Oniontown Pastoral: Why I’ve Been Quiet Lately

Oniontown Pastoral: Why I’ve Been Quiet Lately

Dear Friends:

It was tomatoes cooking, the kindly surprise of their smell, that brought me around, helped my spirit to its feet and pointed me in a good direction.

If you look forward to my column in Greenville, Pennsylvania’s daily, The Record Argus, or my posts at A Napper’s Companion, you may have noticed that I’ve been quiet lately. When world and native land are convulsing in myriad ways, of what account are tomato-perfumed wisps rising in a middle-class kitchen? When the television news serves up images of relentless rage and pandemic, mentioning the cleansing joy of wife Kathy’s sunflowers bending in the breeze feels intrusive. When we human beings are enduring the labor pains of birthing a new society—and meanwhile throwing tantrums over trivialities and wetting our pants—who wants to think about a couple dozen corn stalks rising from a raised bed, the soil a mix of household compost and manure from a dear friend’s cows?

Kathy’s corn, not a lot

Maybe you do. I now believe my silence in recent weeks has been misguided. “Don’t go all poetic on me, John,” I imagined you saying, “about standing at a stove or pulling blessings from a garden, about how basil makes a sauce sing, about how walking by a bush of spearmint touches a place inside you didn’t know was aching. No rhapsodizing at a time like this, when so many of us are at each others’ throats and hardly an hour passes without yielding fresh anxiety and confusion.”

Of course, you weren’t saying anything like this. The fact is, I had convinced myself that what normally moves me to make paragraphs wasn’t relevant anymore. We all have bigger fish to fry, as the cliché goes.

But then those tomatoes reminded me of last summer, before the complication and misery of 2020. Kathy’s crop necessitated daily decisions. Would I make spaghetti or chili for supper? Or would I core and simmer down yesterday’s basketful, let it cool and pour it into freezer bags? More often than not, when Kathy got home from a day of nursing cancer patients, she would pause just inside the backdoor, close her eyes and breathe in.

“Oh,” her mantra went, “I do love the smell of my tomatoes cooking.” And then we’d kiss.

Kathy in August of 2016, with some work for me to do.

Yes, Norman Rockwell might have painted me wearing an apron and holding a wooden spoon straight up while Kathy looks on with rosy cheeks and a slight smile, but not one detail of the scene is embellished, honest. This was the start of our evening together. This was home and family and marriage. This was life and love.

All of these thoughts came to me wordlessly when, the other day, the pageantry of preserving my wife’s bounty started up again with the lovely scent I’ve described. She has already pulled garlic and onions, which I regularly help to fulfill their aromatic vocation, and canned some dilly beans. Cherry tomatoes are piling up, and, yes, I cook them along with the Better Boys and Romas and freeze them flat. That glad task will wait until tomorrow.

Out my writing hut window, grandsons and suds

At the moment Kathy is drizzling dish liquid into a slowly filling blowup pool. Grandsons Cole and Killian are staying over this Friday night. I’m watching them from my writing hut—more on this new outbuilding on the Coleman farmette soon. Killian is running the length of the yard and jumping into the shallow foot of water, emerging suds covered and delirious. The way Cole is waving the hose around to make water snakes in the air, the pool may never reach capacity. No matter.

Planet Earth may be going to Hades in a hand basket, but even the gates of hell shall not prevail against my grandsons’ wonders in this hour. Nor can powers and principalities stop Kathy’s sunflowers, soaring six feet above the corn, from waving at me.

Silence is a skillful teacher, but its students are lost unless they listen with the ear of their heart. That was my problem. I paid attention to the faculty members who scream and shout that their subjects, crucial though they may be—war, oppression and illness—are the only ones worth studying.

One of Kathy’s sunflowers

So I write to insist otherwise and resume interrupting our shared daily travail with promises. Tomatoes still ripen in August and will remind you of grace if you put them on to cook. And sunflowers will bow to you when the wind is right. Remember to breathe deeply and bow in return.

Love,

John

Oniontown Pastoral: Promise of the Onion

Oniontown Pastoral: Promise of the Onion

I wonder how many good onions rot in landfills because of flaws on their outermost layer. Fumbled by a customer or split open by a box cutter, they join the forlorn cast of undesirables, like Charlie-in-the-Box on the Island of Misfit Toys.

Of course, Charlie, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the caboose with square wheels and Dolly the rag doll, whose only flaw is sadness, don’t belong in exile. All they need is a loving child with imagination.

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From Burpee’s Farm Annual (1882). Credit: Wikimedia Commons

And everybody knows that all an imperfect onion needs is touch-up work. Just peel down to a good layer. From there on it’s fit to join its soulmate, garlic, as the two aromatics chefs can’t live without.

The onion, I can’t help noting, really is a wonder. It’s made out of rings for the sake of convenient battering and deep-frying. And have you ever noticed that onions participate in their own chopping? After a few knife strokes, they very considerately fall apart, thanks to those layers.

Yes, onions can make you cry, but I’ve never met a cook who counts that against them. Why? Because the onion is a poet among vegetables. We foodies understand this.

Okay, I think a lot about onions, but maybe you can forgive me. I not only work in the village of Oniontown, Pennsylvania, at St. John’s Lutheran Church, but also practically live in the kitchen. And if that weren’t enough, I’m a writer, a vocation that thrives on the inclination to think in layers.

“O Onion! My Onion!” The commonplace observation that it consists of layers has been therapeutic lately for my uneasy soul. The skin of our 2017 world—the societal, national and international epidermis—is a torn, mushy mess. The old saying “going to hell in a hand basket” comes to mind.

