Sunday Dinner #4

This week I was so pleased to make Paul’s Lasagna.

Lasagna is one of those dishes that has no formal recipe but everyone seems to know how to make. Paul’s version of lasagna certainly evolved over the years. He never made it the same way twice, and it was always good. It was also one of a very small set of family favorites that he trusted me, his culinary-challenged woman, to prepare with only a little oversight from him.

He often made lasagna when we had company. So, many of our family and friends out there will remember having Paul’s Lasagna when visiting or having dinner with us. And, of course, lasagna makes great leftovers. True story, I have been known to eat it cold, right out the dish, the next morning. This occasion was no exception.

On this particular evening, I was hosting Paul’s parents and the newest members of our family, my son’s future in-laws.

I began by cooking the lasagna noodles and browning the meat. We use at least nine of the long, flat lasagna noodles per 9×13 casserole dish, but I always cook more than I will need because inevitably one or more of the noodles tear or stick to the pot or something else that makes them unusable. Also, I add a dollup of olive oil to the boiling water. It keeps the noodles from sticking to each other. Occasionally, Paul and I would make the pasta from scratch. If the pasta is fresh, then it does not have to be boiled or pre-cooked. It can be added straight to the lasagna recipe.

Paul used to make lasagna with ground beef but years ago began using mild, Italian sausage instead. I use about a pound of sausage per 9×13 casserole dish. Italian sausage can sometimes be found in the store in bulk but more often I find it packaged already in a casing. Simply remove the casing before browning it in the pan. I find the easiest way to remove it is by using a pair of kitchen shears to cut the casing lengthwise and roll the sausage right out into the pan. Use a spatula to break it into smaller, bite-sized pieces as it is browning.

Once the sausage and noodles are prepped, you’re ready to start assembling the lasagna. I began with a light pour of spaghetti sauce across the bottom of the dish, just enough to cover it from edge to edge. Then, place the first three lasagna noodles lengthwise. More sauce. Sausage. Cheese. Black olives. Another layer of lasagna noodles. Sauce again. Alfredo sauce, too. Sausage. Cheese. Black olives. You get the idea! One of the layers typically includes ricotta cheese in addition to the shredded cheddar and mozzarella that have already been used in previous layers.

I was feeling sassy so I got creative with a second, smaller lasagna and included a layer of fresh spinach. That’s the beauty of lasagna. You can make it your own by adding whatever ingredients suit your fancy.

Cover and bake at 350 degrees for about 30-40 minutes. You’ll know it’s ready when you can see it bubbling around the edges. Uncover for the last five minutes to get the cheeses really melt-y. Salad and garlic bread completed the meal.

***

Dessert was a special one. Both Paul and I are from farming families with fond childhood memories of spending time on the farm. So, throughout our son’s childhood, we would frequently visit the local farm stand of a very large, peach farm, McLeod Farms, in McBee, South Carolina. Their peaches are sold under the Mac’s Pride brand throughout the United States and Canada. They also grow other crops for local sales like corn, blackberries, grapes, blueberries, strawberries, melons, pumpkins, tomatoes, beans, greens, broccoli, okra, and so on.

In the farm stand, you can find fresh produce, baked and canned goods, and homemade ice cream. Families and school groups frequent the farm to walk the fields, pick produce, and visit the tractor museum. There is also a farm-to-table restaurant and annual festivals to celebrate the harvests. Families can go for a hayride or simply sit at the picnic tables or in rocking chairs and enjoy time together. This was the setting of many a well-spent, lazy day for our family.

Each year the farm invites people to enter a contest for the best recipes that utilize the farm’s produce. Paul loved trying out the winning recipes. This dessert, Peach Enchiladas, is one of those winning recipe entries, and it was an instant hit in our family.

Use 4 – 6 fresh peaches. Peel and quarter, and wrap each piece in crescent roll dough. Arrange in a deep baking dish.

Melt two sticks of butter. Add one and one-half cups of sugar and one teaspoon of cinnamon to the melted butter and stir until well blended. Pour or spoon the sugar mixture on top of each wrapped peach quarter.

