My First Cook Book

Probably like many of you, when I was growing up my favorite comic strip was “Peanuts” and following the adventures of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy, Linus, and the whole gang. So it’s only natural that the first cookbook I ever owned was the Peanuts Cook Book, published in 1969 by United Feature Syndicate. The original version of this book contained 47 recipes in a thin little hardcover book that was about 6” by 6”, with a lime-green cover and hot pink pages. Most of the dishes were named after different characters from the strip and interspersed with the recipes throughout the book were some of their daily comic strips that related to food in one way or another. The cartoons, of course, were by Peanuts creator Charles Schultz; the recipes were by June Dutton.

Also that year, Scholastic Book Services released their first printing of the book in paperback, with a cover price of 60¢. This version only had about half of the recipes in the main edition, but it did include some helpful safety tips for kids, with reminders to be sure and read the recipe all the way through before starting, to be careful around hot stoves and sharp knives, to get your mom to teach you how to light the oven, wash your hands and always wear an apron to protect your clothes, and of course, clean up the kitchen when you’re through cooking.

The Peanuts Cook Book was originally published in 1969 by United Feature Syndicate, Cartoons by Charles Schultz, Recipes by June Dutton. Scholastic Book Services also published this abridged version especially geared for kids.

It was a great little book for kids, and I still have mine somewhere. Some of the recipes included were “Charlie Brown’s Brownies,” “Divine Divinity,” “Beethoven’s Green Beans with Bacon,” “Freida’s French Toast,” “Happiness is a Hot Cheese-Tomato Sandwich,” “Sally’s Scrambled Eggs,” and more. There was even a recipe for “Snoopy’s Steak Tartar,” with the warning that it was “For DOGS only, and maybe cats.”

Looking back, there were lots of things for breakfast, desserts, and side dishes – not very many “main courses.” I guess that’s to be expected in a book aimed at kids. I remember mainly enjoying the comic strips inside the book, more than any of the particular recipes, but I do recall fixing a few of these in particular.

One favorite was always “Security Cinnamon Toast.” The name of this dish relates to the character of Linus, who was known for carrying his security blanket, even into his elementary school years. One of his famous lines was “Security is a thumb and a blanket.” I always loved toast with cinnamon and sugar, so this one was right up my alley!

SECURITY CINNAMON TOAST

8 slices white bread
½ stick butter
6 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 scant tablespoon cinnamon
Melt butter with sugar and cinnamon. Cook gently while toasting bread on ONE side only in broiler. Spread untoasted side of bread with sugar mixture and place under medium-hot broiler until sugar is crusty and bubbly. The sugar’s hot! Be careful!

Another way Linus does it is to make toast in the toaster, then he spreads it with butter immediately, and shakes a spoonful of cinnamon sugar (2 tablespoons sugar mixed with a teaspoon of cinnamon) over the buttered toast.

Another favorite of mine was Red Baron Root Beer, which called for putting one long-stem Maraschino cherry into each compartment of an ice cube tray, then filling the tray with root beer and freezing it. After it’s frozen, you put a couple of these cubes in a glass and fill it with more root beer – that way, the melting cubes don’t “water down” the taste of the root beer. Yum!

I was easily amused in those days.

Exploring Galveston

One thing about living in Texas – there’s no shortage of nice spots to visit, and fun things to see and do. I love going to Fredericksburg, and I enjoy the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex, and San Antonio is always great. But of all the terrific places to go in Texas (and no disrespect to another other locations), Galveston remains my favorite. I grew up just a couple of hours away from there, and I still love it.

There are just so many fascinating places to visit, and so many things to do. Or, for that matter, get a comfortable chair and just sit on the beach and do nothing. (Be sure to leave your phone in your motel room.) Here are some of my favorite things to do on the Island City.

Visit the Strand.

Beginning in the 1880s, Galveston’s Financial District was a prominent center of banking and commerce, the “Wall Street of the South.” Today, the restored buildings are home to all kinds of shops and stores, from upscale boutiques to architectural salvage, and from unusual antiques to old-school soda fountains and ice cream shoppes. You can spend hours walking up and down these old sidewalks. It’s also home of the city’s giant Mardi Gras celebration, and the annual Christmas extravaganza, “Dickens on the Strand.”

This brightly-painted mural is near “The Strand” in old Galveston.

Tour the museums.

Galveston is home to numerous museums – one of the largest is their Train Museum, located at the intersection of Strand Street and 25th. The high-rise Santa Fe depot has been restored and features several fascinating exhibits, with life-size mannequins posed as travelers from the past. Out back, they have one of the largest private collections of rail equipment in the country, including diesel and steam locomotives, passenger cars, freight equipment, and more. If trains aren’t your thing, there are plenty of other museums in the city, including Seawolf State Park, with the World War II submarine U.S.S. Cavalla on permanent exhibit. Want to learn a little science? Visit the Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig and Museum, or tour one several art museums in the city. There really is something for every taste.

