When I was training for a marathon, I would fill my pockets with orange slices in Ziploc bags. As weariness snuck up, one or two slices popped in my mouth would push it back and give me strength to press on another few kilometers. God's words and His encouragement sometimes come in bite-sized slices -impressions, experiences, encounters - and are just enough to push weariness back and keep us pressing on a little further...

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Purple Chicken (January 1, 2010)

I was trying to be impressive. That was my first mistake. The second was believing that possession of Julia Child’s cookbook and a habit of reading it in a heavy French accent (like thees) somehow bestowed the ability to cook with breezy French flair upon a girl who, let’s be honest, doesn’t know the difference between a cassoulet and a casserole. Julia Child, it turns out, I am not.

It began, as adventures in my life do, with those fateful little words: “How hard can it be?” I won’t take you down all the roads that phrase has led me to; this particular path was lain with cream puffs. Cream puffs! I mean, really - how hard can they be?

I thumbed through the cookbook. Found the puff pastry recipe. Found all the various cream recipes (being a French cookbook, and all). Decided, (quite brilliantly, I thought) to make the cream first so that it could chill while the pastries were made. I spread the book open wide on my counter and dove in.

I whipped the egg yolks, slowly beating in the sugar until it was light yellow and “formed the ribbon”. I added hot milk, drop by drop as per Julia’s instructions, and warmed it all in a saucepan till it was a glorious foam. I painstakingly strained the mounds of golden cream through a tiny tea sieve (it was the only one I had), added the vanilla and whipped it all again over a bowl filled with ice. I felt invincible! I felt impressive! I felt French!

I covered my Crème Anglaise, put it in the refrigerator to set, then collapsed on a kitchen chair, spent but satisfied. My cream puffs were on their way to being perfect. I pulled the book towards me to check in case I had forgotten anything, and casually turned the page. About half-way down, under the heading for the recipe “Crème Pâtissierè” lay some other fateful little words: “use as filling for cream puffs”. I quickly flipped the page back and scanned the recipe I had used. There was no mention of cream puffs. Instead, only words that alluded to runniness, like “pour over cakes and ice cream” and “use in place of cream” met my horrified gaze. The truth dawned like a Paris morning - I had used the wrong recipe. There were no cream puffs to be had that night.

Undaunted, I returned to Julia’s cookbook the next night. Cream puffs? No - they were so ‘yesterday’. Besides, I knew the problem, now. An impressive chef (like zee one in my head) would set their sights on greater, more legendary culinary challenges - like Coq Au Vin! Chicken in a wine sauce - how hard could it be?

I thumbed through the cookbook. Found the CORRECT recipe. Gathered the necessary ingredients, minus one (where do they sell cognac in America, anyway?). Decided, (quite brilliantly, I thought), that the flambé step was probably just for show, and spread the book open wide on my counter. I dove in.

I boiled the bits of bacon and then browned them lightly in butter. The chicken followed, then salt and pepper, the smell of a gently sautéing dream filling my kitchen. In the absence of cognac and an appreciative audience, I skipped the part where you set the chicken briefly on fire, and doused it instead with a nice burgundy, a cup or two of beef broth and some spices. I covered it, as instructed, and let it simmer for half an hour. I was again feeling invincible! Impressive! French! When I returned, the smell was heavenly. The chicken was purple.

It occurred to me then that the people who write down recipes and have them published do so because they know what they’re talking about. Julia Child knew that Crème Anglaise was a sorry substitute for Crème Pâtissierè if one intended to make non-soggy cream puffs, and that non-flambéd Coq Au Vin would likely turn an unappetizing purple. That’s why she made the recommendations she did. My less-than-impressive French cooking debut was the result of my mistakes, not her direction.

It also occurred to me that each of us makes our debut in the world, hoping that our lives will be happy and healthy. We want to belong somewhere, to someone; we wish to love and be loved. We desire lives that count for something, and long to greet each sunrise with enthusiasm, each sunset with satisfaction.

The problem is that most of us don’t. Our lives haven’t turned out quite the way we thought they would. Oh sure, there have been some delightful surprises along the way, but there have been just as many disappointments - sometimes more. We start each New Year with new resolutions, determined to make things different, but new days have a way of fading into old habits, and by February, most things haven’t changed at all.

Perhaps, the life you were hoping for isn’t the life you’ve got because you started off with Crème Anglaise instead of Creme Pâtissierè - the recipes have gotten mixed up. God’s recipe for living might have gotten a reputation for being harsh and a little bitter, so you decided to pick a different one. One you thought would be a little bit sweeter. The problem is that only one has real substance and any other just dribbles away - it won’t hold up under the demands of real life.

I’m sure Julia Child loved good cream puffs. She tested recipe after recipe and included the very best ones in her book so that those who followed her directions precisely would taste the sweet bliss she knew was possible. I missed that bliss because I followed a different recipe. God loves life - He designed our hearts and minds to love it too, and included the very best recipe for living in His Book so that those who follow His directions precisely would taste the sweet bliss of peace, joy and hope that He knows is possible. If we’ve missed that bliss, it is likely because we’ve followed a different recipe.

There’s a great verse in the Bible that says:

“Taste and see that the Lord is good.
Blessed is the one who takes refuge in Him”
(Psalm 34:8)

I love that! God invites us in to check Him out. He does not command us to follow Him blindly, to follow rigorous rules of conduct on His whims. He does not hide in heaven and crack the whip because He’s bigger than we are. Instead, He leans in and offers us free samples of His goodness - the beauty of a crisp winter snow, the warmth of family and friends, the breathless moments of sunset. “Taste!” He says, “Taste and see!” He’s confident that once we see who He really is, we’ll come running back for more.

When we do realize the goodness of God and pick up His recipe for life, it’s important also to be aware that if you mess with the process you mess with the results. The reason my husband thought he was eating beef for dinner (purple chicken in disguise) is because I thought I knew more than the expert and skipped a step. Turns out, that step was more important than I thought. God doesn’t give us commands because He wants to waste our time or suck all the fun out of life - just the opposite! Each instruction He gives has purpose, each step is necessary if we want to arrive at the intended results. And we are not left to work it out on our own - not only does He give us all the ingredients we need, the recipe is not nearly as difficult as you think...

“This is love for God: to obey His commands. And His commands are not burdensome...” (1 John 5:3)

Finally, my first mistake was my biggest one - I was trying to be impressive. Food should be made to taste good, not to be impressive. My life should be lived according to God’s standards because it’s right, not because I think it will make me look good. Or impressive. Anything good I have ever known is laced with the flavor of God’s love; it has come from His hands, because HE is good, not because I am. I’ve tasted the sweet life because He showed me how, and now I follow His recipe because I’m addicted to living deliciously.

This New Year, as we look back on the highs and lows of 2009, and toward the great potential of 2010, I am reminded of the old phrase, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got[ten]”. There were priceless moments in 2009 that I know came as a result of following God’s recipe, and broken moments in 2009 that came when I followed my own. There are things that I’ve always done, but if I want something new in 2010, if I want to see real change in my life, I’ve got to adjust the recipe. Fortunately, I know a Chef with zee most impressive one around....

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