ROOTS AND WINGS

Four years ago as new residents of Minnesota, my husband mentioned during a grocery shopping trip that he thought he would “pick up some lamb chops.” “Great,” I said, or maybe even “Yum.” However, as I began browsing the dairy aisle he called out that he couldn’t find the lamb. “Nonsense,” I said, “It must be here.” I searched up and down the meat cases to no avail and decided to ring the bell for the butcher.

“Lamb?” he said with a quizzical expression, “well maybe at Easter.”

What! Beef, chicken, turkey, ham, walleye, bison, venison, lutefisk – and no lamb?

I realize now that it must have something to do with “mutton” and the perception that lamb is a far cry from tasty. In googling, I discovered that lamb for consumption should be less than 2 years old, usually slaughtered between 4 and 12 months. Mutton is not only older but has stronger flavor and tougher meat, was considered “cheap” food for the military, often over cooked and dry, hence the perception carried “home” that it was not something to eat as a treat.

Somehow we didn’t get that message in California. Leg of lamb remains the preferred Easter dinner choice, and chops are always a culinary delight. So, who knew?

We celebrated this Easter after finding just four lamb loin chops at Service Foods and they were labeled “fresh” (most likely meaning they were local, grass-fed lambs). Served with a combo of veggies they were divine. Minnesotans, you don’t know what you’ve been missing.

My Personal Chef aged them uncovered for three days in the refrigerator. The day before the holiday, he rubbed them with fresh garlic and pepper on both sides, and on Easter afternoon he added kosher salt (which would draw out the juices if added before that time) and let them rest at room temperature for one hour. After heating a cast iron skillet in a 375 degree oven, he browned them on the stove top and finished them off in the oven for about 7 minutes. Ahhhh.

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Because it was a special occasion, if just the two of us, we decided to “dress for dinner.” The Chef donned his dark green cashmere vest sweater over his usual t-shirt. I spent time rummaging through my closet, trying on various combos before deciding upon black tights (the chosen standard of my youth) and a grey, Norwegian looking sweater dress, set off with almost new grey and silver earrings. And so we dined in style amidst the heights of gastronomy, Californians with a touch of Minnesota.

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Earlier that morning at the Unitarian Church in Underwood, Minnesota, the message had circled around the topic “Making Easter Meaningful in a Unitarian Universalist Church,” highlighting the conundrum that Unitarians (I considered myself a Lutheran Buddhist before I became a Unitarian) often face within the context of traditional Christian rituals and beliefs. The truth lies within the fact that Unitarians don’t actually practice rituals or even entertain specific beliefs, all the while embracing truths within all religions. A fact succinctly expressed in my favorite part of each Sunday service, the chalice lighting, where members come up and light a candle for a current joy or concern after reciting together – “This chalice is a symbol of our community. No single belief includes us here; no disbelief excludes us. Our celebration of life and common search for meaning bind us together.”

Someone asked me once, what was the point if we didn’t recite scripture or celebrate miracles or follow a liturgy? Someone else (not a Unitarian) jumped in before I could reply and answered, “It’s because they’re Humanists.” Humanists. It might well have been an indictment, but I took it as a compliment, as in humanitarianism, as in “devoted to promoting the welfare of humanity, especially through the elimination of pain and suffering, the doctrine that man’s obligations are for the good of the whole.”
Sounds like Jesus to me.

In fact, the first listed official Purpose of our church begins with the phrase –
“Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and openness to the forces which create and uphold life.” And continues with – “Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life.” They certainly are less about the praying and the pontificating, and more about the doing – Habitat for Humanity, Lunches for Seniors, Someplace Safe. If there is a community need, the Unitarians are inevitably there, sleeves rolled up and serving.

But back to the morning talk which contained a number of insightful questions about how a Unitarian can celebrate Easter without caring or needing to focus upon a death and resurrection. The main thought that resonated for me personally concerned “Roots and Wings,” an analogy around the truth that for the majority of us that morning, “roots’ would be represented by our Lutheran (or Christian or Jewish) upbringing and “wings’ would be the Unitarian experience.

