Saturday, March 14, 2009

Mel's Greatest Meals of All Time

I've had quite a few memorable meals in my life time. Jeanne often disparages my inability to pick "favorites." When it comes to picking favorite movies, books, colors, memories, favorite ANYTHING--I typically am dumbfounded and at best can only come up with a "favorite realm."

I do however, have very clear favorite meals.

Some of the top meals of my life include:

-Barbecue Pork sandwich at Ridgewood BBQ in East Tennessee. Not only was the sweet tea unbelievable, this place introduced me to the glory of putting coleslaw on a pulled pork sandwich, slathered right in there with all the sweet barbecue sauce. This was also my first taste of fried pickles. I've only had fried pickles maybe 3 or 4 times since then and they do not even come close.

-I'm not sure how much of this was actually because of how phenomenal the food intrinsically was in and of itself, or perhaps it was more of a relief and release after driving up winding Tennessee mountain roads and feeling sick, only to be greeted by fresh mountain air and a quaint Mom and Pop place at the top of the mountain: Shirley's. This was just a regular country cooking place served family style. I was with the Chambers family and there was just something spectacular about eating the piles of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, corn, biscuits and a half a dozen other side dishes on top of that mountain. The sweet tea there was also phenomenal. Tennessee's been mighty good to me.

-One of the best meals of my life was at a fantastic place called Sweetwater Tavern near Washington D.C. My aunt and uncle treated Jeanne and me to filet mignon. I've had a lot of filet mignon in my life--even finally getting to taste filet at Texas de Brazil and Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, two well-known, highly acclaimed steakhouses. But those steaks do not even compare to the glory of this filet mignon from Sweetwater Tavern. It was cooked Pittsburgh style (this was also the first evening I learned of this steak cooking technique) and it was perfectly accompanied by garlic mashed potatoes and a Caesar salad. I seriously never wanted that steak to end. The meal concluded with a Chocolate Waffle. Do I really need to say anymore about that? Jeanne and I concur that this was definitely one of the best meals of our lives.

I had another one of my favorite meals this weekend.

Our gracious and lovely host Susie sent each of us off on errands in San Francisco prior to our journey to Muir National Woods and Sonoma valley. Jeanne's task was to procure a large non-fat latte. Mine was to enter the gourmet Marina Market and hunt down the following items: bread, three kinds of cheese, fruit and salad as part of our picnic lunch in Sonoma.

I roped Walter and Tiffany into my grocery expedition. I initially felt slightly intimidated from the get-go, as Susie seemed to be a bit of a cheese connoisseur. And she seemed fairly specific about the bread. Undaunted, we blasted through the front doors of the market, and I sent Walter off on a mission to get some bread, Tiffany for some grapes, and I sought to conquer the deli.

I looked at row after row of gourmet cheese, racking my brain for something that everyone would like but would still be gourmet enough for our connoisseur Susie. I had watched enough Food Network to know what I was doing though.

I hear a voice with a thick Russian accent come up behind me. "Will zis suffice?" the voice drawled in heavy, accented syllables. I spin around. It's Walt, with a huge grin in his face, and a fistful of Russian Rye bread. Rye bread? No way. Guess I should've been more specific.

"No, maybe something a bit plainer..." I was distracted, trying to focus on what soft cheese I should get. The yellow sharp cheddar looked promising, but I still need two more kinds of cheese. "Try and see if you can find something else."

I bend over the rows of cheese, trying to look for something a bit milder, and I found a white organic cheese that looked pretty good. I added that to the stash. Still looking for a soft cheese, Walt comes up behind me again, this time holding a simple French bread. "What about this?"

"Oh, sorry.. I should've told you. Susie suggested something with maybe herbs or something. Maybe pick out something else?"

Walt walks away in a huff, justifiably annoyed at my pickiness. Or perhaps his ineptness. Either way, the bread simply wasn't quite right yet.

I settle on a soft, spreadable cheese with garlic and herbs mixed in, and decide to help a brother out. I stroll over to the bread aisle, and find Tiff and Walt standing and staring before the rows of bread.

I spy a rack of freshly baked bread with different herbs, finally settling on olive bread. I get some chicken caesar bowtie salad and then head back to the car, mission complete.

Our picnic lunch in Sonoma Valley at the Benziger Winery was perfect: bottles of Pinot Grigio and Zinfandel, an olive tapenade spread, three kinds of cheese, olive read, white French bread, green grapes, strawberries, chicken caesar bowtie salad, apples and finally...dark chocolate for dessert.

Heaven on a plate.

This definitely ranks as the fourth best meal of all-time.

And I'm still looking for number five...

from the vineyard

"Now let me sing to my Well-beloved
A song of my Beloved
regarding His vineyard."
Isaiah 5:1

This whole passage has deeper meaning and imagery for me now, having just visited a vineyard. We visited Benziger Winery in Sonoma Valley yesterday afternoon. We had the most perfect picnic lunch of wine, three kinds of cheese, Tapenade (delicious olive spread), fruit and dark chocolate. Our tour guide showed taught us about the biodynamic process of growing grapes in this region of California. It's this intricate process that's designed to maximize self-sustainability and holistic development.