Ride the ferry.

There are two ways on and off the island in your car – one is the causeway and bridge coming down I-45 from the mainland, and the other is by the free ferry boat operated by TxDOT, between Galveston’s eastern side to the Bolivar peninsula. Visiting Bolivar is worth the trip – there’s a beautiful historic old lighthouse there – but even if you don’t need to drive up there, I would recommend driving to the ferry, walking up and riding it across and back. Watch for dolphins as you head across the ship channel.

Hit the beach.

As an island, of course, Galveston has miles of good beaches. If you enjoy fishing, there are several jetties and piers for you to indulge yourself – just be sure to have a valid fishing license and know the regs, because the game wardens will check you and your catch. And there are great places to walk in the surf, or just sit and enjoy the sights and sounds of the gulf. If you’re driving on Seawall Boulevard, there are plenty of good places to park. You’ll have to pay, but it’s cheap, easy and secure to just use your phone and bill a credit or debit card.

Our family enjoys visiting the park at the west end of island. It’s less crowded, and if you go at low tide, you can find some gorgeous seashells, and maybe even a sand dollar or two.

Sunrise over the Gulf, as seen from our hotel.

Learn a little history.

Galveston was a major port during the Civil War. After that war, it was where Union troops landed, and it was there that General Order #3 was announced, proclaiming an end to slavery. That day was June 19, 1865, known since as “Juneteenth.” There’s lots of history all around you on the island. You can take a driving tour of numerous historic homes – many predating the “Big Hurricane” of September 1900. Which, by the way, is still the most catastrophic loss of life due to natural causes in the nation’s history – something like 8,000 people perished.

Climb aboard the tall ship Elissa, and “learn the ropes” of antique sailing vessels. Tour the beautiful Victorian-era Moody Mansion. And so much more.

Enjoy some good food.

There is absolutely no shortage of great places to eat around here, regardless of your price range. If you’re on the Strand, visit the Hubcap Grill for one of their awesome burgers. Or check out the Star Drug Store and see their authentic soda fountain.

Of course, where you find the sea, you’ll find the seafood, and Galveston has plenty. Gaido’s on the Seawall has been open since 1911, and features a nautical theme. It’s a bit pricey, but the food is amazing. If you’re near Pleasure Pier, check out the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, based on – you guessed it – the well-known Tom Hanks movie. (“Momma always said life was like a box of chocolates.”) Or try a really awesome shrimp po-boy sandwich at Benno’s Cajun Seafood. And of course, there are plenty of chain restaurants and fast-food places, if the kids insist on eating chicken nuggets.

However you enjoy your “down-time,” you’ll find something to like about Galveston. I’m ready to go back. As far as I’m concerned, it’s always “Island Time.”

Cooking with Cast Iron

I have written previously about how much I enjoy cooking. Part of that includes using cast iron cookware.

I own three well-used cast iron skillets, a nice Dutch oven, two breadstick pans for cornbread (the breadsticks come out looking like ears of corn), and a couple of other pieces of cookware, and I use them as often as I can. One of them is a large skillet that belonged to my dad’s grandmother. I also used to have a Dutch oven with little feet on the bottom, and a lid made for holding hot coals on top, to be set on a campfire and used for baking. I say I used to have that piece – it came from my mother’s mom, and I’ve already passed it on to one of my boys. All of that to say, if you take care of your cast iron stuff, it will last FOREVER. Seriously.

Some people don’t like using cast iron because they say it’s too heavy, but that’s part of what makes it so durable. It also carries a lot of history – some experts believe the Chinese first developed cast iron cookware about 2500 years ago. It was very popular among early American settlers, and as the nation moved west, the newcomers brought it with them. And NO self-respecting chuck wagon cook would ever start out on a trail drive without several pieces of it.

There are several benefits to cooking with cast iron. One is that it conducts, distributes, and retains heat, easily and evenly. I also really like the fact that it is oven proof. Since there are no wooden or plastic parts, you can start cooking on the stovetop, searing a piece of meat, for example, then move it into the oven to let it finish cooking. And when the cookware is properly seasoned (we’ll get to that), it is almost completely non-stick, and easy to clean afterward.

New cast iron can be expensive, but I like shopping for the stuff at thrift and second-hand stores. One word of caution – new or poorly seasoned cast iron can leach metal into the food, especially if you’re cooking anything with tomatoes (it’s the acid). But once the cookware has been well-seasoned – black with a shiny patina – you can make all the chili you want. Clean it up when you’re done, and it’s fine.

In the October 2014 issue of Southern Living magazine, they published a list of
“The 11 Commandments of Cast Iron Care.” Below is what they said.