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The past Palm Sunday found us with family at the Shepard of the Prairie Lutheran Church in Hickson, North Dakota, celebrating the baptism of Charlee Marie, my cousin’s granddaughter. I must admit that my brain dozed off that day during long readings and recitations, but there was a certain sweetness about the occasion, and a comfort in the familiar old church within the history which had a lot to do with who I am today. I love going downstairs after the service and have the church ladies exclaim about the fun they had with my mother in elementary school and ask “Aren’t you Jennings daughter?” and smile approvingly.

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There were times when I didn’t fit into my Lutheran Sunday school because I dared to suggest something that seemed wondrous to me but not appropriate to the teacher who then, made me feel shamed. But there was un-deniably also a providence and blessing and history which would form my being and become my roots.

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The wings began to grow much later with many things – meditation and a study of Buddhist philosophy, the discovery of the written genre dubbed Magic Realism, the passion of the garden and creatures of the wild, and yes, the humanism of Unitarianism.

Easter can be celebrated in many ways and from multi-layered contexts. And right now I’m dreaming about having some left-over lamb to wrap inside a piece of lefsa.

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BEE-PREPARED

_1639 I’ve become the go-to person in our community of late whenever a friend or friend of an organization wants to sort out and understand the criteria for protecting our pollinators. I’m certain that it’s not because I have an exceptional expertise, but more likely because I have been particularly vocal on the subject and tend to craftily interject the “safe seed question” into otherwise everyday conversations. Would I like to go plant shopping? “Ah….do you have a few minutes? Can we talk?” Yes I know I wrote letters to the editor every week this month, but don’t you have some room in the latest edition? “Wait. Stop the car! That gardener is planting perennials in the city park!” Much of the confusion has undoubtedly occurred because two years ago we began to see articles about bee colony collapse and the danger of losing our natural pollinators and what that would mean for the food chain. For instance, in May of 2013 an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune proclaimed – “You can help bees by adding native plants” and went on to suggest creating a garden in your own back yard by planting bee balm, purple prairie clover, cup plant, asters and giant hyssops. The cover of Time Magazine in August 2013 featured a photo of one lone bee and the headline – “A World Without Bees – The price we’ll pay if we don’t figure out what’s killing the honeybee.” Yet again and again we were told that WE could be the solution. Unfortunately this trend exemplifies the adage that a little knowledge can be dangerous and recent articles have confused the public further by stating, for instance – “If you’re planting pollinators you just might be killing the bees even faster.” HUH! you say. At this point I should be directing you to scholarly sources like http://www.beeaction.org and http://www.xerces.org and hopefully you will take the time and follow through. For a quick-y perspective, however, I will offer my amateur understanding and here’s the story. Because farmers had been dousing their fields with pesticides for decades and that continued to be a concern, in the early 1990’s a new tool came on the market which was hailed as less dangerous to humans. The tool was labeled neonicotinoids and today they are the most widely used pesticides in the world. The name which encompasses the word – nicotine – should give you a hint. When will we learn? It took too long to realize that an acceptable social habit was actually deadly while the big tobacco interests spent a fortune telling us otherwise. Too late for many. In agriculture these neonicotinoids are used in virtually all row crops today, including corn, cotton, soybeans, canola, sunflowers and sugar beets. If you go into your own personal garden shed and read a few labels on the sprays you use, look for Imidacloprid, Clothianidin, Thiamethoxam, Acetamiprid, and Dinotefuran. Yep. Sorry. Neonics by another name and you’re killing bees too. How does it happen? This insecticide, which permeates the tissues of the plant, whether systemically or sprayed, affects the nervous system of the insect resulting in death, paralysis, or at the very least, confusion so that it can’t find it’s way home to the hive. And primarily, how does this take us back to personal plant and seed choices? The answer lies in the fact that over 40% of the seed companies in the United States have been bought out by Monsanto. And they haven’t changed the names. So you don’t suspect. And what do you think they are systemically inducing into their seeds? Bingo. And seedlings that are developed by wholesale suppliers and sold to local nurseries, in more abundance than we would like to imagine, use systemic neonicotinoids in their products. One of my most fun things in life used to be going to a nursery like a kid in a candy store, gathering up exciting bounty for my garden. When the seed catalogues arrived each year, it was heaven. Like making a list for Santa. And now, the fun is spoiled. And so, what is the answer? At this point we all need to arm ourselves with knowledge. Google beeaction.org and xerces.org. Refuse to buy plants from local nurseries that don’t answer our needs or questions. Make certain that our seed companies have signed the “Monsanto-free” pledge. There are many trustworthy and safe seed sources such as – Baker’s Creek Heirloom, Fedco Seeds, High Mowing Organic, ION Exchange, Johnny’s Seeds, Livingston Seeds, and Xerces. Occupymonsanto360.org lists many more. And what of the nurseries? I have yet to find a local source which guarantees GMO free plants. However, if we keep asking the right questions, demanding safe pollinator merchandise, and show that we have done our homework, changes will be made if only from the interest of economics. I sometimes worry that I may have inadvertently planted killers in my new Minnesota garden. Pulling plants isn’t the answer because the chemicals linger in the soil, spread to their neighbors and even pollute water sources. But mainly, I care and hope you do too.

