A Catholic perspective on the world and all the good things therein, especially books and food. Literature cum chocolate is the order of the day at The Crockery.

Location: A Collegetown, Undisclosed Location, United States

No longer a graduate student, Teresa is now a professional know-it-all.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Modern-day Wassail, Medieval Cheer!

Despite all of my concerns -and the concerns of much of the Christian world- about the secularization of Christmas, it's good to keep in mind that many of our most beloved Christmas carols are not actually about baby Jesus, Mary, angels, shepherds, or wiseman. There are a good number of very old, very traditional carols about drinking, partying, and decorating public areas. For instance, In "Deck the Hall," does not the "Hall" originally refer to the Great Hall where the whole fiefdom might celebrate a few times a year? Perhaps I'm wrong about this -I'm neither a medievalist nor a musicologist- but I think when we translate "Hall" as "halls" we are missing the cultural context of the carol.

Few songs more clearly capture the holiday spirit than the carol "Here we come A-Wassailing," which, if I understand it correctly, essentially means, "Here we are going from door to door begging for a yummy alcoholic punch." True, the carol does promote love and joy and good cheer, but it does so in a way that may seem inherently irreligious: is holiday cheer found in a barrel of wassail? Surely not!

Maybe the fault, dear readers, lies not in the medieval wassailers, but in ourselves. My husband went through a phase in which he accused everyone of promoting an unhealthy sacred-secular dualism. I'm not sure it was always clear what he really meant, or what it would look like to NOT promote a sacred-secular dualism, but I'd like to suggest that currently, in America, Christmas is surrounded by such dualism. We are torn between celebrating it in a "secular" way with a materialistic focus, and celebrating it in a sacred way, with worship, fellowship, and caroling. Perhaps what we ought to do is to add a little alcohol to our fellowship (if it's not there already) and celebrate as the medievals did, by combining the task of bringing tidings of good news to the neighborhood (that is, caroling door to door) with the joy of partying down with such excellencies as mincemeat pie and wassail. After all, what better way to celebrate the Incarnation than by celebrating the joys of carnate bodies: good food, dancing, music, good things to smell, and the like?

I can't help you with the mincemeat pies, but I can tell you a modern-day (non-alcoholic)* wassail recipe. As the wassail is bubbling while I speak, I can't report on the quality of this holiday punch from, but I can recommend it's ease in preparation. (I had to scale the recipe down; the original version would be suitable only for a large crockpot.)

Crock-pot Wassail (for a medium-sized crockpot, at least 3 quarts)

2 quarts apple cider
2 cups orange juice
2 cups unsweetened pineapple juice
1/2 cup lemon juice
1/2 cup sugar
12 whole cloves
2 sticks of cinnamon


1. Add all ingredients to a medium sized crock pot. Note: You might want to put the cloves and the cinnamon sticks in a spice bag (made of cheesecloth) so that you can remove before serving. Failing that (cheesecloth isn't always easy to find!) you can use a tea ball to hold the cloves. The cinnamon sticks will be much easier to fish out.

2. Cook on high for the first hour, then move the temperature to "low." You can leave it on low as long as you want. I would recommend 1 hour on high and at least 2 hours on low, or, if you want to leave it on low the whole time, 4 hours on low. Essentially, though, this drink is done as soon as it's warm enough to drink.

Enjoy your wassail, and Merry Christmas!

