This is how I ended my blog a year ago, when I wrote about how Suvir Saran’s recipes and encouragement had changed my life and awakened and educated my palate. And I was right—2012 was a year of great culinary adventure and excitement.
Cooking isn’t a chore anymore, it’s not something I dread. Food isn’t my enemy anymore. I’ve made curries, dals, and tons of vegetable dishes. I’ve pickled vegetables, mangos, lemons, and oranges, and canned tomatoes and peppers from my own garden. I’ve eaten (and liked) food I used to hate: nuts, coconut, okra, Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, onions, raisins, cauliflower, cranberries, eggplant, and many, many others. I’ve become eager to try new foods and new tastes, and am disappointed when I go to a potluck where there’s the same old thing.
If I had to choose one recipe as a favorite out of the more than one hundred new dishes I tried this year, it would be the Chicken-Chickpea Harira from Suvir’s American Masala. It’s a soup that is comforting, rich, exotic, healthful, wholesome, delicious, and NOT boring!
When I wrote that blog, exactly a year ago now, I was very aware of how my culinary life was changing. But what I didn’t anticipate was how far-reaching into other areas of my life that awakening would be.
When Suvir came to Richland Center, we were on a local radio show together. At one point in the interview, Suvir turned to me and asked, “And has cooking changed your life even outside of cooking? Do you think differently, are you growing as a human being because of it, are you looking at the world in a new way perhaps? Are you more open? Can food do any of that?”
I told Suvir that cooking made me more hospitable. I told him that it made me think of the importance of buying locally. My answer was safe and unchallenging. I was too afraid of offending people to say what I really thought. If I’d done that, I would’ve had to admit how educating my palate led to another education that took me (and would take others) completely by surprise.
I’m embarrassed now to say how politically uninformed I was a year ago…how little I knew or cared about what was happening in the world outside my house. I looked at the world through the eyes of a white Christian American—one of the most privileged positions on the planet. I judged others’ actions based on my own experiences, condemning and narrowing their choices because I’ve never faced circumstances that cripple and trap a person in despair; I’ve never faced prejudice that assumes the worst about me when I walk into a room.
I believed in the Judeo-Christian heritage of America and in the pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps mentality of the early pioneers. I believed universal healthcare was socialism and illegal immigrants should go home. I believed marriage was between one man and one woman and abortion of a zygote was murder. I believed the death penalty was biblical and the American justice system was fair. I believed people who complained about America should pack their bags and go somewhere else and see if they liked it better.
For so many years I believed what others told me; I didn’t even bother to distinguish between fact and opinion. I let others’ opinions determine my vote and my voice, instead of reading and listening to the facts and forming my own opinions. And then, as I began to realize how insular and arrogant my opinions were, I started to want to know the truth; I wanted to know for myself.
Before I go any further, I have to tell you that I had to make a very deliberate commitment to leave my safe, comfortable bubble and learn how the rest of the world lives. I had dug deep and found the time to cook and eat better and had kept that commitment. Where was I going to find the time and energy for the reading and reflection it would take to broaden my world? I have a full-time job as a children’s librarian. My work as a freelance editor for three publishing houses and many private clients takes up most of my evenings and weekends. I call my ninety-year-old mother several times a day and travel to visit her every other weekend. And I have a son who wrestles daily with injustice and privation; some days it’s a struggle to keep hope alive for him and others who are thrown away by our society.
But I had to make the commitment; I had to find the time—I had to make the time. I resolved to read every issue of Time and Newsweek in 2012 (I have just the tail end of December left). Now I also read articles from the New York Times and the Washington Post whenever I see them posted online. I read as I get dressed in the mornings, I read as I dry my hair, I read as I stir a pot cooking on the stove, I read late at night and early in the morning. Instead of reaching for the People magazine at the doctor’s office, I reach for the New Yorker.
I began to question. I began to think. Most importantly, I began to see life from a different viewpoint than my top-of-the-food-chain white American Protestantism. I became one of those people who speak up about issues I believe need to be addressed in this country. When I realized that democracy is about speaking up when something needs to be challenged, I wrote a letter to the editor protesting an offensive billboard in our city. I realized we need more people who complain, not fewer.
