The Vegetable Dinner

One thing must be addressed first: Dinner was at noon. Supper was in the evening. One might go out to dinner in the evening or to lunch at noon, but those were special occasions, not everyday life. These days, some of us use “dinner” and “supper” interchangeably, but I never hear anyone calling the midday meal “dinner” anymore. It is the big meal of the day which, in the 1960s, was at noon.

A minor point, that. It does put in perspective all the differences between those days and ours. The patriarchy aside, more women were at home, and many men came home at noon to eat. There are many things to write about this week, but I’ve chosen this one because it seems to be an anchor and what I need just now.

First, the menu. It was very particularly designed. A green salad with iceberg and a sliced tomato, dressing either oil and vinegar, Italian, or French. (This will come as a shock to young readers, but there was no such thing as bottled ranch-style dressing, and it would be some time before even the Hidden Valley Ranch packets would show up. We had to make our own for years. Interesting enough history here.)

Fresh green beans were destringed and snapped; some people may still refer to them as “string beans” for that reason, even though the strings are mostly missing now. These were boiled with salt pork, a staple for flavoring. New potatoes were boiled separately.

Greens (turnip, collard, or mustard) were also boiled until tender, perhaps with a ham hock or salt pork; these had to be washed at least three times to get the sand out. They were cut fine and served with hot peppers in vinegar, which you can still buy. The condiment could also be put on the green beans, with finely chopped onion. Green onions were served on the side.

Corn on the cob was husked and desilked then, yes, boiled and served with butter. We called them red beans—really pintos—and cooked them with onions and salt pork. (I don’t know why we called them “red beans” but wonder if it had to do with some family moving to Texas from Louisiana perhaps.) Regardless, the two make a whole protein. Obviously,this meal is neither vegan nor vegetarian, however.

Cornbread sticks in the shape of little cobs were served with butter. If there was dessert, it was likely a Mrs. Smith’s apple pie. Our grandfather would take his with a slice of sharp cheddar: “Apple pie without the cheese is like a hug without the squeeze,” he’d say, and then lie down for a brief nap before heading back to the office. I expect my grandmother just collapsed for a few hours. A likely supper was cornflakes.

Some observations: True, that’s a whole lot of salt pork. It was delicious. I can’t justify it and don’t buy it, but trust me, it was delicious. Next, this meal was a whole lot of work, beginning right after breakfast and coordinated carefully to keep everything hot. It didn’t come around often but was perhaps the most favored meal plan of them all. Was it worth it? Yes. My grandfather was happy, my grandmother had her glory, and on life went. Finally, if it is such a beloved meal, why haven’t we continued the tradition? That question is hard to answer. I don’t know, really. Each part of the menu has been tried and tested, well, maybe not the greens, but they haven’t come together in over 50 years.

When I used the word anchor, I did so because it’s not an uncommon simile: Our traditions are anchors that keep moored throughout our lives. Here is a picture of a literal anchor. Of course, it must have weight to stay down, but that would be easy enough to design. The part of the anchor I didn’t have a name for is that hook that secures it. That word is “fluke.”

Usually we use the phrase “that was just a fluke,” meaning an unusual occurrence or bit of luck. (It is also a fish, a parasite acquired from undercooked crabs, and a company that makes electronic testing tools.) So that fluke is really what holds the anchor in place. For a simile to work, there must be a parallel between, so what is my hook to that dinner?

An attempt: My attendance at the work as well as participation in the accomplished deed may be more significant than any holiday dinner at which there was more excitement. It was a bit better than an everyday event because of all its specificity (see salt pork, boiling), though Thorton Wilder’s Our Town makes good use of our inability to appreciate the sweetness of everyday-ness. I learned it by doing it, I appreciated my grandmother’s willingness to teach it and to cook it. I think, finally, it was a way to love and be loved, unique in its own way, impossible to replicate. We all have losses; I know I have. This dinner memory is a fluke that holds it all together. I wonder if I have left flukes for mine youngers. If you have, please share.








Introducing Merrijane Rice

She is, after all, a winner. Published in many places including the Ensign and New Era, Merrijane Rice also enters and wins contests for LDS poets. Her latest book, Grace Like Water, resulted from mentoring through Mormon Lit Blitz and a commitment to write a poem each week based on her New Testament study in the Come, Follow Me curriculum. It’s not easy work, this kind of writing and this way of sharing. In this article from the Association of Mormon Letters, she uses the title “Nobody Reads Poetry Nowadays,” but Rice makes her offerings approachable, beautiful, rewarding.

Some years ago, I sponsored the first poetry contests for AML. Things changed, personnel changed, and they no longer needed my grant. And while I didn’t judge the entries, those who did invited me to read the winners and perhaps share some thoughts. I can’t remember much of what I said except the one thing that was most clear: They were all better poets than I. Yes, Rice is a better poet, too.