* You may wonder why I am endorsing a non-alcoholic wassail recipe, given my apparent theological preference for alcohol. Well, I wanted something the nephews could drink, didn't I? Be charitable towards those who don't or can't drink.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Experiments in Chili

When we talk about holiday foods, we probably don't tend to think of chili (con carne or otherwise). It is not associated with holiday cheer. But perhaps it should be. After all, a large pot of chili can feed an equally large family gathering. Furthermore, chili can be customized through adding cheese, crackers or corn chips, sour cream, tabasco sauce, etc. so that each member of the party has his or her chili roughly the way he/she likes. Note that I didn't say "just the way they like it." This was not on account of the ungrammaticality of using "they" to refer to a singular person; that doesn't bother me. Rather, it's due to my recognition that not everyone is going to like the same kind of chili. We shouldn't pretend otherwise. Some like green chili. Some like white chili. Some like meatless chili. Some like their chili with turkey or sausage instead of beef. I bet you could even make chili with veal, though I haven't tried. (And what HAVEN'T I tried to make with veal?) The point is, you can't please everyone, but by offering a nice selections of garnishes and accompanyment to your chili, you can make you guests feel like they have some control over the quality of their meals. This will make them happy. I'm sure there's some psychological prinicple to explain it, but you'll have to trust me on it.

Truth is, I'm new to the chili-making world. I had made a vegetarian chili once or twice before, to limited success. As far as I can recall, I had never made "real" chili until last night, when I made it for a gathering of family members, none of whom would probably enjoy learning that they were mere guinea pigs in experiments in chili.

In any case, my first real experiment in chili went well, even though the crockpot was overfull and the recipe I was using was, ironically, meatless. I never let a thing like that stop me from adding what I want, though, so the following recipe developed. The original recipe said it fed 6-8. My version (below) fed seven hungry adults and two toddlers, with a small amount left over.

Hint: if you follow this recipe, use a large crockpot (at least 4 quarts), not a 3 quart one. If you have a very large one, you can bring it up to the proper by height by adding water, or water and tomato paste, or even just another can of diced tomatos.

And here's the recipe:

Big pot o' Chili from cans

~2 pounds of ground beef.
1 can navy beans
1 can black-eyed peas
1 can black beans.
OR, three different kinds of beans of your own choosing.
1 onion, diced
1 6 oz. can tomato paste
1 (12 -14 oz) can of diced tomatos.
1 1/2 cups of frozen corn, or 1 can of corn
1/3 cup sliced jalapeno peppers (from a can)
1 1/2 cup of water (increase or decrease as needed)
4 teaspoons chili powder
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon cumin
1 1/2 teaspoons mustard sauce (what you put on hotdogs, not ground mustard)
(Adjust spices to taste!)

1. Brown the beef. You may cook some of the onion with it. Cook the beef with 1 teaspoon chili powder if you like.

2. When the beef is done, fill the crock pot with the beans: drain each can, so you don't get that beany goop in there. You may even want to rinse the beans first.

3. Fill the pot with the corn, onions, diced tomatos, peppers, tomato paste, and spices. You don't have to drain the corn or tomatos, but if not, you may want to adjust the water level.

4. Add the beef on top. Pour water over the beef: make sure the crockpot is at least half full, but preferably not more than 3/4 full. (For this recipe, it seems that an overly full crockpot won't hurt.)

5. Cook on high 4-5 hours, or on low 8-10 hours. Stir thoroughly before serving. You can turn the heat down to low and let it simmer for an extra hour or too if necessary.

6. Serve with crackers, bread, cornbread, or of the above. Top each bowl with sharp cheddar cheddar cheese if desired, or with sour cream, or both. You may also wish to put the rest of the sliced jalapenos on the table, for the use of those with fiery taste buds. Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Geography of Christian America

I don't have time for a long blog entry tonight, but I stumbled upon this map today, and thought I'd share it. It shows the counties of all 50 states, colored in to indicate which denomination is predominant. My first thought on looking at it was something along the lines of "Wow, that's a pretty impressive Baptist belt!" My second thought was that there was also a large number number of counties where Catholicism is the predominant denomination. That shouldn't be surprising, though, since Catholics comprise something like 25% of all Americans.

Anyway, that's my thought for the day. Enjoy!

