A book about 3 of my favorite things: Review of Jesus, Bread and Chocolate by John J. Thompson

I have my husband to thank for this book. He heard John J. Thompson speak on a podcast he listens to and the topic of  his book intrigued both of us. (Thanks to the publisher and the BookLook Blogger Program, we got a free copy in exchange for a review.)

jesus bread & chocolateJesus, Bread and Chocolate: Crafting a Handmade Faith in a Mass-Market World is like taking a deep breath. We live in a world that “values” cheap, quick, substandard and replaceable. Thompson’s book discusses various artisanal movements–small-batch coffee roasters, homemade bread, craft breweries, gardening, Americana music–and applies its principles to our faith, which in a lot of ways has become industrialized for a consumer mindset.

Thompson offers a lot of observations from these various areas of handmade, small batch goods and how they could apply to faith.

It’s a book that has come at the perfect time for our family. We started our first garden this year, and we are increasingly in search of products that oppose the cheaply made, convenient label. After I read the coffee chapter, my morning coffee tasted different, almost bitter. The observations he makes about cultivating a taste for the “real” stuff are life-changing beyond coffee, chocolate, bread and beer.

“I wonder what would happen to the value of our faith if we could rescue it from the process of commodification. If a life spent in pursuit of Christ could be recognized as a radical and selfless, counterintuitive adventure instead of a carefully packaged and lifeless script, would seekers find something worth following?” (p. 131)

See what I mean? There’s a lot to chew on here. (Figuratively and literally.)

If you crave something more meaningful in your faith, in your food, in your life, then get a copy of this book and let it stir something in your soul.


The one who makes room

One of my best memories of high school (and there are few) is the lunch table where my friends and I gathered daily to share a meal. We always chose a circular table, rather than the long, rectangular ones. Maybe it felt more intimate or inclusive. I don’t know why, really, but I remember the tradition of finding a circle table and pulling up chairs and squeezing in around it.

The table was meant to seat six, maybe eight, but as the year went on, we found ourselves making room for one more person, and one more. There were days that 10 or more teenagers squeezed around this table, elbows bumping, food overlapping, personal space non-existent.

And it wasn’t that any of us was popular or well-known or even particularly well-liked. No, we were more like a band of misfits. We worked on the school newspaper, played in the band, got good grades. You know who we were. We were not flamboyant or funny. In a crowd, we’d usually blend in.

But at lunch, we came together as a group.

And we made room.

Paweł Wojciechowski | Creative Commons | via unsplash

Paweł Wojciechowski | Creative Commons | via unsplash

Read the rest over at Putting on the New, where I blog on the 12th of each month.

When you have a birthday

I woke up on the first day of my 37th year full before the day began.

This is not the norm for me.  On my birthday or any other day.

The weather promised to be perfect–sunny, 80 degrees, not too humid.

And the day was pregnant with promise.

Birthdays are, for me, a love-hate affair. I enjoy the celebration. I love cake and ice cream. But in recent years, my birthdays have been anti-climatic, to say the least. While my husband was in seminary, he almost always had finals the week of my birthday and May 4 would become like any other day. I got used to lowering (or abandoning) my expectations for the day. I’m not big on surprises, but a part of me has always wanted to feel special on my birthday.

That’s normal, right?

So, on Sunday night, knowing that Monday was packed full of meetings and a birthday celebration was going to be hard to squeeze in, I did something I rarely do.

I asked for what I wanted.

“It doesn’t matter what we do,” I said, as we finished up dinner. “But tomorrow, I’d like to do something special for my birthday.”

Rather than feel selfish or needy by that declaration, I felt grown-up and free.

Maybe that’s why Monday dawned with such hope. I was grateful before the day began for this life I’ve been gifted, with all its messes and miracles.

What happened throughout the day was icing on the proverbial cake. (There was actual cake, too.)

As my husband got up to make my coffee and breakfast for me and the kids, I read tweets from my brother, and opened an e-mail with a generous gift inside from him and his wife. Breakfast is my favorite meal, so it’s always a gift to have someone else make it. (And for it to not be cereal or toast. Egg sandwiches, in case you were curious.)

