Four Things on Eating and Drinking




[Photo from]

There’s no cool way to put this: Rachel Hope Cleves is what I want to be when I grow up.

I probably cite her book Charity & Sylvia here too much. I need to start writing about other gay couples in history, so my readers don’t think that Charity and Sylvia represent the onlyevidence out there that gay marriage is not, as Justice Alito put it, “newer than cell phones or the Internet.” But Cleves is already on that: as this Washington Post interview points out, she has a new study out on the history of (not legally recognized) gay marriages in the United States.

Did you know that Cleves also blogs? Not very often, unfortunately. Her “Not So Innocents Abroad” blog is sort of about history, more about food, but also about her family, her travels, and her scholarly life. Cleves writes really, really well; her posts are inviting and honest, sometimes sexy, informed and confiding. She occasionally mentions twentieth-century American food writer M.F.K. Fisher, and that’s probably the best comparison I can make to Cleves’ writing. If you like Fisher, you’ll want to visit.

Here are three representative posts:

Salons of Paris: Then and Now

Love’s Oven is Warm: Baking with Emily Dickinson

Le Rosbif


More good reading: Emily Stimpson has a new blog, called“The Catholic Table.” I’ve enthused over Stimpson’s writing before, and I’ve also disagreed with her culture war positions (and here and here).

But “The Catholic Table” seems like her gracious attempt to step away from those battles and just give her readers pretty words and pictures. Seriously, check it out: the prettiest pictures of food you’ll see on the Internet. Some time ago, Stimpson wrote:

On this Thursday night like all others, I pour my love for my friends into the little feast I prepare for them, in a pale imitation of Christ, who pours his great love for us into the sacred feast of bread and wine, flesh and blood, that he prepares for us.

I give my friends a place to gather and give thanks. I give them a meal. And I hope and pray that as I do, I also give them what God intended them to have at every meal—a foretaste of the Supper of the Lamb.

“The Catholic Table” reflects that generosity. It’s also part of her project of bringing John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” out of the bedroom (and into the kitchen). In doing so, Stimpson illustrates why those of us who think that the Theology of the Body needs to be revised to reflect a fuller understanding of the human person can’t just scrap the whole thing. Stimpson says that the Theology of the Body literally saved her life: as a former anorexic, she credits ToTB with helping her come to what she calls a “sacramental” worldview. “The anorexic,” she writes, “looks at the body and doesn’t see a precious, beautiful gift.” But Catholic teachings made that distorted vision impossible to maintain. And that, in turn, changed her relationship with food. “I stopped seeing it as the enemy,” she says, “and started seeing it as a perpetual sign of God’s love for me.”


That “sacramental worldview” is interesting. Jamie Manson suspects it’s what makes Catholics more likely to support marriage equality than the overall population. I agree.

And you all know that I think that a sacramental worldview is exactly what you’ll find in Walker Percy’s writings on bourbon, and in G.K. Chesterton’s writing on beer. Booze is grace for both of those writers.



[Image from]

But if Percy and Chesterton’s sacramental vision is the same worldview that leads a solid majority of Catholics to support marriage equality, the guys at Whiskey Catholic (remember them?) won’t make that leap. Oh, they like booze, and they like Catholicism, but they’re not willing to extend the possibilities of grace that far.

Last week, blogger “T” wrote about Wesleyan University’s “Open House,” a dorm that advertises itself as a space for gender-queer students. By encouraging alternative sexualities, T argues, Wesleyan is rejecting natural law. Because “natural law” means directing one’s acts to man’s natural ends, and the “obvious fulfillment” of sexual expression, T says, is “the conception of new life.”

Let’s put aside for now the bad reasoning behind the conclusion that *the* human fulfillment of sex is procreation.

T gives us a new twist on St. Augustine’s food analogy, finding irony in the fact that the Open House website also contains a warning that older buildings on campus may contain lead.

“This probably offends a tiny group of fetishists out there who have replaced the post-coital cigarette with a handful of lead paint chips from the windowsill; and they’ll have protected minority status by next semester,” T writes. “I suppose we should be grateful that institutions like Wesleyan haven’t yet lost track of all our natural law inclinations.”

Get it? Having non-procreative sex is like eating paint chips. It’s like willfully ingesting something harmful into your body.