1. Respect it. You are its steward, and it’s your duty to pass it on to the next generation.

2. Use it often. The more you use your cast iron skillet, the better it will work, and the more you’ll care for it.

3. Save this page. Tape it to the inside of your pantry door.

4. Clean cast iron after each use. Wash with hot water while pan is still warm.

5. Don’t use soap. Ever. And no matter what, don’t ever put cast iron in the dishwasher.

6. Scour smartly. Use coarse salt like Morton’s Kosher Salt for scouring stubborn bits of food without damaging the seasoning. Use a paper towel to rub the salt into the bottom and around the inside edges of the pan. A stiff bristle brush also works well. Still sticking? Loosen residue such as caramel by boiling water in the pan.

7. Dry it immediately. Wipe dry after washing and heat over low flame for two minutes to open the pores of the iron. Use a paper towel and tongs to apply an even, light film of vegetable oil or flaxseed oil on the inside of the pan.

8. Store it in a cool, dry place. For pans with lids, add a paper towel wad, and keep ajar to let air flow.

9. Understand “seasoning.” For cast iron cookware, this is the polymerization of fat bonded to the surface of the pan. In layman’s terms, seasoning is the glossy sheen that gives cast iron cookware its non-stick properties and keeps it from rusting. Protect and maintain the seasoning and your skillet will last forever. See below to learn how.

10. Bust the rust. Rub cast iron with steel wool. For the seriously stubborn rust on old, neglected pans, take the cast iron to a machine shop and ask someone to pressure blast it with air or sand. Then start the seasoning process below to build a protective coat.

11. Re-Season it. Here’s the best way to rebuild the seasoning and bring your skillet back to life.

  • Wash vigorously. After busting the rust, washing cast iron with warm and – just this once – soapy water. Dry well.
  • Rub with vegetable oil. Use a paper towel to rub oil inside, outside, and on skillet handle. Wipe away any excess.
  • Bake at 400° for an hour. Place upside down on upper oven rack. Line bottom rack with foil. Bake. Repeat oiling and baking until seasoned.

You’re welcome.

Honoring Old Glory

This coming Monday, June 14, is Flag Day – the day set aside to honor our nation’s flag. It was on June 14, 1777, that the Second Continental Congress officially designated that the new national flag should be “…thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” President Woodrow Wilson was the first to issue a proclamation recognizing that date in 1916; Congress made it an official designation in 1949, even though it is not a federal holiday.

The flag is a beautiful and meaningful symbol of our country and the values we hold dear. White represents purity and virtue; blue stands for justice and vigilance, and the red represents courage, and of course, the sacrifice of those who have shed blood defending that flag. It is a powerful national symbol, which is why so many Americans find flag burning and desecration to be so offensive.

At the risk of upsetting some of you, I would point out another type of flag desecration that is all too common by some people: neglect. I have seen many flags flying that should have been taken down and retired a long time ago –the flags have been shredded from the wind and faded by the sun, and their edges are frayed to threads; sometimes, the flag is reduced to less than half its original size by the wind and the weather. It may not be deliberate misuse, but perhaps that makes it even worse, because it shows a lackadaisical attitude of thoughtlessness and neglect.

Many years ago, when I was a Boy Scout, I remember one time when our troop held a “flag retirement” ceremony. Our Scoutmaster, Oscar “Red” Davis, had several old, torn, faded flags. He gave some of our more senior boys scissors and directed that we carefully cut out the blue fields, then cut the red and white stripes into separate strips. Mr. Davis then had one of our Eagle Scouts read a poem about the meaning of the flag and what the colors symbolized. Then with care and reverence, we burned (yes, that is the honorable, appropriate way of disposing of a faded flag) the different components of the flags and buried the ashes, again with great respect.

You see, Mr. Davis was a combat veteran – he had been with the U.S. Army in Korea, in that brutal winter of 1950. He knew how precious that flag was, and is, and he instilled in us – in me! – an awe and patriotic awareness that continues to this day. So I don’t worship the flag but I do hold it in high honor, with deep appreciation for all that it means.

On a lighter note, if you’re looking for a scrumptious, sweet way to think about the flag, you might try my daughter Brittany’s “Flag Cake” recipe. Coconut – strawberries – blueberries – what’s not to love? She often makes it for summertime events. The recipe is attached below.

One interesting local story relating to the flag relates to a certain community in eastern Stonewall County, Texas. The town was originally laid out in 1903 by G.R. Spielhagen; he was one of several German immigrants to the area who had arrived beginning around 1900. Herr Spielhagen called his town “Brandenburg,” after the German city of the same name. When the Stamford & Northwestern Railway bypassed the community on its way to Spur in 1909, the citizens picked up and moved the town to the trains, renaming it “New Brandenburg.”