And one more thing. While you’re doing your homework, make certain that your pollinator plants are the specific varieties native to your area. Your bees and butterflies will thank you and live on.

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MAY DAY

“Now is the winter of our discontent,” began Richard III in Shakespeare’s soliloquy. I might say the same. In our four years in Minnesota we have experienced the light winter, the normal winter, the winter of enormous snowdrifts, and now – the winter of extreme frigidity and minimal snowfall.

It’s not only disconcerting to see brown fields in January, it’s getting pretty close to a deal breaker to be forced to scurry, head down and gasping, incredulous and possibly frost-bitten, from automobile to shelter, day after dreary day. I just realized that only “in my head” do I scurry. In reality I slowly plant my feet, flat-footed with great care and caution, praying all the while that I not hit a patch of black ice which might send me flying upside down. How in the name of Odin did my great-grandfather, Jorgan Jacob Johannesen, ever manage to survive his first winter in this country by digging out a shelter along the bank of the Red River of the North? And ski the one hundred and one miles to Alexandria to purchase supplies with his last five dollars, tying the provisions to the skis and walking all the way back? Some days I can barely make it from the garage to the kitchen door.

And my diatribe doesn’t begin to cover the worst of this blasted, current winter. It turns out that snow is our friend. It is god’s ecologically perfect insulator and undoubtedly the very reason that Jorgan could even think of living below its depths. Who knew that the sewer pipes might freeze without a cozy blanket of snow? Not once, but twice so far here on Mt. Faith and everyday since, I live in fear and trepidation. The first time the noxious seepage flooded our basement, I was lucky to retrieve the boxes of Christmas ornaments which had been previously marred by a fuel oil spill last year. Two plumbers and a pumping company later (with weekend overtime fees), we were finally able to turn on the water and “use” the facilities.

Then once again this past weekend I heard the horrific sounds, not unlike multiple monsters burping and rumbling from deep within the toilets and drains. Another call to the pumpers and now a new resolve, with more below zero temperatures looming ahead and spring nowhere in sight, to trace and mulch the sewer line. But where? And how to know the trajectory? The pump company said they didn’t encounter ice until after 75 feet and it likely took a few twists and turns on it’s way to the street. The city said the line was “clear from their end.”

I’ve since learned that the “freeze line” in Minnesota is typically five feet down. Oh dear! What will this mean for the lilies – Casa Blanca and Anna Marie’s Pride and all the other precious Orientals and Asians? And for the penstemon and salvias, the delphinium and black eyed Susan, the new red twig dogwood, the crab applies, the bee balm and milkweed in the new pollinator garden and all my others darlings? Now I’m scared. Last year I bought straw bales from my friend Dave and spread them out among the perennial beds. This past fall I was lazy, remembering all the raking and messiness in the spring and decided to trust Mother Nature to do the job. Who would have suspected that Minnesota in February would be waffling from day to day between one inch and nothing of snow? And somewhere between zero degrees and 40 below?

