Wednesday, October 29, 2014

POTM...*: No Ands, Ifs or Bhuts...

(*Photo of the Month)

OK, welcome to the world of chile peppers...

If there’s one thing that has epitomized our southern New Mexico cultural experience in the months since we began working down here, it has been our introduction to the (not so) humble and ubiquitous pepper. I have never lived anywhere that has so enthusiastically embraced a local agricultural product! (What it reminds me of is Chicago’s lust for the Chicago hot dog, a vice I share; alas, the dog is not an ag product unless you’re considering its tomatoes, onions, green relish, celery salt and pickle spear…) But frankly, my own experience can also testify to just how passionate one can become about such a food item as the green chile (a red chile not fully ripened), especially when tenderly filled with cheese and served in the form of a testy chile relleno, baked into a good bagel, or laid sassily atop a burger for that most delectable of all treats, the green chile cheeseburger. The green chile milkshake from Sparky’s in Hatch? Well, that one was a little over the top. Some of the photos you see above demonstrate the love affair this area has with this unique culinary delight, and I doubt one would ever see folk icons like these in Peoria or Poughkeepsie. Only in New Mexico, the pepper’s largest producer, and the green chile Capital of the Universe… They love their chiles.

A chili field near Hatch NM
Recently, Gail and I visited the Chile Pepper Institute on the campus of New Mexico State University in Las Cruces NM, in order to learn more of its cultural lore. Did you know, for example, that a medium-sized green pepper pod contains the vitamin C of six oranges? That hot peppers burn calories by speeding up metabolism? That the color extracted from red chiles, called oleoresin, is used in everything from lipstick to processed meats? That peppers are relatives of potatoes, tomatoes and eggplant, all of which are members of the poisonous nightshade family? That birds eat the hottest ones freely since they have no heat receptors in their mouths? Didn’t know these things? I didn’t either.

Now for the amazing part, the pepper’s apparent heat to mammalian senses. Chile peppers contain a chemical by the name of capcaicin (cap-say’-i-sin) that produces the heat effect in the food. The chemical is even used in treatments and patches for sore, aching muscles. Among other things that the Chile Pepper Institute does in promoting and researching peppers, they also test the numerous natural varieties of chiles from around the world to determine their true heat impact (twenty-six known natural species, five of which are domesticated). Heat is then measured using what is called Scoville Heat Units (SHU’s). Take a common pepper often enjoyed on nachos served at baseball games, the jalapeno. This pepper has an average heat index of 10,000 SHU’s; that’s hot, but it’s just a poser in the pepper world. There is a pepper called the Bhut Jolokia (boot ja-lo’-ki-a), from India, that was formerly discovered by the CPI and proclaimed by Guinness World Records to be the most potent pepper in Peter Piper’s peck. This pepper has an average heat index of just over a million SHU’s, one-hundred times that of the apparently milk-toast jalapeno! Cleverly, at the time that the Bhut was pepper king of the hill, the CPI developed a brownie mix as an institute fund-raiser that included the pepper as an ingredient; you guessed it, they named it Bhut-Kickin' Brownies. I just bought a package of the mix last week and can’t wait to give them a try. In fact, it’s a product you can easily order online (internet address). Maybe you remember that enjoyable little movie Chokolat, where Juliette Binoche plays a chocolatier opposite Johnny Depp and Alfred Molina, whose secret ingredient in her recipes is cayenne (one of the ‘milder’ peppers at 40,000 SHU’s).

"Eat what is set before you..."
~~The Bible     

However, records are made to be broken, as even Brett Favre said a week ago when the Denver Broncos’ Peyton Manning threw his 503rd career TD. Such is also true in the pepper wars. For it wasn’t long ago that a pepper from Trinidad, the Trinidad Moruga (ma-roo’-ga) Scorpion, was discovered by the CPI to be the world’s most potent pepper with an index average of 1.2 million SHU’s. Peppers in the same field (or even on the same plant) can vary widely in their heat index, depending on the moisture they receive and their access to the proper amount of sunshine, and this study found individual Moruga Scorpions that maxed out at over two million SHU’s! That’s 200 times the heat of a jalapeno! I don’t know who eats these things, but would you swallow anything that required its researchers to wear goggles, two layers of rubber gloves and hooded tyvek suits? Really! That’s what they do! Apparently some like it hot.

So Gail and I wandered over to Chile Pepper Institute’s test gardens, and saw the amazing array of peppers they have growing there, scores of varieties, some shown here, our favorite being an ornamental that has little half-inch, fully hot fruits that look like multi-colored Christmas lights, the NuMex Twilight. (You did know a pepper is a fruit, didn’t you?) Sure enough, there in its humble majesty grew the Scorpion, the size of a large strawberry, and even curiously looking like a ripe, sweet one. I could’ve plucked one off with my bare hands, though I might have paid a price for doing so: I had left my tyvek suit in the glove compartment of the car. I might’ve even popped one into my mouth, and as I stood contemplating what such an effort might result in, Gail said, “Don’t let it brush up on your bare legs.” I was in shorts. I backed away.