P.S. I'd give credit where credit is due, but I can't seem to find my source for the link.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Xmas and Christmas

In an earlier entry, I linked to an article about megachurches being closed on Sunday, December 25, to honor Christmas. A great many blogs have covered this topic already, so I was reluctant to say anything. What more could I add to the wisdom of The Broken Messenger, Scot McKnight, or Michelle Arnold? The topic has already been hashed out on message boards both pro and con. However, an unrelated link to a Lewis essay (see below) made me think about the subject a little more, and I decided to share my ruminations with the blogosphere after all.

My own personal take on the subject is it is deeply sad that attending church services on Christmas day should be viewed as an imposition or an obstacle to the celebration of Christmas. Worshiping together with the community of Christians should add to the festivities, not take away from them. It shouldn't be a case of "Ah, Mom, do we have to go to church? It's Christmas!" but of "Hey everybody, let's go celebrate Jesus' birth with our fellow Christians!" However, I realize that for Christians who do not normally attend Christmas day services, it's harder to think that way. If your observance of Christmas is purely private and domestic (that is, it may be religious but it always takes place within your family) or purely secular (that is, if it only means eating, opening gifts, and being merry) then of course "having" to go to church on Christmas morning, because it's a Sunday, is going to seem like an imposition.

This private or secular celebration is, of course, not the traditional meaning of the holiday: one can tell simply by looking at the name. Christmas is supposed to be about more than just celebrating with your family. It is supposed to be a liturgical festival, a "churchly" holiday that you celebrate with your local congregation. That is why the word "Mass" is included in the English holiday. As other bloggers have eloquently said, "let's keep the Mass in Christmas."

But, you may say, that's just a Catholic idea. It's not Protestant to go to church on Christmas. Oh? C.S. Lewis would have something different to say about that. In this essay from God in the Dock, Lewis sees Christmas worship as one of the differences which seperate Christians from their secular compatriots. After describing the frustation, exhaustion and expense that result from a purely secular celebration of "Xmas," Lewis' historian-narrator says:

But the few among the Niatirbians [psst- "Britain" backwards]have also a festival, separate and to themselves, called Crissmas , which is on the same day as Exmas. And those who keep Crissmas, doing the opposite to the majority of the Niatirbians, rise early on that day with shining faces and go before sunrise to certain temples where they partake of a sacred feast. And in most of the temples they set out images of a fair woman with a new-born Child on her knees and certain animals and shepherds adoring the Child. (The reason of these images is given in a certain sacred story which I know but do not repeat.)

Lots of Christians from every denomination will be enjoying C.S. Lewis' storytelling abilities this year by watching the Narnia movie. I hope some of them will take to heart his view of the difference between Christmas and Xmas. Let's not be taken in by the great Xmas "racket."

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

More Non-Instant Food: Porridge in a Pot

If you've ever spent time in the hot cereal section of the grocery store, examining the many flavors of instant oatmeal, you may have noticed a cannister or two of something called "Old Fashioned Oatmeal." If you were curious, you may have picked up the cannister, read the label, and realized that this product is not instant. You cannot make old-fashioned oatmeal just by pouring boiling water over it. It must be cooked.

Unless you are an experienced crockery cooker (in which case my blog is probably laughable to you), you may not have realized that you could prepare old-fashioned oatmeal in your slow cooker. I myself did not realize this until recently, when I first cracked open a copy of Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook and asked "Why is there an entire section on porridge?" If you are learning about this capacity for the first time, you too may be asking: why would anyone do that? Why would you want to spend 7-9 hours cooking your breakfast?