During World War I, there was a strong, anti-German sentiment across the country; “Hate the Hun” was a popular slogan. And so, to show their pride and allegiance to their new homeland, the folks in New Brandenburg petitioned the post office to change their town’s name, choosing instead the most patriotic name they could think of. And that’s how, on August 9, 1918, the community of “New Brandenburg” became known as “Old Glory.”

God Bless America.

Brittany’s Flag Cake

Ingredients

  • 1 “Classic Yellow” cake mix (brand of your choice), along with its required ingredients (eggs, vegetable oil, water, etc.)
  • 12-16 oz. Cream of Coconut (found in the mixers aisle of the grocery store)
  • 8 oz tub of Cool Whip
  • 1 cup Shredded Coconut (sweetened or regular) 
  • 3/4 cup sliced strawberries
  • 1/2 cup whole blueberries

Directions

  1. Bake the yellow cake according to the instructions on the box in a 13×9 inch glass or metal pan.
  2. Set aside the baked cake to cool in its pan for 1-2 hours. Remember to set out your Cool Whip to thaw (if needed)!
  3. Using the skinny end of a wooden spoon or toothpicks, poke small (1/4 inch) holes in the cake that reach all the way to the bottom. The holes should be about 1.5 inches apart.
  4. Pour 3/4 cup of the Cream of Coconut over the cake, spreading with a knife to cover the entire surface and fill the holes.
  5. Mix the remaining 1/2 cup of Cream of Coconut into the thawed cool whip, and then spread the entire mixture over the cake.
  6. Sprinkle shredded coconut over the cake as evenly as possible.
  7. In the upper left corner of the cake, place blueberries in rectangular pattern to create the field of blue in the American flag. Slice the strawberries width-wise and place on the cake to create the stripes of the flag (remember, the top stripe is white, the very bottom stripe is red).
  8. Refrigerate until ready to serve. 

Brittany’s note: This recipe is easily adapted to celebrate any flag! Rearrange the blueberries and strawberries to make the Texas flag, or use sliced kiwis and strawberries to create a tasty homage to Mexico or Italy. 

Dinner in the Diner

Back in the day when travel was an adventure and most people got from here to there by rail, one of the highlights of any trip was taking a meal in the dining car. For many, the amazing food and impeccable service was made even better by the pleasure of meeting new people and making new friends while sharing a delicious meal together in the rolling diner. The constantly changing view of “America the Beautiful,” going past the large panoramic windows as you roll along, always added to the experience.

The railroads would often specialize in serving regional favorites in their dining cars that represented the part of the country through which you were traveling. Thus, if you were on board the Union Pacific, you might have one of their famous Omaha “Prime Steaks.” If you were riding on the Northern Pacific, you could enjoy a “Great Big Baked Potato” from Idaho. Riders going through the Rockies on Missouri Pacific’s “Colorado Eagle” were served delicious rainbow trout. The Southern Pacific was known for the Cajun gumbo they featured on their trains in and out of New Orleans, and the Maryland Crab Cakes on the Baltimore & Ohio RR were the stuff of legend.

This charger plate was used on dining cars of the Missouri Pacific and Texas & Pacific lines.
It featured the official flowers of the states served by those railroads.

And the Texas & Pacific? Well, it seems that the railroad that founded Abilene and crossed West Texas was nationally famous for a dessert: Cantaloupe Pie.

Back in 1916, Mr. M.L. Todd and his business partner, Mr. D.T. McKee, began growing cantaloupes in Pecos, Texas. They contracted with the T&P and agreed to supply them with cantaloupes for their dining cars.  By the 1920s, they were shipping cases of melons via Railway Express all over the country. But of course, as with any perishable commodity, some of the fruit would become overripe on its way to market. That’s where Mr. Edward Pierce enters the picture. Mr. Pierce was a College Station native and a 42-year veteran of the T&P, and he couldn’t stand seeing the melons go to waste, overripe or not. He went to work and came up with a dessert that became a favorite on the T&P dining cars.

Happily, in 1992, a writer for the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, Anita Baker, tracked down Mr. Pierce, who shared his recipe, which we pass along to you below. Serve it to your guests to enjoy a taste of elegant travel from days gone by.

For what it’s worth, I have made this pie. It’s NOT terribly sweet, but personally, that’s okay with me. In some ways, it’s reminiscent of a sweet potato pie. You could also try baking the pie without adding the meringue, then covering it with a whipped cream topping, or even vanilla ice cream, if that’s more your style.

By the way, if you’re interested, there are several excellent books that feature compilations of the best dining car recipes. Two of my favorites are Dining By Rail by James D. Porterfield, and Dinner in the Diner by Will C. Holister. The cantaloupe pie recipe is included in both collections.