Phil and our son left to head to the grocery store to plan a special dinner, and the Facebook greetings rolled in from across the country and across the years of my life. I said, in reflecting on the day, that a Facebook birthday is like “This is your life.” College friends. Hometown friends. Online friends I’ve never met in person.

Some made the tears come, like this one from a pastor friend in Illinois:

Today, look back in awe at how God has shaped and led you; then look forward in anticipation of all that God will do to complete the beautiful work of art that is you. Experience God’s blessing on your birthday!

Look back. Look forward. Both together, not either or. A day before, I read this quote from Madeleine L’Engle, and it is fitting for birthdays:

madeleine quote

I have wanted to lose some of the ages I’ve been, but in my 37th year, I am increasingly grateful for the ways those years have shaped me.

When the guys returned, I headed out to my counseling appointment. Going to counseling on my birthday might not seem like a treat, but it’s becoming a valued part of my life and routine.

“Don’t cry too much on your birthday,” my husband said as I left because I have left a lot of tears in my counselor’s office. I did cry, but they were mostly happy tears because maybe for the first time in my life I love who I am and who I am becoming and I feel loved. By others. By God. By me.

I spent the afternoon with my son. We volunteered at the school library, which we hadn’t done for a couple of weeks. We enjoyed the outside weather. The porch is my favorite place in the spring/summer/fall. I read. I tended my small collection of plants, including a hanging basket of flowers that arrived while I was gone. A sweet couple from church dropped them off just to say “thanks.” I continued to read the messages of well wishes. I talked to my grandparents. I picked up my daughter from the bus.

And I watched my husband prepare a birthday feast for dinner. He grilled some of my favorites: bell peppers, shrimp, steak. Paired with rice it was a satisfying and special meal, topped off with a moose tracks ice cream cake. The day would have been perfect without it, but I’m glad I said something the day before.

We headed off to church for meetings my husband and I lead, once again grateful that we are part of a community of faith that recognizes and values our gifts and lets us use them.

We fell into bed exhausted and my heart was fuller than it had been when I woke up. I can’t think of a better way to have spent my birthday than being with people I love, doing ordinary things, celebrating life and health. It was extraordinary in its ordinariness.

This morning it was a little harder to get out of bed, but more birthday wishes trickled in, including a video from our 3-year-old nephew. In the middle of singing “Happy birthday,” he asked his mom if they could come to our house and share cake. We are too many miles apart for that, but the sentiment warms my heart.

We still have cake, and a birthday date night scheduled for Friday, but for all intents and purposes, the celebration is over.

The gratitude continues, though, and my hope for the year to come is to find these ordinary graces in my life no matter the day.

I am 37, and it is good to be alive.

Help for making nutritious food for families: Review of Supermarket Healthy cookbook

I became a fan of Melissa D’Arabian years ago when she was a contestant on Next Food Network Star, and though I never got a chance to catch her show, I appreciated her food philosophy: healthy, affordable meals for a family. (D’Arabian has four kids!)

supermarketHer new cookbook, Supermarket Healthy, is a handy resource for families who want to make the most of their grocery budget without resorting to the nutritionally lacking pre-packaged meals that are often cheaper but not necessarily better. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the cookbook from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for my review.)

D’Arabian offers practical tips for both the shopping and cooking phases of preparing a meal, and those tips are scattered throughout the recipes. I remember her offering these sorts of shortcut tips and tricks on the show, too. One of my favorites from the book is to always add the liquid first in the blender when making a smoothie because it creates a vortex. Previously, I would add the chunkiest ingredient, thinking it needed to be closest to the blades.

And let’s talk about the recipes. While some are a bit out of reach (and maybe more do-able in an area like California, where D’Arabian lives, because of more access to fresh produce year-round), I’ve already found some new favorites.

I’m not much of a smoothie person when it comes to breakfast but the Caffeinated Coffee-Oat Smoothie was a delicious and satisfying start to my day. I wasn’t sure it would fill me up for a morning, but it did! Super easy to make (as long as the blender is clean!) and filling. With a little do-ahead prep (cooked oatmeal), it’s pretty much a snap.

For breakfast, I also tried to Healthy Breakfast Benedict, a twist on one of my favorite breakfast dishes, eggs Benedict. This one uses spinach and a basil-cream sauce. I think this one could have been better because I didn’t properly execute the poached eggs. I usually fry my eggs, so my poaching skills are a little rusty.