And why would anyone do that? Why would anyone ingest, for example, something that dehydrates you, kills your brain cells, can ruin your liver, and causes tens of thousands of lost lives, wrecked families, and millions of headaches and even more bad decisions every year?

Anyway, after you’ve read T’s post on natural law, scroll down to read Whiskey Catholic’s review of Teeling Small Batch Irish Whiskey!


[To irony!]

A Quick Post on Remembering

Bill Lindsey has a post up on his blog now in memory of his brother, who died in 1991. The post starts with a poem, which Bill wrote in honor of a priest and friend. “In my heart I’ve carved a shrine,” he writes, “where red carnations vie with daffodils / to chant you to your rest.” But despite the speaker’s attempts to remember, the poem concludes: “That shrine within my heart / holds one bloom fewer every day.” Below his poem, Bill emphasizes the importance of remembrance in the face of this need to move on, and both his poem and his comments stand as a type of resistance to this human tendency to let go.

My mom died six years ago today. Like Bill, I’ve been wrestling with questions of how to remember a person, too— and not just because of the impending anniversary, but because my stepfather is moving to a new, smaller house, and so he’s having to go through boxes of mom’s stuff to decide what to keep, what to send to me, what to sell, and what to get rid of. We’ve been able to put off these decisions for a long time, but now the deal is this: we’ve got to get rid of stuff.

So I’ve been getting texts with pictures of things—a framed print that hung on the dining room wall of our house in Charleston; a paper towel rack that mom made when she went through her carpentry phase while living in Spain. These things are coming from storage, from deep in the attic. Lots of them I haven’t seen since I was eleven or twelve. My mom felt no need to have them out in her big house in Tulsa. But shouldn’t they be more important to me? I mean, yes, that paper towel holder is kind of ugly. But mom made it. And no, we don’t have room for that print in our house, and even mom didn’t have it on her walls for the last twenty years of her life. But it’s something she chose, when she was about my age, because it fit her style in a certain moment of her life. Doesn’t that moment deserve to be remembered?

Every time my stepdad asks me if I want to keep something, and I tell him no, I feel like I’m willfully dropping a petal of mom’s memory. I tell myself I’ve got enough to remember her already: albums and albums of photos, her doctoral diploma, her copy of the Book of Common Prayer. And I tell myself that she wouldn’t care. And she wouldn’t: when I look around my house, I know I wouldn’t want anyone to keep everything hanging on my walls in memory of me. And then there’s the bare reality that a framed print is not a flower petal—it’s a big, bulky thing that has to be housed somewhere, and I just don’t have any space right now.

But Bill’s post was helpful, too, in highlighting the importance of words, actions, and rituals for remembrance. It was two years ago today that I started going to church again semi-regularly—to my church, the church in which mom raised me—and it was because I had been flipping through that Book of Common Prayer, and reading the words, and I suddenly had a strong urge to hear those words and, more, to participate in those words. I had an urge for communion.

And I went to church, and I found it. And I still find it there, most of all in the words. Even last Sunday, six years removed from mom’s passing, kneeling and saying the Prayer of Humble Access brought us together. The “we” of the first line was for me not just the congregation present but the “we” of my mother and me at Christ Church in Mount Pleasant, at St. Andrew’s in Fort Worth, at St. Anne’s in Atlanta.

So, as important as that passed-down copy of the BCP, the physical thing, is to me, it means much less to me than the words it contains. Because we remember each other not with things, but with words.

And, as much as I write this blog for others, to advocate and persuade, I also write it for myself, to remember: little things, like the article that captured my attention last Tuesday, and big things, like what it’s like to be married to H this year, what it’s like to have a four-year-old daughter. And my mom.

Here are a few posts where she’s showed up, from both here and other places I write. I’m posting them again, just for remembrance’s sake:

Penelope Casas, 1943 – 2013 (pterodáctilo – August 23, 2013)

Of manly tables and girly drinks (May 4, 2014)

Three Essays on Ideal Families (August 10, 2013)

From the Gulf (The Scholarly Texan – July 31, 2013)

Why Your Love Looks Like Hate, pt. 321479

Here’s something Domenico Dolce, of Dolce & Gabbana, said:

“I call children of chemistry synethic children. Uteri [for rent], semen chosen from a catalogue.”

Here’s how Elton John responded:

How dare you refer to my beautiful children as ‘synthetic’.

