Just in case you didn’t get the correction elsewhere, I’m sending it out again. The new blogsite is thefoodsmith.blogspot.com. Come on over and check it out!
This blog is moving to thefoodsmith.blogspot.com. Yes, the address now sounds like a bad winter cold. Really, “blogspot” is about the least attractive word I can imagine. But I wanted to have a little more control over details like font and color, without having to know css or html and definitely without paying for the privilege of tweaking those things. So, to blogspot I go.
I know most of you read this on email or facebook and never see the blog’s design. But I see it everyday, so it matters to me!
What this means to you is that you need to change the address in your bookmarks or feedreader or whatever you use. If you get it as an email subscription, then no worries. I’m moving the feed for you and these little posts should keep on coming your way. But if that’s you, or if you’re a facebook reader, then come check out the blog itself … it’s nice. There’s a great Bonhoeffer quote on the sidebar, and to sweeten the deal, pictures of elephants! (oh wait, my readership isn’t made up of 22-month-old boys?) But really, the elephants are pretty darn cool. Come check it out!
Finn’s gift this year was a kitchen. A cardboard kitchen.
I’ve been planning to make this since before he was born, so smitten am I with the idea. A genius mother in Philadelphia, also living in a small apartment and on a limited budget, wanted to build her daughter a kitchen using recycled materials, but without tools or a workshop. Enter corrugated cardboard–incredibly strong and incredibly available. Her design uses no glue, but instead some clever little joins that slide together.
Matt was more than skeptical the whole way through. From exploring the back stairs of area shopping centers to cutting and measuring without a proper straight edge, he thought this thing would fall over the first time Finn used it (and was both graciously and happily proved wrong … so far, anyway.) It took a bit longer than we expected, but I, at least, gladly joined the ranks of parents who spend Christmas Eve putting together their childrens’ presents.
We had some hearty laughs along the way over the thought of our Hong Kong friends who would never in a million years make their children cardboard kitchens, much less the cute crafts I recently saw made out of toilet paper tubes. (!) We even considered putting a Miele label on the oven, just to make it fit in to brand-conscious Hong Kong.
The kitchen is far sturdier than we expected, and Finn, I am happy to report, has been busy cooking ever since. He first offered me some make-believe pancakes about two weeks before Christmas, and I knew the time was ripe for this little kitchen to enter his life. With wooden eggs, yogurt cups, anchovy tins, and a blossoming imagination at his disposal, you just never know what he might serve up.
Part one: celebrate
So we spent Christmas in Hong Kong. And in spite of all my brave talk about how glad I was not to be stuck in an airport due to the inevitable weather delay–or once arrived, stuck inside due to that same weather–being far away from home at Christmas is just hard. Especially when you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how this place–the place you are–is just not your city, which is the conclusion we’ve come to.
And though we have decided to stay one more year in this not-our-city, it still somehow feels good to say out loud that we have sought out what is good, we have made friends, we have made it our home, but it has not been easy. I’m going to speak in broad, sweeping generalities here, but the folks who live in Hong Kong who share our culture–who are from the US or Canada or even western Europe or Australia–mostly don’t share our values. They are bankers. They spend more on afternoon tea than we do for our fanciest dates. They belong to not one, but two or more clubs, and the clubs are where they spend their time. They buy designer clothes and vacation at Club Med. And that’s just not who we are, both by circumstance and by choice. And the people in Hong Kong who do share our values, who care about the environment and about the poor, who like to make things–they don’t speak English. And while of course these statements are not universally true, they are true enough.
But here’s the thing we’ve also found … we don’t have to have kindred spirits in order to have friends. We can–and do–have meaningful friendships with people based on little more than, in some cases, a shared nationality, and in others, children the same age. My closest friends here couldn’t be more different from me or from each other. Some of them come from India and China, and we sometimes have difficulty understanding each other. Some of them come from unbelievable wealth, and we also have difficulty understanding each other.
And those people who vacation at Club Med and spend all their time in yacht clubs and cricket clubs? I don’t blame them anymore. I know the fatigue that comes with constantly navigating a new culture, and how good it feels to go someplace familiar. I know how quickly I can feel at ease with someone just because they are from America and also grew up with, say, Cabbage Patch Kids and The Cosby Show. I know that they are just doing the best they can with what they have.
So Christmas Eve was, for us, a little tiny experience in Incarnation, in God-with-us. Looking at those around us as if they were Jesus, and inviting them in to our little stable on the twentieth floor. There were friends who had never been to a Christmas Eve service before, and friends whose names I can’t ever pronounce correctly, and friends who I seriously hesitated before letting them see this humble apartment with its peeling paint and bare lightbulbs. It was lovely and chaotic and only a tiny bit awkward. And Jesus was there, in the wine and the meatballs and the crumbly cookies, reminding us that he too came into a strange new world and made it his home. And where he is, there is our home also. Then we all piled into taxis and went to church together, letting candles and carols fill our hearts, until we spilled back into the warm Hong Kong night, glad to be in exactly this place on exactly this day.