That's a good question. The first -and to my mind, the simplest- answer is that the oatmeal can be put into the pot at night, cooked overnight on low, and be ready for you in the morning. Perhaps this does not appeal to you, but it does to me. I tend to eat oatmeal only during the fall and winter. As the temperature drops, it gets harder for me to get out of bed in the morning. A hot bowl of oatmeal is comforting, but as I'm not a morning person, I dislike heating the water, digging through the cupboard for the oatmeal box (somehow it always falls off the shelf onto the cans of green beans below), and measuring out exactly 1/2 a cup of hot water. The idea of waking up to a hot pot of oatmeal which has only to be spooned in to a bowl and sweetened to taste is very, very tempting. For me, if not for you, it even has a bit of nostalgia value. The waiting pot of oatmeal seems to inevitably remind me of breakfast at my dorm cafeteria in college. I often came late, after the "hot breakfast" hours were over, and was thus forced to scrap together a meal out of donuts or leftover turnovers and fruit. There were, however, always pots of hot cereal -oatmeal, farina, cream of wheat, or even grits- waiting out in the lobby area. These grain cereals were plain, not the highly flavored instant variety I had known as a child, so I quickly learned how to sweeten them to taste with brown sugar, cinnamon, and cream. Perhaps because of fond memories of these grain cereals, I was immediately interested in making hot oatmeal overnight. But, as I learned from the aforementioned cookbook, there's another reason to try crockpot oatmeal.

What I, a child of the instant oatmeal generation, didn't realize is that there are some grain products, such as steel cut oats (aka Irish oats or Scotch oats) , which take a long time to cook. If you've had -or heard tell of- McCann's Irish Oatmeal, then you're acquainted with steel cut oats. For these products, I'm told, a slow cooker is a wonderful invention. And these oats supposedly have a much more robust texture and flavor than rolled oats with which we're all familiar. I cannot tell you yet if this is true, but I hope to try Scots oats (note, please, that I have used the correct term, rather than the term which only applies to whiskey, for my Caledonian brethren!) in the near future.

In the meantime, I'm experimenting with different ways of cooking those easy-to-find old fashioned oats. You can mix them with cooked rice, for a multi-grain taste, or season them with apple pie spice, for flavor. Now, if only I can figure out how to program my programmable coffeemaker, I'll be set. Breakfast will be ready while I'm still stumbling over the hungry cats in the hallway. And maybe I'll have an incentive to wake up before lunchtime.

P.S.- If you can't find steel-cut oats at the Big Boxmart nearest you, you can order them online. has some listed under gourmet foods, but there are plenty of natural food stores that ship them.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

'Tis the Season. . . for not singing Christmas carols

Today is the second Sunday of Advent, for those who keep track of such things. For those who don't, it's three weeks before Christmas, and time to get a move on with the shopping. And of course, for those who don't follow the liturgical year, this is the perfect time to begin singing Christmas carols. After all, the Incarnation is too important an event to restrict to just one Sunday (especially since some churches won't even be holding services this Christmas). We can never spend too much time celebrating Jesus' birth. Why not start singing those carols a few weeks early?

Why not, indeed? I was thinking of that today, as I contrasted the two liturgical services I attended with my husband this weekend (one Reformed, one Catholic) with the "Advent service" offered by a non-liturgical church I attended a year or two ago at around the same time of year. At this particular church, the Advent service consisted of reading the nativity story from one of the Gospels and singing Christmas carols. The choir performed some lovely songs. It was all, I think, essentially a substitute for the traditional Christmas Eve or Christmas morning services held in many churches. And it wasn't that bad of an idea- except that they called it an "Advent" service, when it was, in fact, a Christmas service. It was not about waiting for Christ: it was about celebrating His birth. To be sure, the birth of Christ is a noble event worthy of much celebration. That's why we have Christmas (and lots of Christmas- see more below!). However, that is not what Advent is for.

The season of Advent, as liturgists and pastors tell people over and over again, is a season of preparation, repentance, and hopeful (even joyful) expectation. The lectionary readings for Advent range from slightly ominous to very optimistic. We are told to watch, because we do not know the hour or day; we are told that the Messiah is coming to lovingly shepherd His people. Advent is an eschatologically rich season. We look back on the time before Christ's coming, and we look ahead to His eventual return. There is a specific repetoire of music used in Advent which, at its best, encourages us in our longing for Christ's return while reminding us of Israel's long wait for the Incarnation. The most famous advent hymn is "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" based on the "O Antiphons" from which the season reportedly takes its name (because they repeat "Veni," the Latin word for "Come"), but there are other classics, too: "Creator of the Stars of Night," and "On Jordan's Bank," for example.