And shame on you for wagging you judgemental little fingers at IVF – a miracle that has allowed legions of loving people, both straight and gay, to fulfil their dream of having children.

Your archaic thinking is out of step with the times, just like your fashions.

I shall never wear Dolce and Gabbana ever again. #BoycottDolceGabbana.

Here’s what Ryan T. Anderson, of the Heritage Foundation, tweeted:

Gay men speak against gay marriage and surrogacy. Other gay man calls for boycott of the gay men, calls them anti-gay

So much wrong with that tweet. In the first place, Anderson’s trying to play a silly game of gotcha, based on the dumb idea that a gay person could never be anti-gay. But the bigger problem is that he’s mischaracterizing Elton John’s response: John never called Dolce & Gabbana anti-gay. Instead, he called attention to an element of D&G’s statement that is indefensible: their dehumanization of kids brought into the world by IVF or surrogacy.

Whatever you feel about the ethics of IVF, there’s no excuse for saying that kids born of it are “synthetic,” which suggests that they’re lesser than other kids. However you feel about Elton John or how he got his child, you have to admit he’s in the right here: you simply can’t demean his child in your attacks.

D&G’s statement falls into a category with that doctor who refused to treat the daughter of a lesbian couple, and with the nutbag ultra-rightwing Catholics who oppose baptizing children being raised by gay couples.

And rather than condemning D&G’s comments—for which they really should apologize—the usual suspects have been gleefully promoting those comments, thrilled that they’ve got a couple of high-profile gays on their “team.”

This is another reason why your love looks like hate, Catholic Right.

Sexless as the Bees? Part II: Back to the Little House


[1917 photo from my wife’s collection of her great-grandmother, who migrated from Denmark to homestead with her sister in Montana for six years.]

When you’re writing outside of your expertise (which I do a lot here), it’s nice to have someone who knows more than you tell you you’re on the right track. So I was thrilled that my post on Susan Hanssen’s misreading of the complementarianism of the Little House series drew a comment from Melanie, a historian who specializes in Laura Ingalls Wilder. Melanie agreed with me that Hanssen “missed the historical reality of life as a pioneer or homesteader. That reality was more all-hands-on-deck than male/female division of labor than many people today will realize.”

Further, Melanie pointed out that “Any number of Wilder’s own writings, and thousands of non-fiction and first-person accounts of the era will demonstrate just how many women were doing a ‘man’s job’ on the frontier.” I’ll get to some of those writings in a bit, but first let me remind you what we’re talking about: Hanssen, a professor at the University of Dallas, argued that Little House in the Big Woods, the first book Wilder’s Little House series, illustrates the “complementarity of man and woman” celebrated at the Vatican’s recent Humanum colloquium. We should all read the books to our kids, Hanssen says, as a “preemptive strike against our de-formative culture.”

Before I go on, let me say that I absolutely agree that the series is great for families. Like I said, my wife and I have been reading the books to our daughter at bedtime, and it has been amazing watching her transfixed by the stories. Sometimes she even acts them out as they’re being read to her. And I love the novels’ deliberateness, the attention that Wilder gives to daily tasks that range from making bullets to boiling maple syrup. I’ve had a busy few months, without much time for my own pleasure reading, so I’ve looked forward to these nightly moments, which re-center and settle me as much as they do her.

But I disagree that Little House in the Big Woods has much to do with the vision of complementarity that was evoked by the Humanum colloquium, or that’s typically spouted by the American religious right.  That complementarianism—whatever its proponents say—isn’t just a celebration of men and women, or even of manhood and womanhood. It’s a weaponized complementarianism, one which takes the gender differences that show up in large populations and statistical averages and tries to turn them into arguments against feminism and gay marriage.

And I don’t think that Laura Ingalls Wilder is the right author, or that Little House in the Big Woods is the right book, to enlist for that cause.

In the first place, while Wilder does talk about “men’s work” and “women’s work,” she spends a good part of Little House in the Big Woods pointing out the arbitrariness of those categories and the capability of her characters to transcend them.

