Sunday, January 31, 2010

Book Nook: St. George and the Dragon

Truth be told, I had been trying to avoid the knightly stories and legends until later. At the tender age of 3.5, I doubted that Gabriel could discern the difference between inappropriate and uncalled-for violence and force used in honorable defense of a just cause. Plus, I just didn’t want to fuel the mischievous fire of using sticks, poles, brooms, or any other as long pointed objects as tools for recreational poking of younger brothers.

But Gabriel kept coming upon knights anyway– a plastic castle play set, and exhibit of armor in the National Gallery, books he found on his own in the library– and I think he was getting the idea that they were just plain “bad” because every time he played knight (which entailed poking people or things inappropriately) I curtailed or redirected his fun. And he kept playing knight anyway. So, rather than have him play “bad” knight, I thought it better to fuel his imagination with some “good” knight stories.

So I caved and during “G” week we talked about St. George (a possibly mythological Catholic saint, but useful for teaching purposes nonetheless), and read this beautiful, Caldecott-medal winning picture book that dwells in the realm of myth most certainly. Written by Margaret Hodges and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, it is a retelling of a portion of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene (about which I know quite little other than what is in this book).

Not only did Gabriel love this book, it was beautifully written, with rich, descriptive language and illustrations that could serve as practically a full semester’s study in floral botany for an older child. Although the language was on first glance a bit above Gabriel's level, I try to read a bit above his comprehension level because I think he rises to the occasion. Plus, I've noticed him using similes and metaphors in his own speech and I think it is thanks to us reading books that are a bit more "advanced." This book had a similar aura of magic and allegorical possibilities that I appreciate so much in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia. George is led to the battle with the dragon by a princess named Una, who to me had slightly Marian overtones...

Now the travelers rode together, through wild woods and wildness, perils and dangers, to Una’s kingdom. The path they had to follow was straight and narrow, but not easy to see. Sometimes the Red Cross Knight [George] rode to far ahead of Una and lost his way. Then she had to find him and guide him back to the path. So they journeyed on. With Una by his side fair and faithful, no monster or giant could stand before the knight’s bright sword.
The battle between St. George and the dragon is a bit grisly– do read the book ahead of time if you’re not sure about age-appropriateness of dragon’s tails gushing a bit of blood and a slightly wounded St. George lying almost-defeated before the last day of his battle). Although the battle is kind of intense, it leads to a Baptism-like moment when a near-to-death St. George falls into an “ancient spring of silvery water” that heals him, such that he is able to rise with the sun to face the dragon again the next morning.

I hesitated to introduce this book to Gabriel–it’s kind of a confusing mix of fairytale, myth, true virtue, and the concept of sainthood–but this book deservedly captivated his imagination and enabled me to talk to him a bit about bravery and. The Loyola Kids Book of Saints has a great take on St. George– mythological or not, the story teaches us that with Christ we can bravely fight against the dragons in our lives–whether they be or problematic habits or behaviors of our own or evil that comes from outside. Less profound but still useful in our house was the fact that I can now say “Did St. George use his sword on the nice townspeople or against the mean dragon? Your brother is not a mean dragon...” ...and it's been (mostly) effective so far.

For some more lighthearted, not quite so advanced knight books, focusing on the “good knight” idea, try the Good Knight series and the Sir Small series. Neither are particularly beautiful nor profound, but for a little guy who's into knights, they help drive home the idea that knights can be honorable and good, and they are slightly humorous if read in with an attempted British accent.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Traditional Table Tuesday: Lacto-fermentation and my new favorite condiment

I'd like to introduce you all to my new favorite condiment... drumroll, please... Ginger Carrots, a.k.a. Pickled Ginger Carrots or Lacto-fermented Ginger Carrots. As strange as they sound, they are amazing, and really easy to make. You must try these!