I have been fortunate enough to enjoy several meals on railroad dining cars, and the food has always been excellent – as also has been the pleasure of sharing a meal with friends, old or new. As we progress in putting the pandemic behind us, let’s continue to be safe, but let us also look for ways of rebuilding community and relationships; eating together is one of the best ways to make that happen. Like passengers on a train, we will find that our journey through life is more interesting and pleasant as we make friends along the way.

Cantaloupe Pie as served on the T&P Rwy

Ingredients

  • 1 very ripe cantaloupe (over ripe yields the most juice)
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cups sugar
  • 3 tablespoons flour (more or less depending on how juicy your cantaloupe is)
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 9-inch prebaked pie crust
  • 3 egg whites
  • 6 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Directions

  1. Slice cantaloupe in half, de-seed and remove rind, reserving all juices. Cut into small pieces.
  2. Place melon with juice and water into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer for 5 minutes, stirring often. Mash the cantaloupe as it heats.
  3. Mix sugar and flour and slowly add to hot mixture, stirring constantly.
  4. In a large bowl, beat egg yolks; add a little water to yolks. Add a little of the cantaloupe mixture to egg yolks in order to heat yolks gradually. Stir egg yolks mixture into cantaloupe mixture.
    Add butter and nutmeg, stir until butter melts. Continue cooking, stirring, until thick and creamy.
  5. Cool and pour into prebaked pie crust.
  6. To make meringue, beat egg whites until frothy. Gradually add sugar, continuing to beat until stiff peaks form. Add vanilla or other flavoring. Spoon onto pie, spreading to crust edge to seal filling in.
  7. Bake at 325° for 15 to 18 minutes, until nicely browned. Refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours before serving.

Come Before Him with Thanksgiving

Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord;
Let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come before Him with thanksgiving
and extol Him with music and song. - Psalm 95:1, 2

Thanksgiving is one of my very favorite holidays, for a variety of reasons and sweet memories.

Some of my earliest memories of this day go back to my grandparents, Archie & Sallie McMillan. When I was a young child, for some reason, I wouldn’t call her “Grandma.” I heard other people call her, “Sallie,” which I tried to do, but she didn’t like that. I started calling her “Sa-Sa,” and the name stuck. So we would go to Sa-Sa & Pa-Pa’s house.

My grandmother, Sallie McMillan – “Sa-Sa”

I don’t really remember usually having turkey for that meal – I recall that she usually fixed a big hen, and usually in a pressure cooker to make it fall-off-the-bone tender. But what I REALLY remember about Thanksgiving at Sa-Sa’s house was her fruit salad. It had lots of big chunks of apples and bananas and fruit cocktail, along with chopped walnuts and coconut.

Of course, we had lots of other stuff to eat, and plenty of desserts, but I always loved her fruit salad. What was especially great was, if there was any left over, she would freeze it, and we would eat it at Christmas. Pa-Pa died in 1969, and Sa-Sa passed in about 1988, but I still remember them both, especially today. And I’m thankful for her, and for such sweet memories.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! Let your
gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious
about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with
thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God,
which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your
minds in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 4:4-7

Thanksgiving also means football, of course; in our family, that meant the Cowboys. The greatest one was Thanksgiving, 1974, when George Allen’s “Over the Hill Gang” laid a vicious 3rd quarter hit on Roger Staubach and knocked him out of the game. The ’Skins were up 16-3 at the time, when an untested rookie from ACU came into the game as the Cowboys’ backup quarterback, Clint Longley. He had earned the nickname of “The Mad Bomber” from his teammates, because of his default tendency to throw deep in practice.

What happened next, Cowboys fans still talk about. And Redskins fans have never gotten over.

This rookie put together what might be the most improbably comeback in team history. After leading the ’Boys to two other touchdowns, with just 35 seconds to play, Longley found a streaking Drew Pearson racing down the sidelines, and he scored. We won 24-23. It’s still one of the greatest wins in Cowboys history.

Four years later, Kathy and I were celebrating our first Thanksgiving as husband and wife. I was a senior at Dallas Christian College, and she and I were in a singing group known as Revelation. Thanksgiving weekend, 1978, we were in the recording studio, cutting a record. (Do I need to explain what “records” were for any of the under 40 crowd?) Since we couldn’t go anywhere for the day, Mom & Dad came to Dallas, and we had Thanksgiving in our tiny apartment.

Fast forward to 2010. My mom had passed away just two months earlier, and we were sharing our first holiday without her. My brother David and his wife Gina hosted the whole wild & woolly bunch of us at their home in Spring. He fried a turkey, my nephew made some amazing cranberry dressing on the stove, and everybody fixed their favorite recipes. I made one of my Jack Daniels Chocolate Pecan Pies. We shared the day and the warmth of shared memories as we surrounded our dad and comforted each other and gave thanks for the legacy we shared and the sweetness of her presence still in our midst.