Her process is as important as her product. Feeling called to repentance about her scripture study, Rice realized she was reading scripture but not studying it. She took notes, asked questions, cut pictures out, and recorded her impressions. For those of us who know the New Testament, her resulting insights are deeper and sweeter, often unexpected, because of her diligence and, I believe, her inspiration. Note to all ourselves: It is a great idea we could emulate.

Not all my readers read scripture. That’s fine. The scriptures are not simply rules and begats; they are the stories of people wrestling with angels and life, demons and death, surprises and lambs. Noah gets a few chapters in Genesis, Ruth and Job their own books. But the regular people are everywhere, a verse or two here and there. Poems are also about people, even if the occasional creature is thrown in for color: Keats begins his “Ode to a Nightingale” with “My heart aches…”

The three poems below were chosen for particular reasons, but the others are just as fine. Each reflects a reaction to specific verses. My expectation is that you, too, have wondered about some of these passages. I also hope that I can commit, myself, to a deeper, sweeter study of the book I’ve read so many times.

“Anna, the Prophetess” is about the widow who had lived in the temple for decades. She gets her three verses in Luke 2: 36-38 when she sees the infant Jesus and recognizes Him for who is. Next, in “Joseph of Arimathea,” we read about those moments after the Crucifixion. The Savior was dead, in body, and that body was set for burial in Joseph’s new tomb. The scene is wrenching in realistic details. Finally, watch Rice capture our dusty origins as she reminds us of our purifying future in “Judgment Day.” Enjoy them, share them (they are copyrighted), and find them at the Amazon link under the title above.

Anna, a Prophetess

I was blessed, really—

so many widows are left

with small children to feed

and no means to do it

but asking alms at the temple gate,

poor mites.

My husband was better than ten sons,

though he gave me none—

only affection and tenderness.

Wealth to keep me comfortable

after his death.

More empty time than I could spend.

I had enough to tempt new suitors,

hagglers over my loneliness.

But I didn’t want another husband.

Why try fate?

Instead, I did what other widows do:

went to the temple to beg.

And how I begged—

poured out my youth in prayer,

troubled heaven night and day

for some small morsel to fill my barren fast,

pled with a vengeance

for the Lord to hear me—

until today, after eighty-four years,

I heard Him

wailing in the courtyard,

over-tired and wriggling in his mother’s arms.

Some days you see in an instant

how really blessed you are.

Luke 2:36-38


Joseph of Arimathea

From behind the cross,

I pounded out nails

protruding through wood

till loose enough to pull free

while others in front

supported him against

further tears to hands and feet.


We lowered him slowly

like a child from a great height,

swaddled him in linen,

laid him on a makeshift cot.

I looked to his mother.

She nodded.

We lifted,


and carried him one last lonely mile,

our backs to Jerusalem,

dust clouds rising in puffs behind us

from the soles of our feet.

Matthew 27:57-61


Judgment Day

History is deep sediment

melted together past telling

except where patterns repeat,

burn through to surface—

Sodom is Nineveh is Babylon is Rome.


There are those who regret

but don’t repent—

ears stopped tight,

hearts hard as bone,

senses dead to pleasure,


but your remorse throbs

with bottomless accusation.

When you reach breaking point,

break open to God.

He will read you,


make you as transparent glass—

understood and understanding.

Distinct yet enveloped.

Enduring and malleable

as pure gold.

Revelation 20:12; 21:18






The Magic Cookie Jar

Once upon a time, in a century before our own, there was a magic cookie jar.  If you put cookies in it, they would never disappear. You could eat one, but by some magic power it was replaced. This continued until you decided you wanted a different kind of cookie. Then you would say, “Cookie jar of magic, may I please have coconut cookies now instead of chocolate chip?” If you asked nicely, your wish would be granted.

One day, the cookie jar stopped working. You would put in your hand for a good cookie, and instead you would get a garlic crunch flumgabob. Or a sour pepper whatchamacallit. It was a serious problem.

The owner of the cookie jar, Mrs. SillyWilly, needed help. Luckily, she knew four detectives—PBJ Lobster, TinyTom Starfish, McDonald Octopus, and SlammerJammer Turtle. They were brothers and ran a good business out their residence at 413 Hillcrest Gulf Bottoms. They were glad to take the case.

“When did you notice the problem, Mrs. SillyWilly?” asked McDonald.

“Just today,” she replied, wiping away a tear. “What could be wrong?”

“We don’t know yet,” said TinyTom. “Any ideas, PBJ?”

“No, I think we’d better take this cookie jar back to the office.”

“Great idea!” exclaimed SlammerJammer. “This is the plan. We should try it every hour to see if the same thing happens.”

“That’s fine,” Mrs. SillyWilly said. “Just don’t break it!”