I was inspired to make these carrots by reading Nourishing Traditions' explanation of the benefits of lacto-fermented vegetables, long a staple in many societies because the lactobacilli produced in this method of fermentation serve not only to preserve veggies, but also makes them more beneficial to the health of those who consume them. The lacto-fermented vegetable most people are familiar with is sauerkraut, although much of what we find canned or jarred nowadays lacks the beneficial lactobacilli that homemade sauerkraut contains because industrial processes kill it off. Lactobacilli and the lactic acid they produce help to promote healthy intestinal flora, much like the good bacteria we are familiar with in yogurt.

I thought I'd try these carrots after I wasn't much a fan of the sauerkraut I made. (The family loved the kraut, though I did not. Gabriel will enthusiastically eat a PBJ sandwich and sauerkraut--on the side, not on the sandwich--for lunch! Peter likes my lacto-fermented beets better than the sauerkraut, due to texture issues. Guess he's not the only baby like this!)

Here's the recipe, with some of my own notes added, based on that from Nourishing Traditions. These are a delicious accompaniment to so many things, including, but not limited to: Black Beans and Rice, Thai Coconut Fish Soup, Hummus and Avocado Sandwiches, the above-pictured "Garden Pitas" (layered with hummus, carrots, beets, and feta), Red Lentil soups and dals, Spinach & Cranberry salad, and other rich or spicy foods.

Ginger Carrots

4 cups grated carrots, very tightly packed
1 T. freshly grated ginger (use less if you're not sure you're a big ginger fan--it's strong)
1 T. sea salt
4 T. whey (if not available, use an additional 1 T. salt, although know it might be a bit salty for your taste--you can get whey by draining yogurt or buttermilk through cheesecloth, or, join a milk co-op like me and order a quart of it. Hey, if anyone is really excited about making this, I'll order you some whey myself!)

Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl or pot. Pound with a wooden pounder or meat hammer until the carrots release their juices, maybe about 10 minutes. Place in a quart-sized, wide-mouth mason jar and press down firmly so that the juices cover the carrots. The top of the carrots should be at least 1 inch below the top of the jar (they expand!). Cover tightly and leave at room temperature about 3 days before transferring to cold storage (the top shelf of your fridge).

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Comp Lit 101, Preschool Style

Today as we sat down to read Gabriel's rest time book, Swimmy, by Leo Lionni, he looked up at me and said, "Mommy, I think when Swimmy meets the big bad salmon fish he is brave just like St. George is brave!" We had read swimmy a couple times, but we just read our book on St. George and the Dragon for the first time today. Guess he got the idea. Not bad for almost 3 and a half, I thought, anyway!

(We've been talking about virtues and good habits, and I was wondering if it was really worth it at this stage of the game, but I think if he can identify bravery in literary form, he can understand at least in a rudimentary way what we've been talking about for "G" week this week--"gratitude" both to others and to God, mostly by working on saying thank you.)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Slow Death by Rubber Duck

Heard these guys on the Diane Rhem Show on NPR today. (Here's a quick book review from the Post regarding the book as well.) The chemical folks claim BPA isn't harmful, but it sounds like the FDA is beginning to be "concerned" about it. Better safe than sorry, if it's not too hard to change, right? So I'm currently checking up on all my kitchen plastics--we've eliminated zip-lock bags for the most part, but I use 32-oz yogurt containers for freezing all my stock and extra soup. I am dismayed about the fact that there is BPA in the lining of ALL food industry cans (except the beans sold by Eden Organics)! We don't eat much canned food, but I do like getting canned tomatoes, tuna, and salmon. Sigh. I guess the bright side is that I'll be inspired to can my own tomatoes this summer--they sell tons of cheap, organic bruised tomatoes at our farmer's markets in the summer! I'm experimenting with alternatives to shampoo too; the experiment is on-going so I'll let you know how that goes after my hair goes through its "de-tox" days.
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On a more philosophical note, Michael asked me the other day why changing our own lifestyle in little ways promotes what Pope Benedict XVI calls in his World Day of Peace Message "an authentic human ecology" that would "forcefully reaffirm the inviolability of human life at every stage" as well as promote a "respect for nature." I was reminded of his question when I heard the authors of the above-mentioned book discuss their investigation of the city of Parkersburg, WV, home to the Dupont Chemical plant that produces (yuck) Teflon. We stopped using Teflon a while back, and have (obviously) not knowingly purchased any cookware that is coated with the stuff since then. As I heard on the radio, there have been concerns that one of the most dangerous of the Teflon chemicals, known as C8 or PFOA (perfluorooctanic acid), has contaminated the air and drinking water near DuPont's plant, with all sorts of ramifications for the health of the citizens there--cancers, strange illnesses, etc. It hit me then again-- this isn't just about me, although I was thinking that it really was. There is a face, a person, suffering the consequences of the production of that Teflon cookware that I am consciously choosing not to purchase. I could be wrong, but I think I heard on the radio that they were moving to completely eliminate the production of Teflon...? Lots of individuals refusing to purchase such products has got to have something to do with that, at least, I hope so.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Traditional Table Tuesday ( a day late): Our Daily Bread