Tuna Noodle Bowls was probably my favorite of the ones I’ve made so far. Our family is a big fan of tuna noodle casserole, especially on dreary winter days. It’s a comfort food that warms you from the inside out. The recipe we typically use is heavy and full of processed cheese and canned soups. So, I was eager to try D’Arabian’s take, which uses reduced-fat cream cheese, a leek and fresh lemon juice, among other ingredients. It’s a refreshing twist on the comfort food I love. Still comforting but with flavorful bursts of citrus that lighten it up. Like sunshine breaking through on a cloudy day.

I notice this trend in D’Arabian’s recipes: fresh ingredients full of flavor. And that’s part of what excites me about her recipes. I look forward to using even more of them as we move into spring and start to see more fresh produce at the farmer’s market and in the stores.

Other recipes I tried were the Poached Chicken Puttanesca, which used an olives, capers and tomatoes sauce, and Spicy Honey-Mustard Chicken, which was a last-minute dinner idea one night not long after I got the book. Both were satisfying dinners the family enjoyed.

I’ve yet to try any of the snacks, soups or desserts, but this cookbook will continue to be in my rotation for meal planning. I also hope to make more use of the pantry list at the beginning of the book so that some of these recipes are more accessible on short notice.

Overall, another winning cookbook from the Food Network folks.

You can read an excerpt here.


Melissa d’Arabian was a corporate finance executive before becoming the host of Food Network’s Ten Dollar Dinners and Cooking Channel’s Drop 5 Lbs with Good Housekeeping. She also developed the FoodNetwork.com seriesThe Picky Eaters Project, serves as lead judge on Guy’s Grocery Games, and is the author of the New York Times bestselling cookbook Ten Dollar Dinners. Melissa has an MBA from Georgetown University, and lives with her husband and their four daughters in San Diego.

Feast your mind on these 5 tasty books

By the time you read this, I will have spent a couple of days preparing food and cooking food and eating food. You, too? Marriage to my husband turned me into a foodie. I’m not sorry, except when my grocery budget takes a hit or my kitchen ends up in disaster mode because of my experiments with new recipes.

My other favorite thing to do is read, and if I can do both at the same time, I do. (While waiting for water to boil or a soup to simmer, I’ll often stand near the stove with a book or Kindle in hand to pass the time.) And lately, I’ve read some really great stories that focus on food or cooking or baking, so I can enjoy a novel and be inspired to cook at the same time!

So, if you’re at the point of the weekend where you can kick back and stop cooking or baking (and you love to read!), check out these five tasty books that will leave your mouth watering while providing an inspiring story.

1. Under the Cajun Moon by Mindy Starns Clark. This isn’t a new book, but I only read it last year. It’s a mystery set in Lousiana around a family restaurant. I went through a phase where I read several of Clark’s mysteries and I remember liking this one the best because of its ties to the food business.

when i fall in love2. When I Fall in Love by Susan May Warren. This is the third in a series about a family, but it takes place mostly in Hawaii when the main character, Grace, is sent by her family on a surprise cooking retreat. Grace is then paired with a hockey player for a cooking competition and well, let’s just say the food isn’t the only thing that cooks in the kitchen. Reminded me a lot of some of the Food Network shows I love.

3. Five Days in Skye by Carla Laureano. Setting sold this one because the Isle of Skye, Scotland, is magnificent, but this story features a hospitality consultant aiming for a promotion and a celebrity chef with dreams of restoring the family hotel. Another mouth-watering read.

4. All’s Fair in Love and Cupcakes by Betsy St. Amant. Another one with a cooking competition element, only this one love and cupcakesfeatures cupcakes. Summary: Best friends who want to be more can’t admit it to each other and don’t want the other person to have to give up their dreams for a chance at happiness. A sweet story and one that you’ll wish came with a cupcake!

5. A Table by the Window by Hillary Manton Lodge. Not necessarily my favorite among the foodie books I’ve listed, but still, it’s centered around a family in the food business–running a restaurant and writing about food. This one comes with recipes which might inspire readers to get off the couch and get cooking!

I feel like there might be others I’ve read recently but those are the first five that come to mind!

Do you have any book recommendations for readers who also love to cook (and eat!)?

