Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Crows, Quakers and compassion

Two mornings ago, I heard a racket outside. Looking out the south-facing picture window in the living room, I saw crows circling overhead, cawing loudly. On the ground, a crow lay flopping, beating its wings, but unable to fly. Two crows stood beside it. One or the other occasionally nudged the injured comrade. The hurt crow flopped over, beat its wings loudly, failed to rise. The  crows overhead circled and cawed. The two sentry crows flew away. I expected all the crows would fly off, leaving their dying peer to his fate.

But they didn't. Two crows--whether the same or different, who could tell?--flew down and continued to stand sentry over the flapping friend. The other crows continued to circle. The crows above, I decided, were guarding the air against predators. Of the crows on the ground, I thought of the angels in Jesus's tomb, one at his head and one at his feet. They hopped beside the anguished crow as he flopped and flailed.

After a few more minutes, the downed crow managed to right himself, and he lifted off into the air. The two sentries--or angels--rose with him. The crows as a group left. Silence after all that cawing.

What had happened? Had the sick crow flown into the trunk of the nearby tree and become momentarily stunned and disoriented? I don't know, but clearly the story of the animal kingdom as a dog-eat-dog Darwinist universe is not entirely correct, for the crows practiced what looked like compassion. I was reminded of years ago, when our former cat, a self-possessed orange tabby, killed a baby crow one spring. Dozens of crows landed on trees and bushes around our small yard and set up an incessant cawing. When the poor cat finally went out, one crow swooped down and pecked him hard on the head, leaving a little hole in his fur. The cat streaked back inside. Eventually the crows, having made their statement, left. There was no mistaking that they were outraged, and, in a sense, though I anthropomorphize, grieving.

This morning, I read in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/18/science/ancient-bones-that-tell-a-story-of-compassion.html?pagewanted=2 of archeological excavations showing that, around the globe, prehistoric people cared for at least a few of the people who could not care for themselves--the sick, the paralyzed, the malformed. Perhaps these were rare cases or perhaps these particular individuals had powerful parents or were assigned godlike status. On the other hand, perhaps many more sick people were cared for then we know or can know, because their skeletons leave no signs. Whatever the case, despite a story we tell of marginal societies abandoning the sick, weak and  elderly, this was not universally true.

Religion tells a story that compassion weaves through the universe, holding it together. As the early Quakers understood, that agape--that Christ, that Light--was and is available to all people, whether or not they've heard of the historical Jesus. It extends to the animals and no doubt to the plants. It led the early Quakers to what we call social justice on behalf of the poor because such compassion enacted the way God meant his people to live--the shalom way, not the earthly way. No"veil" separates matter and spirit, nor are the two "one." They coexist, laced together. Jesus did not use the language of ripping away a veil to describe entering the kingdom--though the poetry of the veil ripping in the temple was used about him--but the language of hearing and sight. Living in alignment with the shalom kingdom first means being able to rightly see and rightly hear what is all around us.

But if the divine surrounds us, infusing nature, then what of all the harrowing examples of savagery we see in the animal kingdom?

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A modern Quaker cookbook

I've been pondering the thoughtfulness Mr. Clayton put into his 1883 Quaker cookbook. I also have been appreciating his mindfulness in offering recipes that are--or were-- simple and accessible to ordinary people, and his care for using wholesome--what we would probably call organic--food.

Our ideas of diet have changed since 1883, though almost all of us would recognize such staples as scrambled eggs and baked beans. We eat less meat and dairy today and don't exclusively rely on a Northern and Western European cuisine. We also don't eat the range of meats that were apparently considered normal 125 years ago--few of us, even among the carnivores, would probably savor pig's knuckles or calf brain.

Do we have staples that are distinctly Quaker in this day and age, recipes comparable to Clayton's "Quaker Cake?" I can't think of any, though I imagine Quaker foods still run to the simple and "wholesome." What would you include in a modern Quaker cookbook?

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Quakers: Cooking ... and boozing

I came across a most delightful cookbook, called Clayton's Quaker Cookbook: Being a Practical Treatise on the Culinary Art adapted to the Taste and Want of All Classes, by H.J. Clayton, published in 1883 by the San Francisco Women's Cooperative.

 In his introduction, H.J. Clayton puts a moral--and democratic-- spin on his culinary enterprise: 

"While carefully catering to the varied tastes of the mass, everything of an unhealthful, deleterious or even doubtful character has been carefully excluded; and all directions are given in the plainest style, so as to be readily understood, and fully comprehended, by all classes of citizens."

Clayton also uses the introduction to explain his entrance into a field so unlikely as cooking. Being of a delicate constitution, instead of  "rugged work" in the fields on the family farm, he was left in the kitchen, "to assist his mother in the culinary labors of the household."

In case we are in doubt, he defines cooking as "the art of dressing, compounding and preparing food by the aid of heat."

His recipes are heavily oriented to meat and fish, and given the ubiquity of butter to Clayton's cooking regime, vegans would starve. In fact, Clayton can scarcely imagine a world without butter.

"With the exception of bread ... there  is, perhaps, no article of food  more universally used by mankind than butter." 

For the best butter, an old style spring house is "essentially requisite" for "Who that has ever visited one of these clean, cool and inviting appendages of a well-conducted farm and a well- ordered household, at some old farm of the olden time, does not recall it in the mind's eye as vividly as did the poet Woodworth when he penned that undying poem of ancient home life, "The Old Oaken Bucket that Hung in the Well."

But much butter in 1883 was  of inferior quality, mostly due to the "ignorance" and "slovenliness"  of churners. Quakers, exemplars of the buttermaking art, could offer guidance in the art of producing a superior product, for they, as he put it, finding cleanliness close to Godliness,  kept all their utensils "scrupulously clean" and never added too much salt to their cream.

The cookbook's many recipes include Calf's-Head and Ox-Tail soup, "Clayton's Mode of Cooking Canvas-back Ducks" and "Boiled pig's-feet and Hocks,"  as well as Terrapin soup,  Boiled celery and Boiled eggs.  "Eggs Ought Never to be Poached," declares one entry, for the process renders them "tasteless and also unhealthy ... Indigestible, and of course, unwholesome." Desserts include "A Nice Cake" and "Apple snow."

Some things never change, and then as now, the unhealthy state of food comes  under fire:

"In these degenerate days of wholesale adulteration of almost every article of food and drink," Clayton declares, "it is eminently just and proper that the public should be advised where the genuine is to be procured."

The book also offers household hints. Under "Roaches, Flies and Ants--How to Destroy," Clayton advises mixing powdered borax with "Persian Insect Powder" and using a turkey or goose quill to fling the poison about the kitchen. 

Clayton's work challenges the idea that 19th century Quakers kept far away from alcohol.  His recipe for Egg Nog includes "two pints cognac brandy or Santa Cruz rum." His "Omelet for Dessert," made with eggs, "a teacup of rich milk or cream" a tablespoon of "fine white sugar" and "a very little salt," ends with instructions to pour "a wine glass of good California brandy" over the omelet "and set on fire."  If  testing the quality of coffee required  the thinnest china or "delf-ware cup by which the lips are brought close together,"  so for wine "the thinnest quality of glass is for the same reason requisite."  Lest  we think this penchant for alcohol represents Clayton's fall from the faith, we  have his recipe for "Quaker Cake," which includes, along with butter, flour, ginger, eggs and "saleratus" --baking soda--  "a half cup cider or any spirit."