As I mentioned in my first post on our journey to becoming more “traditional” eaters, we would like most, if not all, of the foods that we purchase to be foods that mankind has been eating for thousands of years. This means eliminating from our cabinets packaged foods such as cereals, crackers, boxed cookies, frozen premade dinners, and highly processed breads.

Now, I grant that there are some delicious breads out there, from good bakeries, made with only fresh, traditional ingredients. I don’t even allow myself to browse at the Whole Foods Bakery, primarily because at $5-$8 a loaf, their breads just aren’t in our normal-everyday budget range, but also because I would probably drool on the cases and I know Peter and Gabriel would be begging to have some bread since they love the stuff!

At home, I can make my own bread with all organic ingredients and eat it fresh out of the oven for about $0.89, if I make my standby Whole Wheat Sourdough. My sourdough starter has been disappointing me lately, so at Michael’s request, I tweaked a 100% Whole Wheat bread recipe with conventional yeast, soaking the grains overnight to reduce their phytate content (what in the world is this, you ask? Read here or here to find out) and also to make mouth-wateringly fluffy bread and rolls.

The new conventional yeast recipe I’ve recently discovered, based pretty closely on a recipe from an awesome used-bookstore treasure, Cooking with Whole Grains by Ellen and Vrest Orton, costs me about $2.00. Again, I use all organic ingredients, but instead of water I use milk, butter, and honey, so that adds to the cost. However, a great frugal tip-- you can use milk that's past its prime for this loaf--yes, sour milk-- and honestly I think it tastes even better!

I have to tip my hat to my mother who facilitated my discovery of this great cookbook which has tons of old-fashioned, all 100% whole grain recipes! She passed along this fascinating article called The Mystery of the Mill, which is the introduction to the cookbook I referred to above. Anyone interested in the history of food and the industrial food system will be interested in reading this history of how white flour, although less nutritious, became the predominant flour of our American food system. (It’s all about the money, folks. Are we surprised?)

Here’s the recipe from Cooking With Wholegrains with my modifications:
Soaked Wholewheat Bread

12-24 hours before you wish to start rising the bread, put in a large bowl:
3 T. honey
3 T. butter

Pour over:
1 ½ cups warmed (but not boiled) milk
Stir until butter and honey are melted.
½ cup buttermilk or yogurt
5 ½ cups flour

Stir until well mixed. Let stand covered in a warm place until you are ready to start the rising process. I usually do this step ( the “soaking” step) the night before, and start my rising process in the morning.

Mix together and allow to proof:
2 1/4 tsp commercial yeast
1/4 cup warm water
1 tsp sugar or honey Mix this into your bread. (I used the bread hook on my Kitchen Aid with much success.)
Once it’s mostly incorporated, mix in:
2 tsp salt

Knead it for a bit, then set in a well-oiled, covered bowl to double in bulk. You’ll be allowing this doubling four times. Once it’s doubled–about an hour, but sometimes a bit more the first time–punch down the dough, and fold the dough from the sides to the center until it is about turned over, and let rise until doubled again. After the fourth time, turn the dough out onto a floured board and knead for a minute or so until it seems firm. Cut off about a third of it, leaving about 2 lbs. of dough for a loaf and about 14 oz. of dough for a couple dinner rolls. Alternately, you could make 2 loaves. After cutting the dough knead it a minute or so more, shape, and place in your bead pan. Let rise in the pan until about doubled–don’t let it over-rise, so keep a close eye on it, then place in a pre-heated oven at 425 for 15 minutes, then lower to 375 and bake for 20 minutes longer, maybe 45 minutes in all. You may need to "tent" the bread with some foil to keep the top from browning too much.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Weekend Book Nook: Paddle-to-the-Sea