The Scorpion
NuMex Twilight

At any rate, the pepper feuds continue to heat up. My son-in-law Jeremy told me a couple weeks ago of a newly researched pepper called the Carolina Reaper that supposedly can average 2 million SHU’s. Now, personally, I think it sounds much better if the record pepper comes from an exotic place like Trinidad or India, don’t you? The Carolinas should never get credit for something like this, especially when they already own bragging rights as the pecan praline center of the universe. As it should be. I asked an institute worker about the Reaper, and she said they have not tested it and are trying to decide if they even will – that it is actually a modified product not grown naturally as the Bhut and Scorpion are. (Leave it to Americans to try to snag the world record!) So I’ll wait for the Chile Pepper Institute to do its own testing, if it ever does. Because who are you going to trust in the pepper world? Someone in a Ralph Lauren polo shirt from the east coast? Or someone from New Mexico in cowboy boots? I’ll trust the guy or gal from New Mexico every time.

“Eat what is set before you,” the Apostle Paul says, in urging Christ-followers not to show judgmental religious impartiality to forbidden foods (1 Corinthians 10:27). Luke, the writer of Acts, said the early church gathered together in homes to share meals, partaking of their food “…with glad and generous hearts.” (Acts 2:46) Even the Prophet Isaiah gets in on the act: “…Eat what is good, and let your soul delight in the richest of foods!” (Isaiah 55:3) I wonder if these instructions might be any different if Bhut-Kickin' Brownies and Moruga Scorpions were on the menu. But a few nice garnishes of green chiles with my motzo balls or leg o’ lamb? Now that’ll work.

~~RGM, October 28, 2014

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Blowin' in the Wind: St. Francis and the Law(n) of the Lord...

(Blowin’ in the Wind is a regular feature on my blog consisting of an assortment of nature writings – hymns, songs, excerpts, prayers, Bible readings, poems or other things – pieces I may not have written but that inspire me or have given me joy. I trust they will do the same for you.)

In the traditions of church history, the month of October includes what is called the Feast Day of St. Francis. I guess all the saints get a Feast Day, but I am not certain how all that works; for me, that would be Thanksgiving or Christmas Eve… At any rate, as I have written before, Francis of Assisi was an Italian monk of the 13th Century, the founder of the Franciscan Order (The Order of Friars Minor), the patron saint of the environment, and one of my heroes of the faith.

So, with a shout out to St. Francis this month, here’s something I ran across years ago, for which I have no recollection of the source:

A Conversation Between God and St. Francis of Assisi…

GOD: Frank, you know all about gardens and nature. What in the world is going on down there in the USA? What happened to the wildflowers and grasses I started eons ago? I had a perfect, no-maintenance garden plan. Those plants grow in any type of soil, withstand drought and multiply with abandon. The nectar from the long-lasting blossoms attracts butterflies, honeybees and flocks of songbirds. I expected to see a vast garden of colors by now. But all I see are these green rectangles.

ST. FRANCIS: It's the tribes that settled there, Lord, the city and rural dwellers and the suburbanites, the whole lot of ‘em. They started calling your flowers ‘weeds’ and went to great lengths to kill them and replace them with one kind of grass.

GOD: One grass only? But that would be so boring. It's not multi-colorful. It doesn't attract butterflies, birds and bees, only grubs and sod worms. It's temperamental with temperatures. Do these people really want just grass growing there?

ST. FRANCIS: Apparently so, Lord. They go to great pains to grow it and keep it green. They begin each spring by fertilizing grass and poisoning any other plant that crops up in the lawn.

GOD: Too bad! The spring rains and warm weather probably make grass grow really fast. That must make them happy.

ST. FRANCIS: Apparently not, Lord. As soon as it grows a little, they cut it, sometimes twice a week.

GOD: They cut it? Do they bale it like hay for their animals?

ST. FRANCIS: Not exactly Lord. Most of them rake it up and put it in bags.

GOD: They bag it? Why? Is it a cash crop? Do they sell it?

ST. FRANCIS: No, sir -- just the opposite. They pay to throw it away.

GOD: Oh my Me! Now, let Me get this straight: they fertilize grass so it will grow. And when it does grow, they cut it off and pay to throw it away?

ST. FRANCIS: Yes, sir.

GOD: These folks must be relieved in the summer when we cut back on the rain and turn up the heat. That surely slows the growth and saves them a lot of work.

ST. FRANCIS: You aren't going to believe this, Lord. When the grass stops growing so fast, they drag out hoses and pay more money to water it so they can continue to mow it and pay to get rid of it.

GOD: What nonsense. At least they kept some of the trees. That was a sheer stoke of genius, if I do say so myself. The trees grow leaves in the spring to provide beauty and shade in the summer. In the autumn they fall to the ground and form a natural blanket to keep moisture in the soil and protect the trees and bushes. Plus, as they rot, the leaves form compost to enhance the soil. It's a natural circle of life.

ST. FRANCIS: You'd better sit down, Lord. They seem to have done it again. As soon as the leaves fall, they rake them into great piles and pay to have them hauled away.

