French lentil & barley stew with sage, rosemary and port wine

French lentil barley stew

French lentil barley stew

Beware of any post that starts, “Last night, I was trying to fall asleep and I started thinking about…” You’ve been warned! So, last night, I was trying to fall asleep and I started thinking about the Easterish theme of resurrection. And I’ve had Elizabeth Cotten in my head (delightfully) for a few days, so I started to think about blues musicians who recorded some tracks in the 20s and early 30s, and then weren’t heard from again until the sixties. Their careers were resurrected.

Of course their lives continued in those decades, and they worked and struggled to get by, and they wrote about working and struggling, they wrote about their lives. In particular, I was thinking about Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James. (And then I thought about how hard it is to write about something that you really love as much as I love the music of Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James. But here goes!) Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James were Delta blues musicians. They were both born around the turn of the last century in Mississippi. They both started playing very young, sneaking a chance to play guitar any time they could. They were both largely self-taught, and they both developed unique styles of playing, just as Elizabeth Cotten did. She, being left-handed, turned the guitar upside-down, plucking out the melody with her thumb. Skip James has his own special tuning, in melancholy D-minor. Mississippi John Hurt played the guitar the way he “thought it should sound.” And when you hear him play, you’ll agree, this is the way guitar should sound.

Their music and their lyrics are disarming–sophisticated and wild, perfectly, strangely, human and familiar, poetical, violent, at times, but always sung in the sweetest possible way. Mississippi John Hurt’s voice is gentle and comforting, Skip James’ high and haunting.

Hurt was born in Avalon Mississippi, and he was endearingly fond of his home town. He travelled to Washington and New York to record music in the late 20s, but he wasn’t happy there – he was homesick. They tracked him down, later in life, based on lyrics to his song Avalon Blues. “New York’s a good town but it’s not for mine. New York’s a good town but it’s not for mine.” He was given a chance to perform with a traveling show, but he declined, because he wanted to stay near to his home. Skip James travelled for jobs and work camps, but his lyrics are about the people back home.

I wonder what it must have been like for them to be in their 60s and suddenly discovered by New York City folksy hipsters. What it must have been like to travel, at that age, and perform at the Newport Folk Festival, and be revered by these kids whose lives must have been so different from their own. Supposedly, Hurt, whom everybody liked his whole life due to his pleasant nature, enjoyed the experience, and James, who “could be sunshine, or thunder and lightning depending on his whim of the moment,” hated the folkie scene, and wasn’t fond of some of the covers of his songs that became wildly popular. What a strange turn for their lives to have taken. Blues music is full of fables and mythical characters, tales of death and life and reinvention, tales of people with legendary powers. I like to think about the long and hard-earned lives of James and Hurt in this way.

Here’s a short playlist of some of my favorite Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James songs.

So, this meal is something like winter’s last hurrah. It’s warm and comforting and nourishing. It has barley and french lentils, spinach, potatoes and carrots. So it’s pretty much everything you need in one big pot. The sauce is rich and savory, with port wine, tamari, sage and rosemary. And we topped the whole thing off with some grated smoked gouda and sharp cheddar. This is one of those “serve-with-a-good-loaf-of-crusty-bread” meals.

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Red bean, sweet potato & hominy stew and Olive oil rosemary biscuits

Red bean & hominy stew

Red bean & hominy stew

Well, it’s been a day of catching up after working all weekend. A day of laundry and grocery shopping and trying to get the boys to clean their room. It’s been a day of thinking about Martin Luther King Jr, of driving on the grey wintery streets, listening to fragments of Barack Obama’s inauguration speech on the radio, moved to tears. Obama’s first election was fueled by hope, it was buoyant with hope. And despite snide comments about hopey changey stuff, despite the sort of fatigue and discouragement that four hard years of dealing with Bush’s financial crisis have brought upon us, at this moment I feel more hopeful than ever. It’s not a hope as bright and far-reaching as that of the first election – but it’s a stronger, fiercer hope, based in reality and hard work. I don’t agree with all of Obama’s decisions, I don’t love every action that he’s taken, but I feel so grateful to him for starting conversations about health care, gay rights, women’s rights, gun control, climate change. Of course we should talk about these things! It’s remarkable to me that in 2013 these are issues we still need to address, let alone issues that take extraordinary courage to address. I think it’s difficult to understand just how brave Obama is for speaking publicly and openly about gun control and gay marriage. Despite petty political squabbling, despite ignorance, hatred and fear, we are taking small steps in a good direction, towards a world that must be inevitable if people are as kind and thoughtful as they have the potential to be. Martin Luther King spoke of non-violence with these words, “In a real sense, Mahatma Gandhi embodied in his life certain universal principles that are inherent in the moral structure of the universe, and these principles are as inescapable as the law of gravitation.” I hope that this is true, with the deepest weightiest and yet most buoyant hope imaginable. Obama ended his speech with these words, “Let each of us now embrace, with solemn duty and awesome joy, what is our lasting birthright. With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history, and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.” And that birthright is not a possession or privilege unique to Americans, but a natural or moral right possessed by everyone, the world over – to work for freedom from the darkness of fear, ignorance, and cruelty.

I felt a little silly posting a recipe today, (and doing laundry, and cleaning, and all other trivial chores). But, maybe that’s part of what it’s all about – about the freedom to get on with these things. These chores are trivial to me, but are luxuries for some people. To buy healthy, nourishing food for your family, to cook it up in a way that you feel good about. To have a safe, warm home to serve it in. Everybody deserves these things! In that spirit I present to you a recipe for a warm, comforting stew full of flavor. I bought pomegranate molasses for the first time, and I’m having fun playing with the sweet/tart continuum. I decided to pair it with a tiny bit of mustard, balsamic, sage, red pepper flakes and smoked paprika, to make a spicy, sweet, tart, smoky sauce. And the biscuits are incredibly easy to make, and very tasty, too. They’re butter-free, and the taste of olive oil in a baked good is always surprising and pleasant.

Well, there are quite a few songs I could choose for today’s post, but I’m going to give you Mos Def’s Fear Not of Men. It’s based, of course, on Fela’s Fear Not For Man, the lyrics of which go thus…

    Brothers and sisters
    The father of Pan-Africanism
    Dr. Kwame Nkrumah
    Says to all black people
    All over the world:
    “The secret of life is to have no fear”
    We all have to understand that

Mos Def’s song isn’t explicitly about Martin Luther King’s Day, but the lyrics have always resonated on this day of all days. He says, “A lot of things have changed, and a lot of things have not.” And there’s no doubt that this is true, for better or for worse. But the song is about courage in the face of danger, courage to work towards something that’s bigger than all of us. And it’s about a universal rhythm that beats through all of us, surely leading us inevitably in the same direction.

    All over the world hearts pound with the rhythm
    Fear not of men because men must die
    Mind over matter and soul before flesh
    Angels for the pain keep a record in time
    which is passin and runnin like a caravan freighter
    The world is overrun with the wealthy and the wicked
    But God is sufficient in disposin of affairs
    Gunmen and stockholders try to merit your fear
    But God is sufficient over plans they prepared.

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