“Hmmf. Good book,” remarked the bearded, not-all-that-friendly-looking, middle-aged librarian as I checked out this book with its companion 70's-produced DVD. It’s not all that often that even the chatty, friendly, lady-librarians remark on my book choices, so when our silent male librarian behind the checkout desk shared his approval of Paddle-to-the-Sea, I had an inkling that this was a good boy-book. I discovered it by chance, by typing the word “creek” into my library system’s card catalog. We read it back in the fall, during “C” week, when we were investigating creeks and ponds. Paddle-to-the-Sea is a small wooden Indian carved one winter by a Native American Indian boy in the snowy mountains of Canada. The boy sets him on the edge of a snowbank to wait for spring, and when the snow melts into the creeks, Paddle begins his journey. He makes his way to the sea by way of rivers, the Great Lakes, and the helping hands of some friends he meets along the way, including fishermen, children, and lighthouse keeper.

The illustrations are vivid and detailed–I think this is why the book engaged my son even though it had a full page of text for each vignette of Paddle’s journey. He was fascinated (of course) by the forest fire scenes, as well as the depictions of the industries and pasttimes one encounters along the river and lakes (logging, fishing, the Coast Guard, lighthouse keeping, etc.) The book puts flesh and bones to geography and natural science with maps of Paddle’s journey, as well as explanations of how water travels to the sea, and beautiful pictures of the various ecosystems he encountered. The characters Paddle meets along the way, and their jobs would make a great mini-unit on Canadian and North-Eastern American social studies.

As I mentioned, there is a short film based on the movie, which can be found in DVD form. We enjoyed it, although it was definitely a get-it-at-the-library kind of thing, not something I would say was so great that we’d want to purchase it. That being said, it seems as though Paddle has something of a cult-following (in the lightest meaning of the term), given that there are...yes... facebook groups dedicated to him. Guess I found a good one, eh? :)

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Also on my grown-up bookshelf this weekend:

Fire Within:St Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross by Thomas Dubay... I've only read the intro so I'll have to save any detailed thoughts on it for later.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Deciphering Gabriel

Intense, physical, squirmy, imaginative, verbal, sweet, boyish, and loud: my three-year-old son is all these and more. He is my first baby-turned-child, the first little person I am accompanying on the complicated journey of figuring out how to dwell in the world. Gabriel barrels through each stage of growth like a snowplow, strewing in jumbled heaps everything I thought I knew about both him and myself. When he was just over a year old... (Read the rest here!)

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

101 uses for junk mail...

Maybe it was the pounding sinuses and the fever that weakened my defenses...whatever the case, 3:30pm this afternoon found me in a living room strewn with dried pine needles from the Christmas tree I had just dragged out the front door, pitching wadded up balls of junk mail to a plastic-bat wielding three year old, while my one year old gleefully threw his own stash of discarded junk mail into the front hall toilet. I should have been vacuuming, but that wouldn't have been half as fun. :)
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Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Traditional Table Tuesday: Why Food Matters

On holy milk

From virgin nurse the Boy God feeds;
This miracle all else exceeds.
The One to whom all owe their lives
On food from someone else survives.
O peerless wonder! See him thrive
On fleshly food who keeps alive
the flesh.
(From a poem featured in the Magnificat on January 1, celebrating Mary the Mother of God.)

Over the past months, and years, really, I have been trying to get to the root of why food is not incidental to those who live a life of faith. Food isn’t just a neutral factor in our lives, something just to be consumed without thought, a topic that hovers on the margins of the life of faith but never really enters in. Why? So many reasons come to mind. I’ll just get started with one. The One to whom all owe their lives/ On food from someone else survives. These simple lines reveal two simple truths:

1) Christ ate.
He who shares all in common with us (except for sin, of course) ate, and in so doing, he incorporated the act of eating into the eternal Trinity. Kind of blows you away, doesn’t? God not only made the world, but entered into it, and entered into it all the way, made it a part of himself in the most basic way possible.