Finish with the SECRET INGREDIENT…..Moutain Dew! Yes, that’s right. Pour twelve ounces of the good stuff into the dish. Try to avoid pouring it directly over the sugar mixture. Instead, pour it into one of the little, empty spaces between the wrapped peach quarters and let it fill the dish from the bottom.  

Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Through the magic of heat and time, the Mountain Dew transforms into a thick, ooey-gooey, sugary, cinnaminny filling.

My son knew I was making lasagna, but I had not told him what I was serving for dessert. When I took this out of the oven, my son let out an “Ooooo, Mama!” and, with that, I knew I had nailed it!

As I was making, serving, and eating it, I was remembering warm, sunny, clear-blue-sky days of us; riding in the haywagon, walking in the fields, picking berries, and sitting in rocking chairs enjoying homemade strawberry or peach ice cream, laughing, smiling, loving each other.

Those were good, good days, and I am so thankful, Malia

Sunday Dinner #2

I’m getting good at this!

For my next adventure in cooking, I prepared Filipino chicken, rice, steamed asparagus, pear salad, biscuit, and honey-bun cake.

This Filipino chicken recipe is iconic in our family. Paul’s mother picked it up while they were living in Japan in the late 1960s, and it has been a family favorite for over 50 years. Think about that. Three generations of this family have sat around the dinner table and enjoyed this meal together. They have smiled, laughed, and argued, listened, celebrated, mourned, have been sad, worried, excited, angry. This meal is what connects us today to the memory of all of those moments in time.

***

The dish itself is easy and delicious, warm and steamy goodness; rich, salty and sweet. And it’s classically Filipino with an adobo sauce as the base. The recipe calls for two packs of chicken; drumsticks, thighs, and breast. However, Paul and his mother always used a large-ish pack of thighs, bone-in and skin on. Really, you can use whatever you want, but you do need the skin as it provides the fat that keeps the chicken tender. My only added advice here is to adjust the amounts of liquids to make sure that you have enough to cover, or nearly cover, the chicken. In this particular instance, I chose a pack of 10 thighs and found that I needed to double the recipe in order to have enough liquid in the pot.

In a large pot, I added 2 cups of water, one-half cup of soy sauce, one cup of vinegar, two or three whole bay leaves, black pepper, and half a bulb of garlic, sliced. Then, I added the chicken and covered the pot. After about an hour and quick phone call to Paul’s mom for moral support(!), I needed to reduce the amount of liquid. So, I uncovered the pot and let it cook for another hour until the liquid was reduced by about three-fourths. Just use low to medium heat settings and adjust as needed based on the amount of time you have.

***

Ok, let’s take a little time-out to have a serious talk about rice. That’s right. Rice. For my readers in the American south, I know I am opening a can of worms here. (What other readers are there you ask? Well, at last count, the little blog that could is being read in 47 countries around the world. Eeek!)

Rice culture in the American south, specifically in the Carolinas, has a long, long history, and southern households and their cooks have developed very specific habits and methods, to a nearly religious level, around cooking, serving, and eating rice. In fact, many southern brides receive the traditional gift of a rice spoon as a wedding gift.

The rice historically grown in the Carolinas was a long-grain, non-aromatic, white rice. Over the years, my family has grown more fond of the aromatic rices like jasmine and basmati.

Now, there are many questions that can immediately tell us a lot about a person based on their response, questions that place people in categories or camps. Which direction the toilet paper roll faces, for example, is one of those questions. I am not even going to weigh in on that one for fear of losing readers!

But the rice question is this, “How do you cook rice?” The two camps are as follows:  steamed or boiled. Each camp is full of devotees. I have never in my life heard someone say, “Either way. It doesn’t matter” because, well, it most certainly does matter. These two versions of rice are hardly even comparable!

The only way to cook rice is in pot. Judge me as you wish.

Two cups of water to one cup of rice, a thick pad of butter, and 10 minutes covered on low to medium-low heat makes the perfect pot of rice. Every time. Finesse points include bringing it to a hard boil just before turning down the heat and covering, and do not, for the love of all that is good and right in the world, do not lift the lid. Once it is covered, you must not uncover until it is finished. In our household, getting a little too close to the pot would result in a sharp rebuke, “Don’t open the lid!” You might even get a light slap on the hand if it looked like you might be considering lifting the lid. I’m not kidding. When finished, the rice should be forked before serving.