But the onion is my oracle. Its counsel shone upon me this past week when I dropped in on parishioners who have a decorative plate on their car:

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Seeing the village name, its proud letters larger than the others, felt like a grandfather’s encouraging pat on the back.

Bill answered the door and led me to the bedroom, where Connie lay on her side with a blanket drawn up to her eyes. Her ponytail reached the middle of the neighboring pillow. Ailment upon ailment has rained upon her in recent years, and now two misbehaving vertebral discs have added thunder.

Oh, dear! The onion is companion to garlic as back pain rivals the toothache for the most dreaded, non-life-threatening complaint. Connie was okay, provided she didn’t move. We talked for a few minutes, long enough for me to make her laugh. Nice going, Pastor. I said a prayer, soft but urgent. Relief can’t come soon enough. Options are running out.

Pausing on our way to the backdoor, Bill leaned against a kitchen chair. His posture matched his hushed words: “I don’t know what we’re going to do.” We shook hands goodbye.

“Onions.” Glancing back at that decorative plate, I held the word in my mouth. The blue marble speeding at 18.5 miles per second around the sun may not be watching, but in a warm house on Mercer Road, a man fusses over his wife, who endures with dignity. And people in warm houses in villages and cities everywhere quietly love and tend to each other.

IMG_4286The onion—cliché that it may be—teaches me never to neglect the many layers below the surface, where anonymous multitudes dwell, overjoyed or getting by or out of rope. Down here, bane is always neck-and-neck with blessing.

But hope lives down here, too, with Bill, Connie, Charlie-in-the-Box and all the rest of us who never make the evening news. There are even families waiting to cradle Dolly the rag doll and dry her tears.

Only down here can you believe the onion’s greatest truth. Even in sorry shape, its theme is still promise. What appears, after all, when the onion’s weepy skin is pealed away? New life, bright, smooth, vulnerable with possibility.

A Napper’s Salad

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Bartender extraordinaire Abby pulled me a pint from this very tap a week ago! (Credit: http://www.foresquare.com)

A few weeks ago at the Six-Pack House of Beer West, I interrogated Jennie Geisler, Lifestyles Reporter for the Erie Times-News. Talking to people who actually write for a living gets me in a lather. I want details. No minutea is beneath my interest. In the course of putting together the Wednesday paper’s Food Section, Jennie experiments in the kitchen, writes recipes, tracks down other good ones, and invites contributions from locals who like to cook. She humored me for a good fifteen minutes, a little surprised that I was eager to hear the nuts and bolts of her work. Somewhere in our conversation I must have admitted to spending hours in the kitchen because half an hour after she said goodbye her colleague Gerry Weiss’s cell phone rang. (Gerry’s part of the Friday Six-Pack crowd as well as a neighbor, fine writer, and friend.) Was that Lutheran pastor still around? Could she talk to him? Sure.

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God’s game was on when God made the avocado–just don’t chop your hand getting the pit out! (Credit: Wendy Hope)

Turns out nearly all the locals who contribute recipes to Jennie’s Wednesday Food Section are women. A male contributor would be nice. Could I come up with something? I mentioned a dish that includes a couple of my favorite ingredients, and she gave me the go ahead.

A pocket of time opened up this week, so I paid attention to what I was doing at the counter and cutting board, wrote up the recipe, named it in honor of my avocation, and hit send. Jennie will need to edit the grin off my sophomoric presentation, but I thought my fellow nappers might enjoy seeing the fool I’d have made of myself without her editorial intervention. Here’s what I came up with:

A Napper’s Salad

I call this dish a napper’s salad because it’s a culinary Sunday afternoon nap—luxurious, delicious, and refreshing. Given the ingredients, I considered pretentious salad, but went with a positive spin instead.

Tips

1. Yes, I put tips before ingredients. With a napper’s salad, method is more important than measurement.

2. Pairing: a fruit-forward pinot noir or a hefeweizen both go great with this salad—while you’re making it! Iced tea with fresh mint wins, too. While you’re eating, anything rinses this down, though I’d advise against port, Jack Daniels, and Ovaltine.

3. Amounts and sizes don’t matter much. I cut ingredients up bite size, but whatever. And if I’m out of artichoke hearts or don’t have time to roast red peppers, oh well.

4. Lots of tomato in a napper’s salad, so much that it can get weepy. If you’re a tidy soul, go with grape or cherry tomatoes.

5. Keeps well for a few days, especially if you don’t mind a kind of soupy salad. Mix it up, continue eating.

6. Don’t look for instructions below. Just toss everything together.

Ingredients

2 red bell peppers (roasted and chopped)

4 or 5 large tomatoes (chopped)

3 avocados (chopped)

2 cups artichoke hearts (chopped; marinaded is fine, but best to drain)

2 cups pitted kalamata olives (chop 1 cup rough; leave 1 cup whole)

1 bunch asparagus (steamed and chopped; leave raw if you like; not limp)

6 oz. crumbled feta cheese (that’s all I had; 12 oz. even better)

1 bunch cilantro (chopped fine)

1 ½ – 2 limes (the juice)

olive oil (drizzle and mix; about 1/3 cup)

salt and pepper to taste

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Culinary inspiration

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For my next batch I’ll raid wife Kathy’s cherry tomato plants–just to try a napper’s salad, neat.

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Serves . . . heck, I don’t know.

That’s it. I told Jennie I’m Pastor of Abiding Hope Lutheran Church, a blogger, and author of a forthcoming book, Oh! Be Joyful: Notes to My Future Grandchildren. Space is tight, so I doubt much other than avocados and asparagus will fit in.

Give the recipe a try if you can afford it–not exactly a cheap date.