When discipline stops being scary

The kids and I are eating dinner at Chick-fil-a tonight, which is not noteworthy since my husband works there and any employee who has been there for more than a month recognizes us when we walk in the door.

What IS new about this is that it’s the first time I’m ordering off the menu while trying to stick to a new eating plan. (Notice I didn’t say “diet.” That’s a dirty word for me.)

See, about three weeks ago, I was diagnosed with high blood pressure. It’s always ridiculously high in the office because I get nervous about doctor’s appointments, but it was so high that my nurse practitioner decided medicine was the best next step. I hate that it’s come to that, but I’m grateful for health coverage and an easy fix. In the meantime, I’m getting to know my new provider really well. I’ve been back several times to check my blood pressure and the medication’s effectiveness, and while it still isn’t where it needs to be, it’s getting better.

That’s a lot of back story for a blog post. Moving on.

While the medicine does its job, I’m trying to do mine by paying better attention to what I’m eating and how much I’m eating and how much exercise I’m getting. You know, the normal stuff I’m supposed to be paying attention to but haven’t been.

And because I’m not a terribly disciplined person, I’ve had to take some actions that lead me toward a more disciplined life. (Just so you know, even typing the word “discipline” makes me uncomfortable. It sounds so structured and binding, and not fun.)

Earlier this year, at the recommendation of my mother, I started using an app called MyFitnessPal to track my calories and activity. Since I’m not a terribly active person right now, either, it helped me set my calories at a level that would help me lose weight.

Then somewhere in the middle of the year, I stopped using it, even after seeing results of 5-7 pounds lost in a couple of months. Nothing drastic, but slow and steady, just the way it should be. I stopped using the app and I stopped caring about what I ate.

By Brian Jimenez | Creative Commons

By Brian Jimenez | Creative Commons

So, when I finally went to the doctor late last month, it was no surprise, really, that my weight was up and my BP was high. Without help, I don’t always take the best care of myself. So, I’m back to using the app, and I’m reading labels, and I’m learning all kinds of things. Like there is a ridiculous amount of sodium in stuff that I normally buy. That calories don’t add up very fast when I’m eating fruits and vegetables. And I can learn to like unsweetened iced tea because drinking all those calories in sweet tea is a bad idea.

And surprisingly, it’s not as scary as I thought it might be. Sure, it’s hard. But there are a couple of things I’m learning that make it easier.

So, whether you’re trying to watch what you eat or be more disciplined about other things in your life, maybe you’ll find this helpful, too.

First, I try not to say “no” completely to anything. I could not eat when we go to Chick-fil-a tonight, but I’d probably be a little sad about it. Yes, it’s just food, but it’s also hard for me to resist a temptation right in front of me. So, if my kids were eating it and wandered away, I’d be likely to steal a waffle fry or ten. So, I wasn’t interested in avoiding eating out at all. The same was true last week when I met a friend at Panera. Normally I’d just get a cinnamon crunch bagel with cream cheese. Instead of defaulting, I ordered a breakfast sandwich with avocado, spinach and egg white. It was delicious.

Related to that, I’m trying to plan ahead, too. So, earlier today I researched the nutrition information for various menu items, and now I can order with confidence without totally blowing my eating plan. Making a plan before I’m in a situation is helpful in a lot of circumstances, not just for eating. This helps me feel like I have some control, not like I’m being denied something by an outside force. That would make me miserable.

Third, I’m trying to set myself up for success. That means buying the good stuff from the grocery store. If I have fruits and vegetables and hummus and lower sodium choices in the house, then I will eat them. If I don’t, I will resort to junk or whatever is convenient.

This is not perfect by any means, nor do I follow it perfectly all the time. I have days where I fail or make decisions that are not the best but I start over the next day and try to do better.

I still don’t like to think of it as discipline, but it’s become necessary for my health, and I’m not hating it.

That’s a win, right?

Is discipline easy or hard for you? How do you stick with a plan?

Why the worst thing can also be the best thing

We walked into the WIC office, the boy and I, for the last time a few weeks ago. His fifth birthday is approaching, which means we’ll no longer qualify for the government nutrition program.

It’s the end of an era that began when I was pregnant with him. It was a decision I’d resisted with our first child. When she was born, we were still making just enough money to not qualify for it, but a year-and-a-half later, things had changed. My husband was a student with a part-time job only a high-schooler could love, and I was at home with a toddler and a baby on the way.