***

Asparagus is a perennial that grows really well in the south. A well-tended bed will produce for many years. It grows like a weed as we say. I have even seen it growing wild in roadside ditches down country lanes bordering long forgotten homesteads and farms. We like it lightly steamed so that it retains its crunch and nutty, earthy flavor. A vegetable basket in a large pot over medium-high heat works well. Add water until it is even with the bottom of the basket. Cover the pot and start a five minute timer once you see the first curls of steam rising. Then, remove from heat and serve immediately.

***

Pear salad. Another icon at our family’s dinner table. Begin with a couple of outer leaves from a head of iceberg lettuce as the base. Add a half of a pear, a dollop of mayonnaise, a maraschino cherry, and a sprinkling of cheddar cheese. I don’t know the origins of this little dish nor have I ever had the inclination to ask. I almost prefer to think of it as uniquely ours. It is just so dear and precious to me. It really is delightful. Trust me.

However, if you choose to use anything other than Duke’s mayonnaise, I am not responsible for the outcome.

***

And finally for dessert…We were celebrating a birthday so I made a cake, honey-bun cake. We make this cake in a casserole dish, and it is hilariously and lovingly known in our family as buh-donka-donk cake (because if you are not careful, it will give you a buh-donka-donk butt!).

First, mix one box of yellow cake mix, 8 ounces of sour cream, three-fourths cup of oil, four eggs, and one-half cup of sugar until all ingredients are moist, about two minutes at a medium speed. Pour into a greased 9 x 13 pan. Combine one cup of light brown sugar, one-half cup of raisins, and two teaspoons of cinnamon and lightly swirl mixture into the batter. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. While the cake is still warm, pour a mixture of one cup of powdered sugar, two tablespoons of milk, and one teaspoon of vanilla over the cake.

Paul made this cake for us many times. He got the recipe years ago from one of our finest friends who got the recipe from his good friend and neighbor. Connection. Making and sharing these recipes and food keeps us connected, physically and in spirit.

As we enjoyed the meal, we talked about all the people we loved who were connected with the recipes and the food. We smiled and laughed remembering them, the time we shared with them, who they were, and the impact they had on our lives and us on theirs. I am so grateful for everything Paul and I shared and particularly grateful that Paul left me such a beautiful (culinary) legacy of love!

This. This is what I love about food, recipes, and sharing meals with others. It’s a way to remember and honor the lives of those we love. It’s an active, living memorial.

Food + memories = joy, Malia

Sunday Dinner #1

Let’s get cooking! This is the first in series of posts that will feature meals that my late husband made for his family and friends throughout our lives together. He was a great cook and really enjoyed it. I also think it was his way of providing for us. It was part of his love-language, and oh, boy, did we feel loved!

My reasons for this adventure in cooking are threefold.

First, it’s a growth goal for me on two fronts. For one, it’s a sort of last hold-out in terms of what daily life looks like without Paul. I have really resisted cooking for myself and others because it is a daily life-task that wholly belonged to Paul. Stepping into a role that was so completely his domain would be full acknowledgement of his absence and a major milestone in my grieving and healing process. Also, we’re moving into a new season of family life with the birth of my second niece, the marriage of my son, and the anticipation of grandchildren in years to come. Our little family is growing! I want to cook for myself and my growing family. I want to share big family meals together, cherish our memories of Paul, and make some new memories of our own.

Second, it’s a way to memorialize Paul and preserve a beautiful aspect of our family life for future generations. Each meal has memories and love attached them; the food, the smell, the taste, the table-scape, the dishes. Food and love, passed around the table.

Finally, it’s therapeutic. Cooking has benefits all its own, the ability to heal a broken heart. A New York Times article from many years back, “Cooking is therapy:  Making meals helps reduce stress, heal a broken heart, among other benefits”, aptly describes the many benefits of spending time in the kitchen.

Now, I am not pretending for a second that any of these meals are gourmet or as healthy as they could be. They are not going to cure your psoriasis or lower your blood pressure. I am simply serving up memories for myself and my family, home-cooked goodness that satisfies and soothes and honors the person we loved. It’s home-cooked healing, comfort for a grieving heart.

