar--you know, coffee house sugar--its just $1.59/lb. The local co-op has red lentils, yellow split peas, and as many forms of rice as you could ever want.

The only downside of the bulk section is that its hard to tell how long something's been sitting there, and old beans become difficult to cook--won't soften even after several hours.

I'm learning how to incorporate more bulk items into my diet. Its easy to stock up on beans and rice. Great for soups. Preparing dry beans takes some time, but much of that is passive--soak the beans for 8 hours, put them in a crock pot for 8 hours, for example. I like to cook up a big batch of beans for a week's worth of food and then freeze the remainder--all that cooking can keep you in beans for a few weeks if you prepare and freeze enough.

Beans don't have to be plain, either. Cuban beans over rice are wonderful. You make them with peppers, hot peppers, onions and garlic--maybe a slice of bacon/bacon grease for flavor. Pour a batch of that over some hot rice!

Monday, December 3, 2007


When someone challenges you,
whether the challenge is an emotional one, or a physical one, or even spiritual
you have two options:
  1. Rise to the challenge, open yourself and breathe into it
  2. Tighten up and back away

But you can never remain the same as you were before.