I am thankful for family, for friends, for sweet memories and for wonderful times together. I am thankful for my job and for all of the blessings we enjoy. I am thankful for Jesus. And I know that the blessings I have received are not mine exclusively to enjoy but have been given so that I can in turn be a blessing to others.

I hope your holiday is filled with everything wonderful, and that whatever the circumstances, you can give thanks with a glad and sincere heart. Happy Thanksgiving!

 Enter His gates with thanksgiving,
 and His courts with praise;
 Give thanks to Him and praise His Name.
 For the Lord is good and His love endures forever;
 His faithfulness continues through all generations.
 Psalm 100:4-5 

What’s Cooking?

Sometimes, if you stay open to trying new things, you’ll discover something about yourself that you never knew before.

Case in point: I’ve discovered that I love to cook.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I’ve always loved to grill. I think most guys do – there’s just something about an open fire, and being outside, and sizzling meat cooking on a hot steel grill that appeals to a lot of men. But I’m talking about more than that.

Several years ago, my family and I moved into a neighborhood ministry called “The Friendship House,” on Abilene’s north side near Hendrick Hospital. Part of my job was to host regular block parties and other get-togethers where we would eat and visit and get to know one another – and that meant I had to fix a main course, and the neighbors would bring the side dishes.

So I learned to cook. And in the process, I also learned how much I enjoy planning and preparing the meals, trying out new recipes, and experimenting with different ingredients and techniques. (I’ve also discovered that sometimes, even failures can still taste pretty good!)

Then a few years later, when I resigned from that job and moved back to Southeast Texas to be my elderly dad’s caregiver, I was able to fix his favorite meals and make his closing days a little more enjoyable. It was a real treat for me, to share those dinners with him.

Enjoying a meal with family and friends has a number of genuine benefits. For one thing, food creates community. I’ve seen it more than once – people arrive as strangers and leave as friends. There’s something about the act of eating a meal together that helps people tear down the walls they’ve built and get to know others in a way that few other activities can.

It should come as no surprise that, in the Bible, one of the most common images God uses to describe heaven is a fabulous feast. For example, in Isaiah 25:6, we read, “On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine — the best of meats and the finest of wines.” The prophet goes on to say that in that day, God will “swallow up death forever,” and He will wipe away every tear from our eyes.

And speaking of creating community: in Revelation 3:20, Jesus says, “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they with me.”

Here’s another reason I enjoy it: cooking links generations together. My mom has been gone for over ten years, but when I drag out one of her recipes, in her own handwriting, and make that special item, it’s like she is right there with me. And when my kids eat it, they know that at some level, it’s with love from Maw-Maw. The same with that Roast Venison recipe from Grandpa Garison, or Aunt Bib’s Christmas Divinity. We tell the family stories about those loved ones, and it’s like they are with us again, in a very special way.

I have an Hispanic friend who told me about growing up in a home where they always fixed tamales for Christmas, and how multiple generations would be working together in the kitchen. Everyone had a specific job to do, she said, and one of the ways you knew you were getting older was that you were given a more important job to do in helping make the tamales. And as she talked about working with her beloved “Abuela” (grandmother) and her precious “Tía” (aunt), both long since deceased, it was obvious that this was more than just something good to eat.

My wife and I were talking the other day about what a significant part food has played in so many of our family gatherings. Everyone has a favorite dish, and so as we fix that item, a little extra love goes into it while we think about that family member. Sharing together in a good meal makes for very special memories that can span generations, and even lifetimes.

One final blessing: food connects us with our Creator. When we are cooking a meal from scratch, we know that there is more to it than just opening a can or removing the plastic and sticking something in the microwave. When we have handled those raw veggies, just the way they came from a green plant – whether we picked them out at the grocery store, or the farmer’s market, or our own garden – when we have peeled it and put love and time into preparing it, then we are reminded of God’s gracious bounty. When we have cut and cooked that meat, or scrambled those eggs, or whatever we’re doing, it’s an opportunity to be connected more closely with the “Giver of every good and perfect gift.” It’s also a good time to be thankful to the farmers, the ranchers, the grocers and others who were God’s partners in helping to grow and provide that food for us.

The holidays are coming, and even in this season of a terrible pandemic, even when we can’t be together, we can still be thankful for the blessings of food, family and friends.

The Perfect Cup of Coffee

For a long time, I didn’t like coffee. Used to make fun of people who said they couldn’t function in the mornings without it. Congratulated myself on not being addicted to caffeine or a steaming cup o’ Joe.

Now I can’t get enough.

Back when I was a young preacher boy pastor, just learning about the real world, I tried to learn to like coffee, but never did get the taste for it. Many people find the smell of coffee brewing to be very pleasant – somehow I guess I expected it to taste like that delicious aroma smelled, but of course, it didn’t. I tried lightening it up with cream, and sweetening it with sugar, but it was no use. So for the next fifteen years or so, I didn’t try. Even staying up nights, going through graduate school, couldn’t make me like it.