GOD: No! What do they do to protect the shrub and tree roots in the winter and to keep the soil moist and loose?

ST. FRANCIS: After throwing away the leaves, they go out and buy something that they call
mulch. They haul it home and spread it around in place of the leaves.

GOD: And where do they get this ‘mulch?’
(Not our lawn!)

ST. FRANCIS: They cut down trees and grind them up to make it.

GOD: Enough! I don't want to think about this anymore. What a strange race. St. Cate, you're in charge of the arts. What movie have you scheduled for our entertainment tonight?

ST. CATHERINE: Dumb and Dumber, Lord. It's a real stupid movie they’ve made down there about...

GOD: Never mind, I think I just heard the whole story from St. Frank.

~~RGM, October 16, 2014

Saturday, October 11, 2014

From My Nature Journal: The Immovable Permanence

Waves beat the shore,
Incessant, persistent, constant.
Surf and sound meet their shared demise, journey’s end.
Rank on rank, file on file
They roll, repelled by the immovable permanence.
Rock or sand, mainland or silent strand
Push back, leaving a memory
Of a force now spent, now subdued,
Now impotent and put back in its place.
Its place…

So, my prayers.
They come upon what seems the Immovable Permanence.
Rank on rank, file on file
They roll. Do You hear? Do You listen? Are You altered?
As waves against the shore, 
You tell them they can only advance so far.
But far enough to make impact by their importunity?
Their incessancy? Their persistence? Their constancy?
Yes. The Immovable Permanence? Only one is true. 
Astounding Mutability…

~~RGM, written several years ago at Hobe Sound
National Wildlife Refuge near Jupiter, Florida

Friday, October 3, 2014

QOTM...*: Robert Franklin Leslie

(*Quote of the Month)

It seems to me that only leaves possess
the secret of a beautiful death.
                           ~~Robert Franklin Leslie

Photos taken Sept 28-Oct. 1
Sometimes the simplest little quotes jump right off a page and into my heart. Such is the case with this one. I was cruising along in nature writer Robert Franklin Leslie’s simple little The Bears and I, and was halted by this lovely (and mostly true) reflection. Perhaps it strikes me all the more because I happen to be surrounded as I write by nature’s fall color frenzy going on around me here in the northwoods of Michigan. Maple’s oranges and reds blaze around me, along with oak’s scarlets and russets, and aspen’s, tamarack’s and birch’s golds, all interspersed with the various evergreens of the conifers. I walk the woods these days spellbound by its almost aching beauty, almost asking God with each step what possessed him to even think of creating this astounding display.

So the quote grabs me, “…only leaves possess the secret of a beautiful death.” Yet I must admit it has not been completely true in my experience. As a pastor for many years, I have been able to observe many deaths up close and personal, and some of them have been beautiful as well.

I think of a couple old saints who died during my pastoral tenure in Minnesota. One was Joe, who lived into his upper nineties, a gentle and thoughtful soul who always had candy in his pockets for kids on Sunday mornings. I once asked him what he attributed his longevity to, and he quipped just as fast as a blink, “Well, I like people, and I never eat cold potato salad.” Alrighty then, thought I… I’ll have to remember that one! His death was beautiful, as was the life celebration that followed by those who loved him.

Another beautiful death was Hilda’s. Single and childless all her life, she lived as a constant blessing to others around her, often giving the proverbial shirt off her back. She was fairly poor and lived in a mobile home on the east side, but when I heard the story that, before she gave her church offerings, she regularly laundered and crisply starched and pressed her greenbacks, just to give of her best to her Master, I became a lifelong member of her fanclub. She is one of the first I want to see when I get to heaven. Like Joe, her death was also beautiful – she was ready to go and, a smile on her face, ready to let go.

My own mother’s was another. Wilma also had this way of living a full life in the midst of great simplicity. All of us in the family had this sense of the blessing and goodness not only of her life, but even of the last hard years, and even the manner of her passing. When some of us met with her pastor the day following her death, the pastor’s first words to me were, “I am so sorry.” And I was surprised to find myself saying that it occurred to me that, except for the fact that we would miss Mom greatly, most of us were finding very little in this circumstance to be sorry about: Mom was at peace with God, at peace with the world, and beloved of absolutely everyone who knew her. We all should be so blessed when it is time for each of us to lay it all down.

The arresting beauty of an autumn forest, and the joy it can bring, seems kin to the joy that is expressed in lives and deaths like that of Joe, Hilda and Wilma. Yes, of course, there have been many deaths I have walked alongside that have not been so beautiful, and I suppose that brings me back to my quote of the month. Some deaths can be beautiful, some not. But here in the woods today? Today, everywhere I look I see only loveliness. Talk about ‘finishing well,’ or going out ‘in a blaze of 
                                                     glory!’ Maybe, overall, leaves DO possess the secret after all.

And maybe, just maybe, God whispers through them to us the very same secret, that there can be beauty, even hope, in such a thing as death.

~~RGM, September 29, 2014