I loved Benziger Winery because of this organic, biodynamic emphasis. There was such harmony and rhythm in harnessing the natural processes of the ecosystem--between fertilizing with natural compost, using good insects to regulate the harmful ones, even maximizing or minimizing the amount of sunlight depending on what type of grape you want to produce. The carefully-planned, well-thought out meticulousness of it struck me. There was such extreme care and order and precision given to the development and maintenance of this biodynamic process, simply to unleash the power and beauty of nature to produce fruit.

I loved having the simplicity and complexity of the winemaking process in my mind as I read this. It made me think of how carefully and intentionally God shapes and arranges circumstances to work through His people, to bless His people and to romance them into a relationship with Him. He says "Now let me sing to my Well-beloved; A song of my Beloved regarding His vineyard" in Isaiah 5:1. God gives such intentional care and love into this process, from clearing the stones, to planting the choicest vine, to building a tower, expecting it to bring forth "good grapes."

There is such agony and frustration when He says "What more could have been done to My vineyard That I have not done in it?" in verse 4. And out of frustration, the prophecy is made to destroy the vineyard, to burn it down, to trample it, to lay it to waste. I tried to imagine what that would have looked like at the gorgeous winery/vineyard we visited yesterday. The sunlight and blue skies were absolutely perfect and the vineyard looked so pristine and peaceful. To contemplate what its was destruction would look like was extremely unsettling to me.

Because of Israel's misuse of the vineyard--the passage warns repeatedly against drunkenness and intoxication--God threatens destruction. I think of course he's referring to actual drunkenness. But I think the greater reality is that there is a drunkenness that comes with squandering and misusing God's purposes, plans and gifts for our lives. A vineyard represents order and growth and abundance and enjoyment. Life. And when humanity comes along and abuses this order and grace--either hindering its growth or by overindulging in the abundance, we miss a very real, tangible opportunity to engage with the Father and to enjoy Him as He intended.

We lose the Garden all over again.

This whole passage actually makes me contemplate the things in my life that I have been given stewardship and responsibility over: my relationships, my gifts, my experiences, my choices--and wondering if I am giving them same order, love and intentionality that is expected of Jerusalem and this vineyard. And the fact that I should live and act, not motivated out of fear of destruction or wrath, but because of this beautiful picture and life--a thriving vineyard that is an expression of God's love and provision and intricate purposes--that the Spirit is constantly inviting us in to experience.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Grand Canyon adventures

This morning got up early to watch the sunrise over the Grand Canyon. Despite the fact that Walter confirmed Gary's assertions that he does in fact snore, I somehow had a restful evening.

I will however be using ear plugs tonight, courtesy of Jeanne;)

We hiked down the Bright Angel Trail, descending below differing layers of rock--some fragile and powdery and others porous. Jeanne said the lower layers of rock are called Pre-Cambrian. Walter just said it was "one thousand years of geology," shortly before declaring that it was "his canyon," matching his ENTJ domineering complex with maniacal, diabolical laughter.

Either way, the view was stunning. Scraping powdery snow from the cold (and often muddy) ground, Walt and I had an impromptu snowball fight, and we let Jeanne get caught in the crossfire. This was shortly after snow began to fall.

We took a trail off the official beaten path. We passed a lady perched on a rock under a tree. She was contentedly reading a book. I imagined her an enigmatic sage or oracle, giving us fair warning of dangers ahead on our trail. We finally reached the end of our hike, and sat on a rock that overlooked the canyon.

This trip has been marked with incredible vistas and beautiful colors. Despite how ridiculously cold the air is here--low twenties with a wind chill factor of who knows how much lower--I've enjoyed just being here and soaking in the views. There are many.

We drove 25 miles east of our hotel to the Desert View which includes a replica of an old watchtower and a view of the Painted Desert and Cedar Mountain. We stopped inside a snack bar to take refuge from the cold. Jeanne brilliantly surmised that they should have hot chocolate and indeed they did. We sat and watched people pass by--impish children with funny hair flopping in the wind, smiling old women with erratically colored socks, frazzled Japanese parents chasing after runaway children, pairs of men and women (we imagine them to be best friends of 40+ years), and even crazy Scottish tourists. It's entertaining to imagine people's stories and what relationships and circumstances brought them to the Canyon with the company they keep.

I'm sitting in the car, heading north on route 64, the Grand Canyon at our backs, and the ocean of air still swelling all around. The wind here sounds like an ocean and the canyon is the sea. Jeanne is singing softly under her breath while Walter sleeps in the backseat. Vegas looms before us and we are soon leaving natural beauty for manmade glitz.

To be continued...