For this particular Sunday Dinner, I prepared red rice with pork chops, green peas, cinna-minny apple sauce, biscuits, and cheesecake with a blueberry sauce for dessert. I prepared the meal just like Paul. I did it the same way I watched him do it hundreds of times over so many years. Going through his motions in making the meal was really comforting to me. I felt like I was close to him, like I was spending time with him again, and like I was preserving a part of who he was and what he meant to us.

***

First, I browned the pork chops in a bit of oil on medium-high heat. Next, I removed the pork chops and set them aside. Then, I added stewed tomatoes, a small can of tomato sauce, a cup and a half of water, and one cup of rice. Finally, I placed the pork chops back in the pan, covered it, and let it cook on medium-low for about 30 minutes. A frequent variation for us was to use kielbasa style sausage in place of pork chops.

Side dishes included green peas, apple sauce sprinkled with cinnamon, and biscuits.

I baked a cheesecake for dessert. Cheesecake was not in Paul’s repertoire, but I wanted to include it because it’s a recipe that a member of my GriefShare group gave me. Each time I bake it, I remember and honor the members of my GriefShare group, how much we shared and supported each other, and the loving care I experienced with them at a time when I was really vulnerable.

***

This cheese cake is so easy! Crust is optional. You can grease/butter the pan, and sprinkle it with crushed graham crackers for a light crust.

For the filling, simply mix together two and one-quarter pounds of cream cheese, one and one-third cups of sugar, 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, and 4 eggs.

Bake at 200 degrees for three and one-half hours. No need for a water bath. Give it the ol’ jiggle test before you remove it from the oven. Let it cool. Then, place in the refrigerator overnight or at least for several hours.

For this cake, I made a blueberry sauce, but it could be topped with any fruit. I have used whole, fresh blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries in the past. The blueberry sauce was quick and easy. I heated two cups of blueberries, half a cup of water, 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, and half a cup of sugar over medium heat until bubbly. I whisked together 2 tablespoons of cornstarch with 2 tablespoons of cold water and added it to the blueberries. The cornstarch mixture thickens the sauce. Finish by stirring in one-half teaspoon of vanilla.

Honestly, this first cooking adventure was so much fun! I found both joy and satisfaction in cooking for my family.

***

In other news, it seems that everyone has a New Year’s post of one kind or another, but this is not my new year. My new year begins the day after the anniversary of Paul’s passing, March 18. However, my thoughts are already wandering in that direction, anticipating the marking of the second year without Paul, and, oh goodness, acknowledging new possibilities. I have no idea what that looks like, but I know I have grown tremendously and more than ever I am looking forward. Just that. Looking forward.

My friends, healing is the new grieving, Malia

To be like Ruth.

Paul was not worried about dying, but he was worried about those he was leaving behind including his parents who are now in their 80s. I reassured him, “You made me a Dunn, and nothing is going to change that. I’m going to take care of these people,” and that’s exactly what I am doing not because I have to, not out of some sense of obligation or because it’s what Paul would have wanted but because I love them with the same deep, abiding love with which I loved Paul. They are my family and always will be. They have loved me as their own daughter. I may not be blood of their blood, but I am heart of their heart.

My husband came from a family of three boys. One night, we were all sitting around the dinner table as we frequently did, and Paul’s mom and dad were regaling us with stories of the challenges of raising three boys close in age to each other and how the risk of adding yet another boy to the raucous mix made trying for a girl a deal breaker. Then, one of them commented, “But then came Malia…” and my husband finished the thought with, “….and Mama got the blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl she’d always wanted.” We all grinned at each other because we all knew it was true. I was so young when I married Paul and joined their family, and yet his parents were still young themselves. I could easily have been their natural child. No matter. They have surely and truly loved me as their natural child.

What’s more is that they possess memories of Paul that no one else has. He is alive in their memory. They tell stories about his childhood, adolescence, and the years before I met him. They keep me connected to Paul in ways that no one else can. I look at their faces, and I see Paul. His nose, his mouth and full lips, his narrow chin, and his deep brown eyes looking back at me. He’s there, in the slightest expressions in their faces, in their gestures, the way they walk and talk, the way they smile. I remember the same was true of my grandmother. Her daughter, my mother, died when I was twelve. My grandmother held my mother in her memory, in her face, her hands, her voice and her laugh, and as long as my grandmother was alive, I enjoyed that connection. She told me stories of my mother’s childhood and added dimension to my own memories by filling in details from her own perspective of the events.

