Thursday, January 26, 2012

Knapsack 2-9

Notes From My Knapsack 2-9-12

Jeff Gill


Dreaming of dinner, one entrée at a time



Teaching the Lad a few new recipes, I'm reminded as we chop and stir that most "authentic" cuisine of various cultures is based on a single, central principle: stretching.


Just to clarify, Chinese food in China isn't large quantities of deep-fried meat with a few scraps of largely ornamental and uneaten cabbage and carrots; Mexican food in Mexico does not center on large dollops of sour cream and a thick coating of cheese. Et cetera.


There are for various places on the globe what are called "staples," rice in Asia, pasta in Italy, rotting fish sauce in ancient Rome (and now you know what happened to their empire). Somewhere south of the Rio Grande I'm sure refried beans are relatively common, even if not to Taco Bell levels.


But the rest of what is the traditional set of recipes is usually based around taking an often scant amount of protein, whether meat or eggs (or legumes for the vegans out there), and making a filling meal with a bit, enough of the protein getting to each of the many people around the family table.


So fajitas were a way to take a cut of meat, and along with tortillas and peppers and onions, make sure everyone got some. Egg rolls took a single serving of pork, minced it fine, rolled it up with a bunch of cabbage and a wonton wrapper, and along with some oil (sure, deep frying isn't all bad) got a sense of heft into everyone's belly. And so on.


Northern Europe liked more meat when they could get it (and who doesn't? Sorry, vegans), and when they came over and carved out their homesteads in the New World, they didn't recognize the plant foods other than nuts, and it took a while to open up garden plots, let alone learn what vegetables they could grow. Meanwhile, deer and bear and turkey meat was plentiful, so much so that in pioneer accounts, a mere piece of fresh bread was a dessert-level delicacy, and a sandwich was often a piece of deer meat between two slices of bear meat. As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up.


So we got used to a very meat-centric diet; as immigrants came to this land of milk and meat, they adapted into the plenty formerly only known in palaces with obvious glee. In fact, I can recall as a kid that pasta wasn't considered a decent meal, which you would hear older folks say was because you went back to a plate of pasta for dinner when money was tight: a successful man had meat on the table for his family every night.


Times, indeed, have changed. It's helpful to know they changed to get us here, too. I'm not a vegetarian, but a meal without meat in our house isn't a sign of either poverty or that someone forgot to go to the store.


Most dieticians, and Michael Pollan with other sustainability advocates, all ask us to think about meat as more of a garnish than as the weighty center of a meal. Big chunks of meat, whole or processed, go through our physical selves and internal systems differently when we spend our day as a steelworker or farmer, as opposed to when we sit all week at work.


Two generations back and more, meat meant a big part of the American dream was fulfilled right there on the dinner table. We can celebrate successes and live a happy life, maybe happier, if we look back at some of the elegant original recipes in our history that bring a bit more of the field and farm to the table than the stockyard.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he likes to grill steaks in the summer, right next to the sweet corn in the husk. Tell him your dinnertime dreams at, or follow Knapsack @Twitter.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Faith Works 1-28

Faith Works 1-28-12

Jeff Gill


The prodigal wakes up from his nightmare




It was as if he was reviewing his life to date.


He saw his angry encounter with his older brother, who had tried to point out what wasn't working in how he operated the oil press, then suggested they trade places between the olive trees supervising the pickers, and tending the bottles under the spout of the press.


Kicking over one of the precious amphorae, he stormed into his father's counting room, demanding his share of the inevitable inheritance immediately. He saw his face as if from without, watching himself carefully not look startled when father consented – the thought was just to press the old man into enough money for a long weekend in town, away from big brother.


As if from above, he saw his journey out of the home province, and past the crossroads to the market town the other, unfamiliar direction to the larger city farther away. There he met the denizens of the nightlife, the old familiar crowd of fast dealers, slow waiters, and languorous women. His moneypouch steadily emptied, the nights rolled by in anonymous procession, the days passed without his waking to see them until sunset served as his wakeup call.


Then he found himself in a chance conversation at a taverna, where the flute and tambour were not so loud as to make talk an effort. It seemed one of his drinking companions had recently inherited an olive grove, and he had no idea what to do with it.


After a few off-handed suggestions, his new friend asked if they could ride out together tomorrow (at dawn!) and review this new plan. The evening ended uncharacteristically early, and the landlord looked oddly at him as he saluted heading in to bed not long after dark.


The next day, the situation was as clear to him as it was a total confusion to the heir, and after a few adjustments to the mill, some words with the field overseer, the heir made an appealing offer for him to manage the property. They shook on it, and a new life began.


Success breeds success, and soon there were other well-to-do property owners who asked for his counsel, and paid in imperial coinage for the privilege. By the time another growing season had passed, the rented upper room was left and the young man moved into a small, unused villa of one of his clients a short canter from the city gates. Downstairs, a pair of scribes kept track of the contracts he negotiated, and copied out the letters of instruction to ever more far-flung estates where overseers wrote at their master's command to get direction from him on making the most of their land.


The nights were shorter, he saw more of the day, but there was plenty of time to party, and each week a different woman was escorted out to the villa with few expectations. One particular girl, whose smile and conversation amused him, stayed for three weeks, but that was as long as he let those relationships (if that would be the word) linger.


Gold in a storeroom piled up before his eyes, days flickered past as if by magic, faces of the women and the scribes and clients changed – and then he turned, and looked in a mirror, and saw himself aged, grey-haired, wrinkled. And he saw his father's face, but hard and bitter.


Then he awoke.


Scrambling out of bed, he walked quickly into the wide front room of the homestead. The housekeeper smiled up at him from the fireside, and asked "would you draw me one more pail of water?" As if this part was the dream, he slipped on his sandals, and went into the courtyard, leaned over the coping of the well, and heaved at the thick rope.


When the bucket came into his hands, he grasped it firmly with both, and looked at the surface of the water. His youthful visage stared bemusedly back at him.


Carrying it back into the house, he almost ran into his older brother at the door. "Hey, you saved me a trip, thank you." Then, more softly, "Are you alright? You look a little queasy." Answering quietly, "No, I'm fine," he continues inside to set the water near the fire, and then on into the counting room.


There, his father was already at work on the accounts, getting a head start before breakfast. "Good morning son, does the dawn find you well?"


And he answers "Yes; but Father, I had the most horrible dream."


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him your story at or follow Knapsack @Twitter.