But when we were in Johnson City, Tennessee, around 1993-94, I was teaching at Milligan College and managing their campus radio station. The mornings were frequently cold and wet there in the mountains of East Tennessee, and so out of curiosity, I bought some of the “International Cafe” French Vanilla instant mix. It was VERY sweet and VERY flavored – one friend described it as a “cup of coffee with a scoop of vanilla ice cream melted in it” – but I found I enjoyed it.

From there, I gradually learned to enjoy more the taste of the coffee, and needed less and less of the sweet and the flavoring. Now, 20+ years down the road, sometimes I will have a coffee-flavored drink as a treat or a dessert in the evening, sometimes with a shot of Irish Cream or amaretto added in, but in the morning, I’ll just take it straight, thank you.

So, is there a perfect cup of coffee? Such a question is bound to start a big debate with some folks – two of my grown children have been professional baristas, and I know they have definite opinions on the subject – but for me, I think enjoying coffee has less to do with what’s in the cup, and more to do with who’s at the table.

One of the best cups of coffee I’ve ever had was sitting with my wife, Kathy, outside the Starbucks in Marble Falls, Texas, overlooking the river, on a pleasant summer morning.

Sharing afternoon coffee with my dad on the back porch of his house is pretty great, too.Amtrak

And of course, when my brother David and I rode Amtrak, sitting together and sipping our coffee was pretty great. (He managed to keep most of it out of the chin whiskers he had at the time!)

Some other great cups of coffee I’ve had:

  • On a frosty West Texas morning at a Boy Scout campout, gathered around a warm campfire;
  • Sitting with a neighbor, looking at pictures of her grandkids;
  • Having a cup with dessert while listening to friends visit together at a neighborhood potluck;
  • Studying the Bible with friends in our Sunday School class as we sit and sip together.

Coffee is definitely best when shared with good friends, over good conversation. Come by sometime, and let me pour you a cup.

 

 

 

Dining Cars and Cantaloupe Pie

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This charger plate was used on dining cars of the Missouri Pacific and Texas & Pacific lines. It featured the state flowers of the states served by those railroads.

Back in the day when travel was an adventure and most people got from here to there by rail, one of the highlights of any trip was taking a meal in the dining car. For many, the amazing food and impeccable service was made even better by the pleasure of meeting new people and making new friends while sharing a delicious meal together in the rolling diner.

The railroads would often specialize in serving regional favorites that represented the part of the country through which you were traveling. Thus, if you were on board the Union Pacific, you might have one of their famous Midwestern “Prime Steaks.” If you were riding on the Northern Pacific, you could enjoy a “Great Big Baked Potato” from Idaho. Riders going through the Rockies on Missouri Pacific’s “Colorado Eagle” were served delicious rainbow trout.

t&p logoAnd the Texas & Pacific? Well, it seems that the railroad that founded Abilene and crossed West Texas was nationally famous for a dessert:

Cantaloupe Pie.

Back in 1916, Mr. M.L. Todd and his business partner, Mr. D.T. McKee, began growing cantaloupes in Pecos, Texas. They contracted with the T&P, and agreed to supply them with cantaloupes for their dining cars.  By the 1920s, they were shipping cases of melons via Railway Express all over the country.

But of course, as with any perishable commodity, some of the fruit would become overripe on its way to market. That’s where Mr. Edward Pierce enters the picture. Mr. Pierce was a College Station native and a 42-year veteran of the T&P, and he couldn’t stand seeing the melons go to waste, overripe or not. He went to work and came up with a dessert that became a favorite on the T&P dining cars.

Happily, in 1992, a writer for the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, Anita Baker, tracked down Mr. Pierce, who shared his recipe, which we now pass along to you.

Serve it to your guests to enjoy a taste of elegant travel from days gone by.

  • 1 very ripe cantaloupe (over ripe yields the most juice)
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cups sugar
  • 3 tablespoons flour (more or less depending on how juicy your cantaloupe is)
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 9-inch prebaked pie crust
  • 3 egg whites
  • 6 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  1. Slice cantaloupe in half, deseed and remove rind, reserving all juices. Cut into small pieces.
  2. Place melon with juice and water into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer for 5 minutes, stirring often. Mash the cantaloupe as it heats.
  3. Mix sugar and flour and slowly add to hot mixture, stirring constantly.
  4. In a large bowl, beat egg yolks; add a little water to yolks. Add a little of the cantaloupe mixture to egg yolks in order to heat yolks gradually. Stir egg yolks mixture into cantaloupe mixture.
  5. Add butter and nutmeg, stir until butter melts. Continue cooking, stirring, until thick and creamy.
  6. Cool and pour into prebaked pie crust.
  7. To make meringue, beat egg whites until frothy. Gradually add sugar, continuing to beat until stiff peaks form. Add vanilla or other flavoring. Spoon onto pie, spreading to crust edge to seal filling in. Bake at 325° for 15 to 18 minutes, until nicely browned.
  8. Refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours before serving.