Third Sunday of Advent (yes, I’m a little late.)
It’s that time of year again … donation request letters, clothing drives and toy drives and food shelf bins, Santas ringing bells and those folks with the funny hats shaking tins.
Why do we give money or goods to charity at Christmas, anyway? That end-of-the-year tax deduction? Tradition? Because the Magi brought gifts to Jesus? The cold outside, and the fundamental sense that people should, at least, be warm? Or maybe it’s because there’s something about celebrating that brings out our hospitality, and we don’t like the idea of other people lacking food or gifts or a tree. If we’re happy, we want to imagine other people happy as well. We may not actually invite them to our table, but we’ll make sure they have food on their table. And there’s probably at least a little guilt in there too, or maybe just a sense of fairness–if we’re going to spend so much on luxuries for ourselves and our kids, it’s only right to give some away.
I suspect it’s a mixture of all of these, for most of us. I daresay I’ve never thought of it as a way to prepare for Christmas, a way to prepare my heart, as John says in this week’s lectionary reading.
John the Baptist, remember, is the one who came before Jesus, to help people get ready for the Messiah. And this is what he says about how to prepare: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none, and whoever has food must do likewise.” I suspect that what he’s talking about isn’t just a one-time deal, but an ethical shift. A shift in what we think we need, a shift in how we see those around us.
It’s easy for me–and a lot of people I know–to get caught up in all the ethics around giving. And it’s likewise easy to feel a bit cynical about the solicitation requests … it all mingles together into a loud voice of marketers and advertisers wanting my money, telling me that I’ll be happier and more at peace if I just give them my money.
John, however, is nothing if not direct, and he simply says that if we have two coats, we should give one away. He doesn’t promise that it will change someone’s life or even that it will make a difference. And there’s something about the simplicity of this that is compelling, convicting and hard.
So what does giving have to do with preparing? Everytime we give something away, no mattter how small, we are relinquishing control, letting go of some measure of security, and stepping a bit more into a place of trust and dependence on God. Giving opens our eyes to vulnerability, and this is where God lives, after all. Jesus came and still comes in vulnerability. He comes to the hungry, to the poor, to the needy, and to that place of need inside each of us.
The baking and decorating and merry-making that we do can be wonderful, especially for children. Joy opens us to vulnerability too. But these preparations can so easily become distractions and lists and pressures and end up numbing us to God’s presence more than anything. Matt’s and my most consistent observation about watching for light? It’s easiest to do when you get enough sleep …
So even if giving money away is already part of your tradition at this time of year, I invite you to think of it not as just one more to-do, but as preparation, as a way to prepare your heart to see God, to watch for light.
And the pictures throughout this post? They are my friend Krissie’s, from her several trips to India. She sells these prints as a way to raise money to support various projects in India, from wells to an orphanage. If you still have shopping to do, may I commend to you her website, with lovely prints from India and elsewhere, ready to be framed and hung? She’ll be going again in January, and would certainly appreciate the support.
Done! Of course the plan was to finish it before Advent started, but as it turns out, the process of making was a good one, and I’m glad I let it take its time. The tree took considerable time to cut out, and while I cut the dark felt–the negative space–my mind wandered. I thought about cross-country skiing by moonlight in Maine, and warm blueberry muffins baked by a woman who has since died of brain cancer. I thought of a man, her husband, who taught us to “live without fear and love without reserve” even while watching his wife die.
I thought about a child learning to share and parents learning their child has cerebral palsy. I thought about families and weddings and blizzards and cozy warmth, and I thought about the God who is making the heavens and the earth and who knits all things together for good. And I thought about the Leonard Cohen lyrics:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
D :: Dumplings
Mmmm… dumplings in steamer baskets, dumplings on pretty plates, dumplings in a bowl of noodles and broth, dumplings in my wok, even dumplings in styrofoam containers from the take-out shop. I love them all. Our go-to favorite are the pan-fried variety, usually with a filling of pork and cabbage. Any dumpling place worth its salt has a guy in the corner making dumplings, and these can be bought frozen to cook at home. It’s our Hong Kong version of the grilled-cheese-and-tomato-soup-night.
But the swoon-worthy, intellectually-satisfying variety are Shanghai-style xiao lang bao, commonly known as “soup dumplings.” The idea of a dumpling filed with soup–how preposterous! Absurd, even. A trembling, delicate skin holds a bite of minced pork and a mouthful of hot fragrant broth. Served with vinegar and shredded ginger, it is no easy feat to transfer the dumpling from the steamer basket to the mouth without losing the precious, steaming juice and without burning your mouth. But, oh–the bliss.
(How do they do it? It’s all due to the miraculous ability of good stock to gel. The dumplings are filled with meat filling and a cube of chilled stock, which becomes soup when the dumpling is steamed. Simple. Brilliant. )
(The top three pictures were all taken by my brother Chip. See more of his pics here. And sorry, no pictures of the soup dumplings. I always eat them way too fast to even think about a picture.)