I suspect this means that on some distant day in May there will be weeping and wailing across the breadth of Otter Tail County as gardeners everywhere look in vain for their prize rugosa rose, their grandmother’s peony (Yikes!), their beloved tiger lilies.

And no, we’re not giving up on Minnesota in spite of my diatribe (and thank you for letting me rant) because the benefits still outweigh the minuses. But as spring eventually appears, I know I will be out in the garden each and every day, watching and worrying, checking for fresh green shoots, standing guard above the beds like a worried mother pacing the floor until her children arrive safely home. Blessed be.

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SPOILER ALERT

How did you feel when you first learned there wasn’t a Santa Claus?

I can remember the time as clearly as anything in my childhood. A neighbor girl who was a year older than me blurted it out one day as we skipped rope down the block. “There isn’t really a Santa Claus, you know-oh,” she singsong-ed. “There is too,” I said as I skipped a beat. “No there isn’t,” she insisted, stopping and turning around. “Ask your mother.”

Cymbals clashed. Lightning struck. The world spun.

Can it be true? Why would they lie?

That evening I stood in one corner of the dining room next to the telephone table, trying not to glance past the side wall which opened upon the “sun room” where the magical, tinseled tree would stand, grasping at my knuckles behind my back as my mother set the plates and silverware. Several times I started to speak and finally under the fear of eternal distress, I blurted out – “Sandra said there isn’t really a Santa Claus.” Mother’s initial silence and the stricken look on her face spelled the truth. She didn’t lie. I’ll give her credit for that. My mother sat down suddenly in the chair by my side and with a serious demeanor I had never seen before and after a brief silence, intoned words I can’t precisely remember. Something about fun and love and the “spirit of” and something more about being a “big girl now.”

That was the first and likely the most difficult disillusion.

There have naturally been others throughout the years. I am forever scarred by the time I shared a thrilling spiritual revelation about native Americans standing out in nature and raising their head and hands to God instead of going inside a man-made structure and bowing down, followed by the Sunday School teacher making me feel humiliated and confused. There was the shocking reality of seeing “Whites Only” signs on rest rooms and drinking fountains on a trip across the south, or the lies and secrets of some elected officials and my consternation that the world doesn’t always work in the best interest of our planet and it’s inhabitants. To name a few.

The latest disillusion occurred one morning this past week as I sat, as usual, in my comfy chair with a freshly ground dark roast cup of coffee, sharing the Minneapolis/St. Paul Star Tribune. We have a ritual. I pass him the Sports and the Variety (which he must read first so I will end up with the pleasure of two daily crosswords – the New York Times and a slightly less difficult but clever version). I take my time with the front section, local news and business, pausing over various international issues and commendable op-ed essays. It’s my favorite time of day. Traditional, languid, a time of sharing and togetherness before tackling the tasks and commitments ahead.

This day, however, I didn’t get past the reportage on the bottom of the third page. In a horrendous, heart-stopping and bitter awakening I read the following quote from 1890 – “The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are master of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians. Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; it’s better that they should die than live the miserable wretches that they are.” And then the writer followed it up after the slaughter of as many as 300 Sioux at Wounded Knee by demanding that the U.S. government “wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth.”

I am still reeling from the identity of this abhorrent racist, a beloved author who informed and enchanted my childhood every bit as much as Santa Claus. I read and reread his books and gathered my neighborhood pals to read the volumes to them. I transferred the love of his fictional world to my children, driving them to conventions that celebrated the author. Throughout his lifetime my son collected first editions, illustrated the tales and worked on a new manuscript that would enhance the long running story line. Recently I even named our new kitten after a character from the series.

How could you? A lifetime of dearly embraced touchstones about truth and reality, about what it means to seek wisdom or wish for courage or engage one’s heart of hearts and learn that, above all, there is no place like home. Dreaming over the rainbow will never be the same again. L. Frank Baum, for shame. You have been far more a disappointment than Santa.

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SAINTS ALIVE!

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Before there was a Disneyland my mother established a touring agenda for out of state friends and relatives who visited our southern California home. We lived in Long Beach, which is south of the greater, spreading metropolis of Los Angeles. Along with the Pacific Ocean, a major draw in and of itself, my town was in proximity to wondrous attractions.