When my grandmother died, a cord was cut. She took all of her memories with her, but sometimes shared memories can have a Droste effect becoming like a picture inside a picture inside a picture so that those we loved, but who are no longer with us, continue to live in our memories generation after generation. The memory becomes recursive. Now, I am remembering my grandmother remembering my mother, and one day, I will be remembering my husband’s parents remembering Paul, and I will be the one passing those memories on and keeping the connection alive.

***

In the Biblical book of Ruth, we learn about Elimelek and his wife Naomi who migrated to Moab because of famine in their homeland, Judah. Elimelek died, but their two sons both married Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. (Sidebar: Orpah is actually Oprah Winfrey’s real name.) The Book of Ruth goes on to say that after about ten years both of Naomi’s sons also died so she decided to return to her own family in Bethlehem in Judah because she heard that the Lord had come to the aid of His people and provided food in that region. Naomi encouraged both of her daughters-in-law to also return to their own families. Initially, both Orpah and Ruth pleaded to be allowed to remain with Naomi, but at Naomi’s urging, Orpah turned back and returned to her own family. Only Ruth remained. She begged her mother-in-law to allow her to remain with her. Ruth pledged, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay,” and so she did. Now, Ruth has her own book in the Bible. There’s only one other woman with her own book and that’s Esther. Esther was a typical Jewish girl who through God’s providence became Queen of Persia and is credited with saving her entire race. She clearly earned her Biblical standing. So, what did Ruth do to earn hers? Ruth was loyal and obedient as she navigated the series of changes life handed her. She, a foreigner, returned with Naomi to Judah, remarried a man named Boaz and produced a son named Obed. Obed was the father of Jesse who was the father of David. Yes, that David, King David, whose offspring led to Jesus.

I can really relate to Ruth and her desire to remain with the family that God blessed her with, but it’s more than that. It’s about how faith and obedience go hand-in-hand. Ruth was obedient at every turn in her very difficult life. Obedience is not a word often used in our culture today. It has taken on some sort of uncomfortable connotation, but I think that both the word and concept have gotten a bad rap. Obedience is about turning control over to someone else, submitting the outcome to someone else and acknowledging that someone else knows better even if the outcome doesn’t seem better to us. I know. Really difficult stuff here but so important to a right relationship with God that bears fruit. It took me years to learn this. No, it took me years to even get a glimpse of what obedience looks like, sounds like, acts like. It took me years more to fully realize its potential, and yet I still lose my grip on this fundamental understanding. It’s like trying to grab a fish. You struggle to catch hold of its slimy, wriggling, flapping body. You finally manage to lasso it with your hands, and then it just slides right out of your grip.

Here’s how I discovered what Godly obedience is all about, but let me start with what it’s not. It’s not about following the rules. Yeah, I was shocked about that, too. I am a natural born rule-follower, and I think that’s what made my road to obedience longer and harder. I was outwardly clean but inwardly rotten, rebellious. I wasn’t following the rules because I wanted to or more importantly because God wanted me to. I was following the rules because that’s what good people do, and I was, of course <insert eye-rolling>, a good person. For me, that kind of thinking was literally the road to hell, to separation from God. So, one day, I just started playing a little what-if game. What if I do a thing not because I want to? What if I am obedient not because it’s a rule or a law or an expectation based on my race, gender, social station, or family dynamic? What if I do a thing because it’s what God wants me do, and it pleases Him? It’s life changing, friends. It’s trans-formative, and it’s hard.

I’ve also learned that, for me, when it comes to obedience, the train never pulls into the station. There is no arrival at success. There are many failures. It is an ongoing process. Case in point. Six years ago when life changed as it so often does, and I arrived at a new workplace, I was unhappy. I didn’t like it. I couldn’t understand why God stuck me there. I protested. I pouted. I dug in my emotional heels. I was not obedient. I didn’t embrace God’s will for my life. In a lot of ways, I was lost. Now, as I’m about to embark on a new journey in a new workplace, I left my work family with this:

A love letter…..