I started waking up, I started stretching. I don’t have room and you don’t have time for me to tell you about all the issues I’ve come to see differently, but I’d like to talk about two of them here, as examples of how, as Suvir says, cooking has changed my life even outside of cooking.
I’ve gone to church my whole life. I can quote Bible verse after Bible verse that tells me how I need to take care of widows and orphans, how if I have two coats I should give away one, how it’s harder for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven. Jesus said, “If you do it to the least of these, you’ve done it to me.” The Good Samaritan didn’t ask the man he found beat up on the roadside if he was a gang member or an illegal immigrant or an escaped prisoner. In Jesus’s story, none of those things mattered. Everyone is my neighbor, and I’m encouraged weekly to give to my church to help others—to feed, clothe, and shelter those who are less fortunate than I am. I’m encouraged to be liberal, not conservative when I give to others.
So how did I go so long believing that helping those less fortunate than I am somehow doesn’t apply outside the church walls? Or that the only neighbors I have are the ones who are helped by a church? When did I come to believe that being “liberal” meant something negative? As a Christian, shouldn’t I be glad that I live in a country that recognizes our collective (and biblical) responsibility to see that all in our community have enough food and clothing and shelter?
I used to believe that taxpayer-paid programs don’t help the disadvantaged, and listened to those with the opinion that the poor can lift themselves by their own initiative and sweat from their dire situations. But in my childhood there was no violence in my home, I went to good (public) schools in safe neighborhoods, I had access to excellent (public) libraries, I played in safe (public) parks, rode on smooth (public) roads, toured informative (public) museums, and explored educational and magnificent (public) state and national parks. How can I claim my success in life is solely because of my own efforts? How can I justify the tax dollars that were spent to make my already easy life better and at the same time condemn the tax dollars that would help those who don’t even have the basic advantages that I take for granted?
Because this is a guest blog on Suvir’s site, I’m going to be brave and tell you about how I’ve shifted in my views on same-sex marriage. As I said, a year ago, I believed marriage was between one man and one woman only. I didn’t bother to question this—why should I? It didn’t affect my life at all. Yes, that’s how arrogant and uncompassionate a Christian I have been at times in my life.
Three things changed my opinion. The first, and one I think would change a lot of Christians’ opinions if they’d get out of their pews, is that I got to know a gay person. Suddenly a gay person was my friend, and I started to care very much about what was important to him.
Secondly, I began to think. And to open my eyes
and ears. And I heard HUGE inconsistencies in what Christians around me were saying.
I wanted to ask pastors, do you allow divorced people to get married in your
church? If so, do you interrogate them to find out the reasons for their
divorces? Do you have a sure-fire way of knowing that neither of them committed
adultery in their previous marriages? Because the Bible is very clear about what God thinks of divorce and adultery. I'm
pretty sure the answers they would give me would be 1) we're not the judge of
those people, God is, and 2)there are TONS of Christians who've been divorced
(and committed adultery, by the way), so we just have to accept that--in fact,
we pretty much go against what the Bible says about divorced people and
adultery all the way around, because, this is, after all, the 21st century, and
we have to understand the times. (And incidentally, because there are a lot of
higher-ups in the church that are acting in their own self-interest at times,
knowing that if they followed the Bible on this one, a lot of them would be out
of a job.)
Christians don't have to guess about what the Bible says about divorce and adultery. Homosexuality? Not so clear. And yet, which do we condemn? The one that is "them." Divorce and adultery are "us," so we tolerate that. But being gay is "them" and so much easier to take a stand against. A self-righteous stand, that a lot of other Christians will applaud and give us kudos for.
The third reason I changed my mind is because of
something Suvir said to me. He asked me, how can you deny people a full life
and the privileges you enjoy every day when you admit you don’t know if gay
people are born gay or not? Are you so arrogant that you believe that other
people’s rights should be denied because of an opinion you’re not even able to
support with fact?
I don't think like I used to. If I call myself a Christian, if I'm a follower of Jesus Christ, I'm called to "act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with God." To love people, and not think it's my job to make their decisions for them, not to think I have a right to judge what is between them and God. To respect their rights and fight for them as I would want them to for me if the situation were reversed. It's not my job to "change" anybody.