Long gone now, we lived just blocks from The Pike, a sort of Coney Island of the West with carnival rides, spooky funhouse, a boardwalk with exotic wares, an indoor salt water swimming pool fashioned after a Greco-Roman extravaganza, the oldest tattoo parlor in the United States and a wealth of cotton candy and salt-water taffy.

Knott’s Berry Farm to the south was in it’s infancy without the amusement park rides of today and consisted of a small replication of an old west town complete with saloon (sarsaparilla only), jailhouse, mercantile and train ride with cap-gun shooting bandits. There was a small chapel beside a man-made lake which housed a few rows of pews and a full length painting of Jesus with his eyes closed. When the seats were full and the chapel door closed, a recorded voice accompanied by the Moonlight Sonata in the background, intoned a short description of the Christ until at the final moment, through the magic of some special kind of paint and an early form of black lighting, Jesus’ eyes opened as the crowd gasped.

Our most exciting tour was inevitably south of the border to Tijuana with the added excitement of passing through customs into a foreign land. Down town we had our tourist pictures taken while sporting sombreros and sitting astride zebra painted donkeys, strolled the foreign streets past mariachis, purchased exotic souvenirs – hand blown glass vases, pottery candelabras, and highly decorated and embroidered felt jackets – and ventured into taco bars.

Our most heart-felt and mystical trip, however, was inevitably to San Juan Capistrano, considered the loveliest of the missions. The early California adobe structure is said to be the oldest building in the state. In my youth privet hedges lined tiled walkways in the garden and encircled splashing fountains. There were acacia trees and several varieties of blossoming oranges. I imagined the native tribes arriving at the mission, gathering in the sanctuary, happy to work the adjacent fields. The thick walls of the chapel suggested permanence and importance – a sense of sanctity and an other-worldly hush. And then, of course, there were the swallows. The migrating birds returned and returned year after year at an appointed time and had inspired a popular song, and thoroughly guaranteed the special-ness and magic of the mission. From the earliest age I thought it a romantic and enchanted place.

Capistrano was just one of twenty-one stops along the El Camino Real (the King’s Highway) and at one point in my youth, Lutheran though I was at the time, I vowed to make a pilgrimage one day, stopping at each of the missions along the length of the state. In college I was further entranced by a class in early California history which sparked my interest in the “romance of the west.”

I never made it to all of the sites, but I did visit Santa Barbara, which was large and more impersonal, I thought, than Capistrano. And the mission at Carmel which houses as a mini-museum, the seemingly small and insignificant personal room of Father Junipero Serra, the 18th century Franciscan founder of the line of missions. I visited a few others over the years, notably the most remote, San Antonio de Padua which is not easily accessible. One must traverse Fort Hunter Liggett off the major thoroughfare from the east or climb over the beautiful if sometimes arduous winding Nacimiento Road from the west. It appeared deserted on my visit, it’s passageways cold and even spooky. There was an eerie echo as we whispered and for some reason I shivered and was oddly struck in that moment with the thought that my childish romantic notions might well be a far cry from the reality of the history. Little did I know.

A friend recently sent me an article about the current pope coming to the United States this year in order to canonize Father Junipero Serra, and the uproar and outrage that is likely to cause to surviving ancestors of the native peoples who were enslaved by the mission system. Not to mention historians who are properly informed about this blot upon Californian history.

It turns out that the romance of the missions is no more a fact than the fun houses of The Pike, the shoot-em-ups at Knotts Berry Farm, the faux Jesus who opens his eyes, or the jollity that masked the emerging reality of cartel gangs in Tijuana.

Father Serra, according to the article published in Xasauan Today.com, “was the chief architect of a series of forced labor camps where California’s native people were enslaved, subjected to barbaric torture, and forced to live in crowded, unsanitary, and disease-ridden conditions, where they died in overwhelming numbers.” The French explorer, Jean Francois de la Perouse, after visiting his first California mission noted that the natives were essentially slaves whose “state at present scarcely differs from that of the Negro inhabitants of our colonies.” And there’s more. Sadly much more.