Friendships are formed through experiences shared together, whether it’s a meal, a piece of pie, or something else. Because of their proximity, neighbors have opportunities to share experiences and work with each other to build a stronger, safer community. Like passengers on a train, we will find that our journey is more interesting and pleasant as we make friends along the way.

Come Before Him with Thanksgiving

“Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD;

Let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.

Let us come before Him with thanksgiving

and extol Him with music and song.” – Psalm 95:1, 2

I hope Thanksgiving today finds you happy and well, and surrounded by family and friends.  This is one of my very favorite holidays, for a variety of reasons and sweet memories.

Some of my earliest memories of this day go back to my grandparents, Archie & Sallie McMillan.  When I was a young child, for some reason, I wouldn’t call her “Grandma.”  I heard other people call her, “Sallie,” which I tried to do, but she didn’t like that.  So, I started calling her “Sa-Sa,” and the name stuck.  So we would go to Sa-Sa & Pa-Pa’s house.

I don’t really remember usually having turkey for that meal – it seems that she usually fixed a big hen, and usually in a pressure cooker to make it fall-off-the-bone tender.  But what I REALLY remember about Thanksgiving at Sa-Sa’s house was her fruit salad.  It had lots of big chunks of apples and bananas and fruit cocktail, along with chopped walnuts and coconut.  Of course, we had lots of other stuff to eat, and plenty of desserts, but I always loved her fruit salad.  What was especially great was, if there was any left over, she would freeze it, and we would eat it at Christmas.

Pa-Pa died in 1969, and Sa-Sa passed in about 1988, but I still remember them both, especially today.  I have taught some of the kids in my after-school program how to make her fruit salad, and I tell them about her as we make it.  And I’m thankful for her, and for such sweet memories.

“Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again: rejoice!  Let your gentleness be evident to all.  The Lord is near.  Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:4-7

Thanksgiving also means football, of course; in our family, that meant the Cowboys.  The greatest one was Thanksgiving, 1974, when George Allen’s “Over the Hill Gang” laid a vicious 3rd quarter hit on Roger Staubach and knocked him out of the game.  The Skins were up 16-3 at the time, when an untested rookie from ACU came into the game as the Cowboys’ backup quarterback, Clint Longley.  He had earned the nickname of “The Mad Bomber” from his teammates, because of his default tendency to throw deep in practice.

What happened next, Cowboys fans still talk about.  And Redskins fans have never gotten over.

This rookie put together what might be the most improbably comeback in team history.  After leading the Boys to two other touchdowns, with just 35 seconds to play, Longley found a streaking Drew Pearson racing down the sidelines, and he scored.  We won 24-23.  It’s still one of the greatest wins in Cowboys history.

Four years later, Kathy and I were celebrating our first Thanksgiving as husband and wife.  I was a senior at Dallas Christian College, and she and I were in a singing group known as “Revelation.”  Thanksgiving weekend, 1978, we were in the recording studio, cutting a record.  (Do I need to explain what “records” were for any of the under 40 crowd?)  Since we couldn’t go anywhere for the day, Mom & Dad came to Dallas, and we had Thanksgiving in our tiny apartment.

Fast forward to 2010.  My mom had passed away just two months earlier, and we were sharing our first holiday without her.  My brother David and his wife Gina hosted the whole wooly bunch of us at their home in Spring.  He fried a turkey, my nephew made some amazing cranberry dressing on the stove, and everybody fixed their favorite recipes.  I made one of my Jack Daniels Black-Bottom Pecan Pies.  We shared the day and the warmth of shared memories as we surrounded our dad and comforted each other and gave thanks for the legacy we shared and the sweetness of her presence still in our midst.

As I write this, Kathy is busy in the kitchen, finalizing meal preparations.  We’re a turkey, cornbread dressing, green beans, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn casserole, pumpkin pie, pecan pie, and more.  We have invited several neighbors to come eat with us.  Then later, we’re going to the new restaurant where Drew is working, to have a meal there.

I am thankful for family, for friends, for sweet memories and for wonderful times together.  I am thankful for my job, for my neighbors, and for all of the blessings we enjoy.  I am thankful for Jesus.  And I know that the blessings I have received, are not mine exclusively to enjoy, but have been given so that I can in turn be a blessing to others.

I hope your day today is filled with everything wonderful, and that whatever your circumstances, you can give thanks with a glad and sincere heart.  Happy Thanksgiving!

“Enter His gates with thanksgiving,

and His courts with praise;

Give thanks to Him and praise His Name.

For the LORD is good and His love endures forever;

His faithfulness continues through all generations.”

Psalm 100:4-5