Since Advent has its own repertoire of music -some of it very good indeed- there is no need to bring out the Christmas carols. I would go further, though, and ask: what purpose does it serve to sing "Silent Night" in early December? The whole point of Advent is that it is a time of preparation for Christmas. Now, there are some events for which preparation requires practice. A play, for instance, needs to be rehearsed. So does a wedding service: one has to rehearse the ceremony. But a wedding is also the perfect example of an event for which one must put off the celebration. In the Christian church, couples do not prepare for marriage by acting as if they are married -that is, by living together and celebrating their relationship physically. Orthodox (that's a small "o," in case you were wondering) Christians are, in fact, considerably upset by the current secular trend in which couples act as if they were married without ever having made the committment. One does not best prepare for a sacramental/covenental union by pretending it already exists. Nor, from a liturgical mindset, does one prepare for a great religious feast by emphasizing the very thing one is preparing for.

Some might argue that pretending that Jesus has not yet come (by waiting until December 24 to sing Christmas carols) is in itself false, but I would simply remind such people that, after all, we ARE still waiting for the second coming. Part of the beauty of Advent is that it is a means of expressing our own anticipation through the rich biblical language of the Messianic prophets. We learn about waiting by aligning ourselves with those people who waited for centuries for the Branch of Jesse, the Daystar, the Wisdom from on high. We weaken the eschatological thrust of the season if we underscore the "yet to arrive" part of the "yet to arrive/already here" tension found in the Christian attitude towards the Messiah.

What about the objection that Christmas is too important to be celebrated only on one day, and the Christmas carols simply too good to be used only once a year? Well, as liturgically-minded readers may have already guessed, I think the answer lies in encouraging the celebration of Christmas as a season rather than a day. In the calendar used by most (Western) liturgical churches, the Christmas season is a distinct season from Advent. Christmas itself is an "octave." As a feast, it technically lasts 8 days, not just one, and the traditional Christmas time lasts until January 6, Epiphany: those are the "Twelve Days of Christmas" of obnoxiously-repetitive caroling fame. That's plenty of time to sing those carols, isn't it? (Not to mention that we celebrate the Incarnation in other ways throughout the liturgical year.) Families might find ways of returning to a "twelve days of Christmas" mentality rather than putting all the focus on the morning of December 25.

To most of my readers, this is all old hat. So why bother repeating it? Well, the truth is, I'm repeating it because I myself am prone to forgetting why it is that we don't sing Christmas carols during Advent. In the past, I've been guilty of including them in the musical selections for Advent "parties." I figured that it was more ecumenical to sing songs that everyone knew: there aren't as many Advent songs which are common across denominational boundaries. Further, since not everyone at the events in question came from a liturgical background, it only made sense to let people sing the songs which they were used to singing at this time of year. A couple of years ago, I even defended my use of Christmas songs to an acquaintance who thought that I ought to be using the opportunity as a chance to educate less liturgically-oriented Christians on the meaning of Advent.

I've come to think that my well-meaning critic was right after all. I could have made a better use of the event in question as a chance to encourage celebration of Advent as a season with a value (and a beauty) of its own, rather than jumping ahead to Christmas. And I'm writing this blog in part to mark my resolution to do better in the future, should the occasion come up again. I don't plan on raining on anyone's parade, mind you. I'm not going to stop people from singing Christmas carols before December 24 if that's how they want to celebrate Christ's coming. I'm also not going to refuse to sing carols before Christmas vigil, if I'm in a setting where others are singing. But I'm also not planning on encouraging pre-Christmas carol singing anymore. There's nothing wrong with it- but there are better ways to prepare.