The current pope appeared to be a welcome new direction in the Catholic hierarchy. He took the name of Francis, he said, because he cares about the well being of the poor. He has been lauded for attempting to build bridges with other backgrounds and faiths. He resides in the guesthouse at the Vatican rather than the Apostolic Palace like his predecessors and he has been known to kneel down and wash the feet of others.

I recently applauded him for taking a position on global warming. I’d like to be able to give him a pass and assume that he hasn’t done his homework in this case. When Pope John Paul II beatified Father Serra in September of 1988 (a pre-step to sainthood) there was so much unhappiness among the descendents of the tribes that (according again to Xasauantoday.com) “at a public meeting in California, native Americans, many of whom were devout Catholics, described, often tearfully, their extreme distress at the leaders of their faith proposing to endorse the mistreatment and murder of their relatives, and the destruction of their families and traditional culture, by sanctifying the memory of the man primarily responsible for those atrocities.”

When a Catholic historian took the stage to concede, but compared the beatings Serra dished out as “lenient beatings,” the meeting dissolved into chaos but not until after “old Ephraim Doner rose from his seat at the back of the room and, holding up his large oaken walking staff, shouted, ‘Come down here and I’ll give you a lenient beating!’”

I used the term “bless his heart” about Francis when I heard his stance on global warming. I’m not giving up on him yet. But I am praying that like the little girl who was entranced and romantic and didn’t know the facts, he will hear the eerie echo of the sad voices in the passageways and know the truth. And leave Father Junipero Serra in his earthly grave by the side of the alter at San Carlos Borromeo del rio Carmelo.

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WEATHER WONDER-LAND

Here in Western Minnesota we’re experiencing an unusual dearth of snow this year. A slight covering of flakes one day and then meltdown the next. It reminds me of four years ago, our first in this northern prairie, only more extreme on the side of minimalism.

Last year we were buried amongst towering drifts and I had to put on snowshoes in order to reach and refill the bird feeders. But the weather predictions suggest that what we are now experiencing is likely to be the new normal.

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If I’m going to become a proper Minnesotan it seems I should not have to gaze out at brown lawns and puddles in the middle of January. Something is amiss. Today on the East Coast there is a force which has been named Juno, after the Roman Goddess Queen of war and fertility, pounding the coast and blizzarding across 7 states. It could be she caught that lascivious naughty Jupiter cavorting with a sea nymph in a romantic hideaway in old Cape Cod and yanked the jet stream right off the Canadian Clipper thoroughfare and hurled it towards their rendezvous. It wouldn’t be the first time. More likely it’s a collaborative human error, piling up ecological travesty in the face of scientific admonitions.

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You know when the Pope, bless his heart, announces that he is writing a papal edict about the reality of global warming and climate change, we’re in deep trouble. And don’t just take my word for it. According to Paul, my favorite Twin Cities weatherman – “Fourteen of the 15 warmest years on record have been observed since 2000. An estimated 93 percent of the extra warmth is going into the world’s oceans.” Gulp!

If, like me, you feel utterly helpless and distressed and furious at those world “leaders” who, seemingly without shame or forethought, continue to pull our world towards its demise, then I can sympathize. Oh, I add my name to every petition that crosses my computer screen. I rant to friends and write letters to politicians. I reprint articles and pass them out. But really, I ask you, do you think it’s working?

Nothing left to do but join virtual hands, take a deep breath, set our sights on global protection for Mother Earth, and chant together – “I do believe, I do believe, I do believe.” Or something like that. If collective thought can bring Tinkerbell back to life, just maybe it can change the planetary consciousness whatever the words. If you have any better ideas, please let me know. I’m open. OM.

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WHAT’S UP WITH BUNS?

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WHAT’S UP WITH BUNS?

No doubt every region of the country has specific culinary preferences, many brought by immigrants who needed the taste of “back home” in their new land. Some are dependent on local availability from sea, lakes, waterways, forests, plains or simply the efficacy of specific agricultural conditions. And some are simply traditions that have evolved over time.