I wish I had been brave and answered differently when Suvir asked me that question on the radio show. I gave a very safe answer. What I should have said most likely would have offended some people. When I became dissatisfied with the fact that my food world was infinitesimal, I discovered it wasn’t the only part of my life that needed to grow and expand. When I removed the culinary blinders from my life, other blinders came off as well. When I became willing to try new flavors, I became willing to “try” new thoughts and new—to me—ideas. When I finally admitted how narrow and judgmental and arrogant my perspective of food was, I discovered other areas of my thinking—both political and spiritual—that were just as narrow and judgmental and arrogant.
I wrote in my first blog about how I didn’t think I had a choice in the food I liked—it didn’t even occur to me that I could educate my palate until I heard Suvir say it was possible. In the same way, I’ve never thought I had a choice about what I believed—I thought that a “conservative” Christian had to believe certain things, had to be against other things. I didn’t have any idea I could be theologically “conservative” and politically “liberal” at the same time.
My spiritual awakening has been just as surprising to me as my culinary awakening has been. It’s very freeing not to have to be the judge of the world; it’s good to leave that job to God. Some people I know would say I’m “losing my faith.” But I feel like my faith isn’t decreasing, it’s getting deeper. It’s like a pond that’s getting smaller on the surface, but the water isn’t disappearing, it’s sinking deeper, into a hole in the middle of the pond, like the shape of a tornado, going deeper, and the surface water is narrowing, and I don’t expect other people to have to wade in the waters of my faith to be “right.” I trust in God’s care and love more now than I ever have in my life.
In my earlier blog, I thought there might be people who were in the same condition I was, stuck in a food rut that kept them perpetual children. I hope those people found the freedom I did in trying new tastes and educating their palates. In the same way, I think there might be someone who reads this blog who feels the same craving I do--to find out what’s happening in the big world outside my four little walls. I’ll say the same thing I said then: If I can do it, anyone can. I’m determined in 2013 to continue to read facts, know an opinion when I hear one, and to question when I don’t understand or agree. I’m determined to continue to try new foods, new ideas, new flavors, and new thoughts. I’m determined to continue this great adventure that started with a simple email to a man who continues to challenge me every day. Once again, the sky’s the limit!
Harira is a Moroccan soup that is served during Ramadan to break the day’s fast. It is most often prepared with lamb and perfumed with spices like turmeric and cinnamon. Boneless chicken thigh meat generally has a silkier texture and more depth of flavor than chicken breast meat (though chicken breast meat can be easily substituted if you prefer). Ground saffron, toasted cumin, and the classic Indian spice blend, garam masala, contribute a deep, sultry flavor.
My favorite saffron is from Kashmir, a state in northern India. Its color, aroma and taste is headier than Spanish or Persian saffron, and its depth of flavor and color is deeper and stronger. To get the most flavor from saffron, grind the needles into a fine powder using a mortar and pestle.
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon cracked peppercorns
5 whole cloves
1-inch piece cinnamon stick
2 red onions, finely diced
1 1/2 pounds boneless chicken thigh meat cut into small cubes
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper or 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 medium tomatoes, diced
2 15-ounce cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 cups boxed or canned chopped tomatoes
3 cups water
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads, finely ground
1 teaspoon Toasted Cumin seed powder
1/2 teaspoon Garam Masala powder or sambhar powder
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
Heat the olive oil with the cracked pepper, cloves and cinnamon in a large pot over medium-high heat for 1 minute. Add the onions and cook until they’re soft and lightly browned around the edges, about 3 to 5 minutes, stirring often. Add the chicken and cook until the meat releases its liquid and the pan dries, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Mix in the turmeric, Aleppo pepper or cayenne and salt and cook for 4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the tomatoes and cook until the tomatoes release their juices, about 3 1/2 minutes, stirring often and scraping any browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Add the chickpeas, the boxed or canned tomatoes and the water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and simmer for 35 minutes. Stir in the saffron, toasted cumin, garam masala or rasam and the chopped cilantro. Taste for seasoning and serve.