“We won’t!” The detectives said all together.

Back at 413 Hillcrest Gulf Bottoms, the team started working.

“How does it work? How can we fix it? Are we sure we can do this? What if we can’t?” These were some of their questions. Actually, they were a little worried. How can you fix magic, after all?

They began to work carefully. At 9 a.m. PBJ pulled out a cookie and looked at it. There were raisins (they hoped) and pecans (they wondered). But the rest of the cookie was a purple-orange glob of yucky something.

“Who’s going to taste this one?” asked PBJ.

There was a pause.

“Ummm…nobody,” offered the rest of the detectives.

“Let me try,” said McDonald. “Maybe you’re not doing it right.” PBJ sighed.

McDonald put his hand in the jar and pulled out a green brownie with pink marshmallows in it. There was a strange smell, like fish.

“This one smells pretty good,” said McDonald, “if you like fish.”

No one would try to eat it. This went on for awhile. One of the brothers would pull out a strange cookie, no one would taste it, and they would toss it aside.

“I have an idea,” said PBJ. “Let’s look inside the cookie jar. Maybe there’s a clue.”

TinyTom went for a flashlight. He always knew where one was.

“Let me look first!” he demanded.

“No, me! Me, me I’m first!” The others all wanted to see inside because they hadn’t thought of it.

PBJ settled it: “It’s my idea. I’ll look first.” Everyone else agreed. It was fair.

TinyTom held the flashlight. PBJ got closer and closer and peered into the dark interior.

“Oh! Cool! That explains it!”

“What?! What do you see?” The others shouted.

“There’s a switch that says RESET, but it has some blue sticky stuff on it. SlammerJammer, do you have your tools?”

“Of course!”

“You look and see if you can get the blue sticky stuff off.”

“Of course!” SlammerJammer put his best needle nose pliers into the cookie jar. He pulled and turned and pulled some more. Nothing happened. “I think it’s stuck too hard.”

“Let me help! No, me! My turn!” screamed the others.

“You can all help. Just get behind me and hold on. When I count to three, pull!”

The other detectives held on to each other. PBJ held SlammerJammer, McDonald held PBJ, and TinyTom held McDonald.

“One! Two! THRREEEE!” Everyone pulled with all his might. Nothing happened at first. Then there was a huge PPPPPOPPPP!!!!! Everyone fell down.

“I think that got it,” said SlammerJammer, from the bottom of the pile. “Let’s see.”

He held up his pliers which had at the end a big piece of blue bubblegum. “Yes, I think that got it.”

“You get to try the cookie jar first,” said PBJ. “If you’re brave.”

SlammerJammer was brave. He put in his fin and pulled out a white cookie. It looked beautiful, with sparkling silvery icing.

“Looks good,” he said, remembering all the sour, smelly, purple and green cookies. He took a little bite. Everyone watched excitedly.


“It’s the best cookie I ever tasted,” he said. “I think I’ll have another.”

“NOOO!!! Me next! You’ve had your turn” the others shouted.

“OK, OK, here you go.”

Each detective pulled out a beautiful, best-ever cookie. But no two looked alike. They took the jar back to Mrs. SillyWilly.

“Is it fixed?” she asked.

“Yes, and no,” explained PBJ. “It works but not like it used to.”

“Oh dear and oh my,” worried Mrs. SillyWilly. “It always gave me cookies before.”

“Yes, it will give you cookies again. We pulled a big piece of blue gum out that was clogging up the works,” said SlammerJammer.

“But now each cookie is different,” continued McDonald. “Each one is best and wonderful, but no two of them are alike.”

“They’re beautiful and delicious,” said TinyTom.

“Perfect but no two are the same,” added PBJ.

Mrs. SillyWilly began to laugh. She laughed and laughed and laughed some more. “I see now,” she said. “You fixed it AND made it better.”

“How could good be better?” asked SlammerJammer.

“It’s simple,” she replied. “Before, it would just give cookies. Good cookies, delicious ones. Now it gives cookies that are like the one who pulls one out.”

“But, we’re not perfect!” said TinyTom.

“No, not yet. But you are beautiful. You can be perfect later,” said Mrs. SillyWilly. “I know you can’t see it now. When later is over, you can all be perfect and can do anything!”


“Why not?”

“That is magic,” PBJ said. The others all nodded. They all were proud of fixing the cookie jar.

“One more thing…can we have another cookie?”

“Yes, of course,” smiled Mrs. SillyWilly. “You can have another beautiful, perfect cookie!”