I have no tie nor have ever visited our east coast with the exception of one brief trip to New York City when my son was an actor in the Red Moon Ensemble. I’m not certain that any one food concoction in Gotham City would qualify for regional tradition given the hodge-podge, melting pot, grand-metropolitan atmosphere overall. In other words, New York transcends the norms and anything goes. I can certainly imagine Boston interlinked with baked beans without having a clue as to the provenance simply because they are touted in references to “Beantown.” Or a clambake on the New England coast because we know where the shellfish are abundant and Rodgers and Hammerstein told us so. “The vittles we et were good, you bet.”

On a family trip many years ago throughout the south I felt I was traversing a different country, a far cry from the other three quadrants. Yes, I was particularly stunned by “Whites only” signs on drinking fountains (it was the sixties), but the local food as well. Grits with every breakfast. Heavily sugared iced tea a necessity. Gravy required on biscuits. Collard greens and cat fish. I have a particular fondness for Truman Capote, Harper Lee, Pat Conroy and William Faulkner and if creativity is in any way influenced by diet, they seem to have thrived on the fare. I admit I experienced only a fleeting traveling café agenda, but in my heart I have to pass on their cuisine. Except for the greens. But sautéed and not fried in bacon grease, please. However, I must admit that at the first taste of New Orleans beignets, I just might revise and succumb.

On the west coast, another melting pot, the culinary mix is exotic, daring and experimental. How I miss our weekly excursions to the local sushi bar – Tekka Maki (always my favorite) or whatever the chef chose to serve. “Your choice,” we would say. “Surprise us.” And the dishes would arrive, each one like a precious culinary painting. Tamales – the ultimate test of Mexican gastronomy, steeped in heavy corn aroma and flavor, sauced with salsa verde. A steamed artichoke, fresh from the foggy fields of the central coast, dipped in melted butter before sensually scraping the meat off each leaf with one’s teeth. Or our weekly drive down the old Morro road to the orange grove stand on the left , the avocado on the right – fruits freshly picked from the surrounding fields, exotic in their perfection.

I can’t speak for the entire Midwest but I now know (somewhat) the idiosyncrasies of Minnesota and North Dakota. In a hunter/fisher culture, walleye and venison rule. I found that I love walleye. Venison, not so much. Scandinavian fare is the preference and the norm. Many of us would pass on lutefisk, but it is offered in abundance at Lutheran church dinners during the holidays and even at the local Viking Café in Fergus Falls. If you can make great lefsa you are lauded and can sell as much as your grill, stick and flour tossing allows. Garrison Keillor made fun of hot dishes, but they prevail. And bars. Not of the alcoholic variety, but cookie dough that is faster and easier to mush into 9 x 12” baking pans.

There is one anomaly, however, that continues to stump me here in the upper Midwest. What’s up with buns? It seems that every church gathering, graduation or family reunion, holiday club meeting, or just because – begins with buns. I have heard it again and again. “I get my buns at …” “That was the first thing I did, I ordered the buns.” “How many buns will we need?”

It seems that buns are the foundation, the culinary prop, the stage and platform upon which the entire menu is structured. The pulled, sauced meat, the pickles and olives, the side cold and hot dishes are merely accoutrements to the buns. I don’t get it. But maybe I do. Are the buns the equivalent of not being too pushy, too forward? Is it possible that someone at one primal moment in some Lutheran church basement set the standard and ever after it would have been considered too fancy pants, too not proper for the flyover zone, too “who do you think you are” to plan an event differently? Is it akin to the tradition of not sitting in the first half of the pews so you won’t seem like you think you’re special?

I come from a line of great cooks and bakers and they were North Dakotans and Minnesotans. Grammy Marie made the best pies in the fly-over zone. Grandma Ingebretson set the standard for rhubarb torte. Aunt Lil whipped out two turkeys, multiple side dishes, lefsa, flatbrod AND buns this past Thanksgiving at age 91. The Nelson “girls” – Lena, Milla, Lottie, Tilda, and Ella – were known throughout the community for the yummiest food in town. And if they shared a sacred recipe, you were blessed.

Gastronomy is alive and well in the northern Midwest. I say let’s ban the bun, don our aprons and celebrate our creativity. Scandia-fusion lives!

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