For example: as Hanssen points out, Wilder introduces readers to Pa’s gun almost immediately. “Pa and his gun are essential to the family’s survival,” she writes, because the big woods are full of bears and other dangerous creatures. In fact, there are lots of stories about bears in the novel, including one funny one in which Pa runs wildly with a heavy stick towards a tree stump, thinking it’s a bear.  But there’s only one actual encounter with a bear in the main narrative, and it happens when Pa is in town selling the furs he has collected over the winter. Laura and her mother go out at dusk to milk their cow—they see what they think is the cow behind a gate, and Ma slaps the creature to get it into the barn. She realizes then that the creature is actually a bear. Ma calmly tells Laura walk to the house, waits until she sees her daughter is safe, then walks behind her until they are close enough to run to the house. Then Ma picks up Laura, and rushes her to safety. In this story, the mother is the protector: calm, collected, and brave.

This is the point I was making in my last post: country life doesn’t exacerbate the differences between men and women—it shrinks them. As I said then, a woman in the country has to know what to do when she comes across a rattlesnake. Or a bear.

And Hanssen is correct that Laura notes her mother’s aesthetic sense, her attention to detail, which Hanssen suggests is stereotypically feminine. But it’s hard for me to see how it’s very different from the impulse that leads Pa to make a shelf for Ma:

One of the little boards he shaped in a lovely curve, and around its edges he carved leaves and flowers and stars, and through it he cut crescent moons and curlicues. Around the edges of the smallest board he carved a tiny flowering vine. He made the tiniest shavings, cutting very slowly and carefully, making whatever he thought would be pretty.

little house

I’m no Wilder expert—I leave that to Melanie—but I did dig a little bit into her nonfiction writing, and you see the same themes there. Wilder wrote for the Missouri Ruralist from 1911 through 1924, and several of her columns deal with questions of gender roles and women’s rights. On July 20, 1917, for example, she reported on the Wilson Stock Farm in Wright County, Missouri, which was run by a woman whose husband could not leave his medical practice in the city. Wilder is positively effusive about Mrs. Wilson’s abilities as a farmer: “Not only has she saved what was then put into the place but she has more than trebled the original investment. Other tracts of land have been added to the first small piece until there is now, to be exact, 997 acres in the Wilson farm. This land was purchased for $10 and $12 an acre and is now easily worth from $30 to $50 an acre” (“And a Woman Did It” 116).

In 1916, while describing the Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, Wilder tells of a woman she knows who kept the accounts for her household, turned a profit, was “promoted to the position of farm accountant (without salary).” She went on investigate shortcomings in the farm budget, “So now she has become a sort of farm adviser with whom her husband consults on all matters of farm business.” Wilder’s point is that this woman is really doing “man’s work.” “The fact is,” she writes, “that while there has been a good deal of discussion for and against women in business, farm women have always been business women and I have never heard a protest” (“All in a Day’s Work” 48-50).

Elsewhere, she writes, “Women are successful lumber dealers, livestock breeders, caterers, curators, bacteriologists, pageant managers, cable code experts and besides have entered nearly every ordinary profession.” And: “Women are running trains, they are doing work in factories, they are clerks, jurors, representatives in congress and farm help” (“New Day for Women” 149).

And against the notion that protecting women is strictly men’s work, she writes about Russia’s all-female “Battalion of Death,” and says that during World War I, “In all the allied countries women are filling places of responsibility and danger, doing hard, unpleasant work to help in the struggle to ‘make the world safe for women’” (”What the War Means to Women” 146).

Hanssen is right about a couple of things: Wilder does celebrate “women’s work” and put it on an equal plane with what’s traditionally called “men’s work.” She also definitely writes about family as a place where everybody has a role, and where complementary gifts come together for everybody’s benefit. But that kind of complementarianism doesn’t need any defense, because nobody really objects to it.

Remember Rachel Hope Cleves’ book Charity and Sylvia? In it, Cleves quotes William Cullen Bryant, writing in 1850 about his aunt and her wife:

I could tell you how they slept on the same pillow and had a common purse, and adopted each other’s relations, and how one of them, more enterprising and spirited in her temper than the other, might be said to represent the male head of the family, and took upon herself their transactions with the world without, until at length her health failed, and she was tended by her gentle companion, as a fond wife attends her invalid husband.