The clinic where we confirmed the pregnancy gave us the paperwork we needed for WIC, which was right down the hall, in the same building, and there was almost no decision to it. I am not proud that we needed it or that our poverty was such that our son’s birth was covered by insurance we didn’t pay for. But I’m so very grateful that we had the chance to walk in the shoes of the American poor.

Most days, I hated it. Hated that we had to buy the exact item of food on the check or risk setting off the alarm at the cash register or calling over a manager to fix it or heaven forbid, having to hold up the line while we went back to the aisle for the correct item. You’d think a college-educated woman would be able to perform these tasks faultlessly. But I couldn’t and didn’t and it opened my eyes to my sheltered world of privilege.

No, I’ve never been rich, but I’ve certainly never been poor either. Not really. Even in the days when we had no money to fall back on, we had family to help us. Family by relation and family by church. A support system not everyone who is poor has.

And I know you might be thinking if I hated it so much, why did we take it? Or why didn’t I use my college education to get a job? I’m not sure any of our reasons will satisfy your questions. I’ve learned along the way that no matter how much you argue, how much you try to prove to people that you are not like the stereotypes, some people will believe whatever they want and you only accomplish making your own blood boil.

This is one of the many things I’ve learned from our circumstantial poverty. That those who haven’t walked that path might never understand the whys of it. Some days, I still don’t understand the whys.

All I know is that I see the world differently because of the years–yes, years–we’ve spent receiving government assistance. (I know some of you may find that offensive. If we’re friends and you want to talk about it, I’m all for a civil discussion. I’ve lost “friends” because of this, though, and I’d prefer not to lose any more.)

I know about the limited choices for “free” healthcare and how you don’t always get the best. How the clinic is staffed by doctors in training and sometimes they can’t find the baby’s heartbeat and you panic because you need that assurance. How sometimes they treat you like you’re less of a person because you’re at the free clinic. How sometimes you have to pick a doctor whose office is 30 minutes or more from where you live because there is so much need and so few providers willing to open their doors to those with state-funded insurance. I know the shame of feeling like you’ve been labeled as “lazy” or “pitiful” or “fraud” when your insurance provider is announced at the doctor’s office.

And the grocery store? Don’t get me started on the grocery store. I always liked shopping for our family’s meals, but that was before government assistance. Before we held up the line with our WIC checks and store policies that require the cashier to get approval from a manager on the other side of the store for every single check we’re trying to use. Before I looked at the items in my cart through the eyes of someone not on government assistance, wondering which purchases they would condemn as frivolous or unnecessary. I never thought it was possible to be hated by people you don’t even know, but I feel that every time someone comments on an article about welfare or food stamps on Facebook. It makes me want to scream “You don’t know what it’s like!” But that doesn’t solve anything either because I didn’t know what it was like.

I didn’t know there was a day the grocery stores dread because it’s the day food stamps are dispersed and people flock to the stores to buy food. I didn’t know people so quickly passed judgment on other people just because they’re poor. I didn’t know there were families just like ours–families with full-time jobs and young kids–who still couldn’t make ends meet.

It’s the worst feeling, you know, when you grow up in middle-class homes, when you have two undergraduate and one graduate degree between the two of you, and you still require help. It’s the worst because you feel like a failure. Like it wasn’t supposed to be like this. Like you’re doing something wrong.

But it’s also the best because now you know what you didn’t know. Now you know it’s okay to ask for help. To get help. To do what you have to in order to take care of your family, even if you face criticism and hatred. You know what the paperwork is like. You know that it’s possible to stretch your monthly allowance, no matter how much it is. You know what shame feels like. And you see it on the faces of people you otherwise might dismiss.

Receiving government assistance has made me a more compassionate person. I’m glad we’re nearing the end of it because it means we have hope that things will be better. For some, the hope never comes. There seems to be no way out.

So, I wonder what it looks like to give people hope in their circumstances. What can I offer because of my experiences to those who are where I have been?

I’m not sure I have answers, but I’m glad I’m asking the questions.

Have you ever found yourself in a circumstance you never thought you’d be in? How did it turn out?

Are you able to see the good even in the bad?