2) Food comes from.
Even the completely self-sufficient farmer (and perhaps the self-sufficient farmer is more greatly aware of this) exists in a relationship of reception. For him, food comes from the earth, from his animals, from the good graces of a Creator who has set the world up to be responsive to his labor. For most of the rest of us non-farmer types, food “comes from” in an even more radical way. Food comes from the farmer, from the field laborer, from the trucker, from the butcher, from the supermarket shelf-stocker, and finally, from whomever it is who prepares it for us. What does all this mean? It means that food comes from someone. Thus, food establishes relationships. This basic fact is beautifully illustrated by the infant who must be fed; the entire survival of the infant is completely dependent upon being in relationship with someone who will feed, someone from whom food will come.

These days it is easy to forget that food comes from. We could potentially enter a supermarket, purchase some shrink-wrapped, pre-made frozen food, swipe through a self-checkout aisle, and breeze out of the store, without a word to another human being. No one to thank, no one to even acknowledge.

Looking at these two points together, we see that in eating, Christ entered into relationships. The first and most basic we see in the poem–nursing put him in relationship with his mother Mary (and through her, with all of created humanity). We can only guess at the web of relationships that the Holy Family entered into in order to obtain their food, but I would guess that they were probably not self-sufficient farmers if Joseph and Jesus worked as carpenters. They probably raised part of their own food and traded for part of it. In any case, I doubt that Christ or the Holy Family entered into exploitative relationships in order to obtain the food they ate. Granted, it was a very different time in history, but I am certain there were those who were exploited by the commercial system of the day. All this has convinced me that I need to think hard about the relationships that are established by the food that my family purchases. Am I doing my best to make sure that I am not exploiting others just to get a lot of something cheap, when I could pay more or go to some small amount of trouble to be more respectful of those who are bringing my food to me?

I know there is so much suffering that is invisible to me, suffering that I take for granted on a daily basis, but the suffering of agricultural workers is something that will probably always be present to me. I was blessed by the opportunity to meet and work with a handful of the Mexican migrant workers who pick the apples for our Virginia applesauce and the grapes for our classy Virginia wines. I see their faces when I pay more for the organic produce I purchase, when I chose to get our summer produce from Amish family farms by joining a summer CSA. Most vividly, I see Lupita’s face–she was young, she was my best student, and she and her husband worked in a vineyard. They had constant rashes from the sprays that irritated their arms as they picked the grapes, and although they wished for children, were having a lot of trouble conceiving and wondered why. Although I will never know for sure, I often wondered if the level of chemicals Lupita was exposed to had something to do with their fertility issues.

Our “traditional table” has a lot more to it than just the conventional/organic issue, and certainly, there are nutritional and health benefits to organic foods as well, but honestly, for me, those have always been the icing on the cake, as it were. To me, it is more about the people, more about the social and commercial structures that I am supporting with my food dollar, although it’s nice to know that there’s less toxic chemicals building up in my family’s bodies as well.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Simple Woman’s Daybook, January 4, 2010

Outside My Window...
It’s probably still icy cold. Yesterday I put the OJ outside on the deck to keep it cool; in the morning it was a block of ice!

I am thinking...
About traditional foods and all the things there are to write and say about them.

I am thankful for...

Time to be a family.

From the kitchen...
Monday: French Toast Casserole, Homemade pitas and hummous with ginger carrots, leftover chicken and veggies, and freshly baked bread with a (tweaked) recipe from my new cookbook Cooking with Whole Grains– I’ll share if it works out!
Tuesday: Red Lentil Soup with Lime
Wednesday: Leftovers
Thursday: Spaghetti and meatballs
Friday: Tuna melts
Saturday: We’ll be at my Mom’s enjoying her delicious cooking!
Sunday: Something with our grass-raised lamb from our Winter CSA with Moutoux Orchards

I am wearing...
PJ’s, still. Snuck upstairs while Michael was with the little guys.