I have a confession to make. My first year at OMS was really hard for me. The transition was difficult. OMS was so VERY different from my previous school district, my previous position. You see, I had been really comfortable where I was. Maybe even too comfortable. As a 20 year veteran, I suddenly found myself with a lot to learn, and that was a little hard to take. My confidence was shaken. I have another confession. In my heart of hearts, I didn’t want to like OMS. In my mind, instead of getting on with it, I wanted to keep comparing it to what I missed so dearly in my former school and district. I was being stubborn and willful. I prayed to God and asked Him what in the world was He thinking? What purpose could He possibly have placing me here? I am embarrassed to say I wasted precious prayer time asking why, why, why. I’m also embarrassed to say it took me awhile to see that God was showing me why, every single day, in every single one of you. You won me over. You stole my heart. You made me love you, and I do love y’all.

I have learned so much from each of you. Y’all have inspired me to strive in my teaching, empowered me to press on, and comforted me through some of the darkest days of my life. You’ve picked up my slack when I just couldn’t rise to the occasion and celebrated with me when things went well. You’ve laughed with me when I allowed my silliness out to play, and cried with me when there were no words left to speak. You are among the finest teachers and human beings I have known. I will remember everything you have taught me. I will miss you dearly, and I thank God for the time I’ve spent with you all. Gosh, darn it, OMS! You made me love you!

I’m there in the picture with my work family, yet another family God blessed me with. These days, through all the changes and challenges that life has to offer, I want nothing more than to be an instrument of God’s will and trust all the consequences to Him. I’m doing my best to be obedient, to be like Ruth.

Malia

“Now, Malia, you’re going to have to make some friends.”

I have written a lot about the importance of connections. Connecting with others has perhaps been the area of greatest personal growth for me during the grieving process. Paul knew it would be. The title of this post is literally one of the last coherent thoughts he was able to share with me. He knew my ability to “make some friends” would be critical. It’s not that I was completely friendless, but for me, my family was not just enough, they were my everything, my all-in-all. I didn’t feel like I needed more.

I.was.wrong.

I have worked hard to deepen current friendships and cultivate new connections, and it has made all the difference. Cultivate is exactly the right word here. Like a gardener cultivates flowers, growing a friendship takes time, work, attention, and the nourishment of emotional sunshine. I am learning how to do that because my connections, my friends, are teaching me. I have the most amazing group of what I call support sisters. They have taught me and are still teaching me how to be a friend. They show me every day with love, support, laughter, and tears, the sad kind and the happy kind. They are the real-deal steel magnolias. Here’s what I’ve learned so far about making and keeping friends.

Reach out

Ask for and offer help. Easier said than done. I know. I am the queen of “I can do it faster and better if I just do it myself.” Not true. What people really mean when they say something like this is that it takes less of their own energy to engage others in the completion of a task. And while that part may be true, it is, at the same time, a loss. The contributions of others have enormous value both to the outcome and the emotional well-being of those engaged in the process.

Be present

If you are invited, go. It doesn’t matter whether or not it is something that necessarily appeals to you personally. That’s not the point. Go, and enjoy being together.

Support their efforts

Whatever they are into, support it with time, energy, and positive contributions. Be their cheerleader!

Use multiple ways to communicate

Social media has many drawbacks, but it can be really useful for staying in touch. If you are an introvert (like me) and there is a limit on the number of face-to-face conversations you can have each day, use other ways to reach out, communicate, and support. Phone calls, Facebook, texting, Marco Polo, Instagram, Snapchat….the list goes on and on. Snapchat’s tag line is, “The fastest way to share a moment!” It’s pure marketing genius because it’s true. Making and maintaining connections is as much about sharing the little moments as it is about being there for the big ones.

Because a picture is worth a thousand words, the rest of this post will be worth a million.

The women in these photos have been my rock. They have cried with me and laughed with me. They have been with me to mourn and to celebrate. I could not get through this journey without them, and I am so grateful! I am still learning about friendship. I am sure there are lots of ways that I fall short, but I am growing. Thanks to them. They are still teaching me every day. My hope and prayer is that I am able to return even a small portion of what they have given me.

Much love to all my sisters, Malia