Battle Fought, Victory Won

Last week, I apologized for getting fight and flight out of order. This week, I see that had to be. We fight everything:  poverty, crime, drugs, injustice, racism. We fight impulses, hunger, illiteracy, childhood obesity, hair loss. In cancer obituaries, we read that the deceased fought hard, whether the battle took months or years. Suicide victims fought their illness or their demons. We don’t learn of death by myocardial infarction but by heart attack. I doubt anyone would blink if I said we have to fight for peace. So as we go through some places where battle is the theme, let’s realize that while there may be times we want to go hide under that bed, it’s more likely we’re going to strap on armor, take up swords and shields and words, and go to war.

Years ago, a friend presented a scholarly paper on war imagery in Southern Baptist hymns. We all have them, I learned. You know the obvious ones, of course: “Onward Christian Soldiers,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” even “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” are but a few of hundreds. The British “I Vow to Thee My Country” and “Jerusalem” at a royal wedding or socially distanced may seem less battle-fied, but the use of weapons and fight belie peace. We’ll come back to the idea of spiritual battle, but the concept of enemies and conflict is everywhere, so much so that I puzzle over non-believers who think of Christians as docile. Christ fought the ultimate battle against death and won; today’s title is an allusion to “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.”

Second, sports are always considered wars. Chess is an ultimate sublimation (a la Freud), quiet but pointedly strategic moves between powers. Football broadly (rugby narrowly?) pit brute strengths against each other. Even more confrontational than the big leagues are the college rivalries. You can move towns; you chose your school for a reason. In our neck of the woods, these contests go back decades. Our grandfather didn’t watch television, ever, except for the traditional UT-A&M game on Thanksgiving. He had a law degree from the former, and his children (now grandchildren and great-grandchildren) attended. Family lore had his father-in-law teaching there when the 1918 flu closed the university. For the Longhorn-Aggie feud, even the fight songs mention the other school as the one despised: The Aggie War Hymn and Texas Fight. I find both rather rousing, but don’t tell my siblings or son or daughter-in-law. George Orwell wrote, “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.”

So, yes, now to politics. Again, the language reinforces the message. There are campaigns which muster foot soldiers to combat foes or enemies; there are election victors who vanquish; losers concede defeat. These additional terms are used regularly. Jabs and darts, bombshells and nuclear options, battleground states and political casualties, insults and smears—battling for the soul of a nation has its casualties. The incredibly popular musical Hamilton depicts not one but two deaths by duel. There are other options, but they’re rare.  Judges Scalia and Ginsburg were close friends, but they did not discuss politics or ideologies; her grandson told her biographers there would have been no point in such a conversation. They famously shared a love of opera, proving that there is more to life than politics.

There is a key to all this struggle, sort of the One Ring, though it leads to light not darkness. My faith tradition reflects Biblical verses and Dead Sea Scroll passages concerning a War in Heaven. This summary, quite short, makes sense only if you know the topic and have read the Book of Revelation and Milton’s Paradise Lost, in which we find the character of Satan going about to make Adam and Eve as miserable as he is. What the discussion fails to catch, however, is the core principle of agency or free will. Albert Bandura defines it this way: “The capacity to exercise control over the nature and quality of one’s life is the essence of humanness.” The Heavenly war was not one of arrows but of arguments. Milton’s Satan is the basis for what most people think they know about the Adversary, but the portrayal fails to capture the history of what was at stake. We were intelligent beings who had developed as much as we could without a mortal experience. The question was whether we would be free to choose (and fail when the choices were wrong) or whether we would not be free to fail (and thereby learn nothing). Satan wanted the glory of engineering a system in which none of us would fail. because none of us could choose. It was never a real possibility because it included dethroning God and subverting forever our progress. The scriptures say that the archangel Michael led us against the being then known as Lucifer. I don’t know what we understood, of course, since we don’t have a memory of the battle. All we know is that we won.

And here we are, walking in faith without being able to see our leader. Sometimes the only thing we can choose is what we can think, a concept Victor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist,  articulated in Man’s Search for Meaning: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

In our current climate, the struggle for the freedom to choose what we think or do remains and, if anything, is amplified. In a recent confrontation of wills, a woman in Washington DC refused to raise her arm when BLM marchers demanded that she do so. It’s not clear what place race played; she and all the protesters are white. She’d marched with them before, but somehow, just at that moment, she wanted to exercise choice. She wasn’t harmed, thankfully, but she felt attacked.

Who knows what will happen in the next month, the next year? As sure as the sun comes up, people will try to intimidate to the point of harassment. And just as surely, people will resist. We already won the right to come here and decide what to do. Anything that challenges that hard-won prize tramples on the most basic element of our beings: to do and say and be and, yes, vote as we choose. We are on sides, which sounds benign enough, but the word “bigot” comes to mind. Says Oxford Lexico, “A person who is obstinately or unreasonably attached to a belief, opinion, or faction, especially one who is prejudiced against or antagonistic toward a person or people on the basis of their membership of a particular group.” I urge you not to be one although, of course, I respect your right to make that choice. Let the right in you win.