I am going...
To the Air and Space Museum today! We promised Gabriel, our Apollo 11 fan, a Christmas trip there again, just like last year.

I am hearing...
Michael and the boys downstairs.
A Few Plans For The Rest Of The Week:
• Michael goes on retreat Wednesday through Sunday with his wonderful community; I need to brace myself for the alone time with two energetic little boys!
• I’ll pick up our casual “school time” again next week... which means I need to figure out which letter of the alphabet we’re on, request some books from the library, and plan a saint and some fun activities to go with it.
• My New Year’s resolution–part I– I’m going to read through Simplifying your Domestic Church, make photocopies of the blank forms, and choose some areas to start simplifying!
• New Year’s resolution part II– Once that is sufficiently done, maybe in a couple months, I’m going to start actually thinking about decorating our new home. That will be in a while, though, as Michael won’t be able to help out until summer.
• Michael and I will start reading Hold on to Your Kids and Raising Your Spirited Child together. Gabriel has been incredibly challenging during Christmas and we’re at our wits’ end. Literally.

Here is picture thought I am sharing...

Our little Peter, not so little anymore!

(For more, similar daybooks, see

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Another newbie for 2010: The Weekend Book Nook

"By inner necessity, the search for God demands a culture of the word or – as Jean Leclercq put it: eschatology and grammar are intimately connected with one another in Western monasticism (cf. L’amour des lettres et le désir de Dieu). The longing for God, the désir de Dieu, includes amour des lettres, love of the word, exploration of all its dimensions. Because in the biblical word God comes towards us and we towards him, we must learn to penetrate the secret of language..."

"Thus it is through the search for God that the secular sciences take on their importance, sciences which show us the path towards language. Because the search for God required the culture of the word, it was appropriate that the monastery should have a library, pointing out pathways to the word. It was also appropriate to have a school, in which these pathways could be opened up. Benedict calls the monastery a dominici servitii schola. The monastery serves eruditio, the formation and education of man – a formation whose ultimate aim is that man should learn how to serve God. But it also includes the formation of reason – education – through which man learns to perceive, in the midst of words, the Word itself."

(From Pope Benedict's speech to representatives of the world of culture in France on September 12, 2008)

Pope Benedict offers an idea that speaks to all bibliophiles who always knew that there was something more to their love affair with books. We are drawn to books–good books, books that reveal the truth about the human person; books that speak of the beauty as well as the sorrows of this created world; books that overflow, above all, with words– because we long to know The Word himself. "The longing for God, the désir de Dieu, includes amour des lettres, love of the word, exploration of all its dimensions."

Why is this? Pope Benedict points out that one key way that God has revealed himself is through the word, the Scriptures. The only way such a revelation can be fully appreciated is through a cultivation of a “culture of the word.” My life as a lover of language has made me realize that the more one reads, the greater one’s sensitivity to the nuances of phrasing, the depth of metaphor, and the painting of character.

Our family is embarking on a new exploration of words as we teach our little ones to "penetrate the secret of language" through learning to read and write. Like the monastery, our little domestic church is called to pursue eruditio, the formation and education of man. And so we fill our days with living books, exploring childhood’s literary landscape in order to engage the heart and open the mind to knowledge. As Charlotte Mason remarks, the key to education is presenting children not with dry facts, but “with fact clothed upon by living flesh, breathed into by the vital spirit of quickening ideas.” Good literature incarnates history, geography, science, culture, and faith, propelling the naturally curious mind of the child towards a greater engagement with topics than the faceless facts of textbooks.

Such literature does not always leap off the library shelves into our hands. Often we find it through the guidance of others who have gone before us, sometimes we happen upon it. This little Weekend Book Nook will be a space to share literary discoveries and our family’s engagement with them. Most will probably be elementary-aged children’s literature, as my oldest child is only 3, and that is where our sights are set at the moment.

My grown-up reading habits entail much “grazing” and little “finishing,” but I’m sure from time to time my own reading will make its presence known as well.