Now, modern readers might bristle at the notion that, in a lesbian relationship, one woman necessarily plays the male role and the other the female. But the larger point is that Bryant is describing in this (historical) couple a relationship every bit as complementary as the (fictional) one at the center of Wilder’s Little House books. Cleves fleshes out that complementarity throughout her book—it’s really a must-read. But that complementarity is also something we can in any healthy couple today, gay or straight, even the ones that don’t map well onto traditional gender roles. I’ve mentioned, for example, the way Rob Tisinai writes about his marriage—but I’m sure any reader can think of examples from his or her own social circle.

The fact that the Vatican colloquium was conceived as, and has been used as, an argument against those couples shows that its message isn’t as beautiful or good (or true) as Hanssen paints it.

And Wilder’s very good book doesn’t deserve to be associated with it.

Sexless as the Bees? Complementarity and Country Life


[Photo by Leann Mueller]

Over at Public Discourse, Susan Hanssen writes glowingly about the Vatican’s recent colloquium on complementarity, claiming that the lessons taught there echo the lessons found in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic 1932 children’s novel Little House in the Big Woods. Hanssen distinguishes between the roles that Wilder writes for “Ma” and “Pa” in the novel. “Pa and his gun are essential to the family’s survival,” Hanssen writes, while Ma is the novel’s civilizing moral influence. She is also the one who trains her family to recognize beauty, who “completes her useful work by making it beautiful.”

“The family is only whole and safe when it is founded on the complementarity of masculine and feminine,” Hanssen concludes, and worries that without the influence of voices like Wilder’s (and the Vatican’s), we risk becoming “sexless as the bees.”

By coincidence, my wife and I just started reading Little House in the Big Woods to our daughter at bedtime. I think Hanssen is misreading the novel, and I’ll explain why in a follow-up post.

For now, I want to focus on a larger issue at work in Hanssen’s post (and other posts I’ve seen lately): the idea that what she sees as “genderlessness” is a modern thing, and something very different than what we would see in our more rural past. Now, I don’t live in the past, but I do work in the country, and from what I’ve seen, gender roles in ranch and farm work are more fluid—not less—than they are in the average US home.


[Mary’s cattle]

The first cowboy I met while working at the ranch was, in fact, a cowgirl. Her name was Mary, and she was probably fifty, and she leased some of my boss’s acres for part of her herd. She’s moved on since then, and now the same land is leased by an older married couple who have lived in the area their whole lives. Most mornings, I see the husband doing his morning chores in their red jeep, but it’s no surprise, either, to see his wife out doing the same jobs—with or without him. As Barney Nelson wrote in Texas Monthly in 2011:

Men, women, and children can and do cowboy. The word already mixes gender: cow (female) and boy (male). Within the ranching world, even cowboys are seldom referred to collectively as ‘cowboys.’ We just call each other by our given names: Jeff, Candi, Chris, or Liz.

“Historically,” Nelson writes, “women did anything they wanted to do—they went up the trail, rode saddle broncs, and owned ranches in their own names.” If that shocks you, it’s probably because you don’t really know what cowboys do. As Nelson puts it, “The job requires tenacity, not virility, patience rather than strength, and the willingness to do whatever needs doing, not heroics. All these qualities are as easily found among women as men.”

If you think about it, the tasks a cowboy might be called to perform are all gender-twisted anyway: he might spend an afternoon or an evening midwifing a new calf; his wife might spend her days husbanding a bean patch. He will probably be comfortable cooking for himself and cleaning his own clothes; she will probably know how to butcher stock and shoot a gun. Because just like he can’t escape the stereotypically feminine aspects of the job, a rural woman can’t avoid being called on to do “masculine” things. Men are better protectors than women? Maybe. But a woman needs to know what to do if she comes across a rattlesnake, too.

That’s why, from what I’ve seen, being a grownup is valued more out there than fitting into gendered roles. Which is not to say that you won’t sometimes hear rigid gender stereotypes among ranchers and farmers, just that those stereotypes fall away pretty quickly next to the practical necessities of country life. People are more concerned with what’s getting done, in other words, than with who’s doing it.

“This makes a woman of a man,” Wendell Berry says of farming, “… in the body’s pride and at its cost.” A rancher, farmer, or cowboy needs to be able to put aside pride in his or her masculinity or femininity and do whatever the hell is necessary to do to survive. But in return, Berry tells us, comes a new kind of pride, one a lot like what Joan Didion calls self-respect.

But what about the complementarity of Little House in the Big Woods? Doesn’t it matter that everyone in that family has an important role? Well, yeah, and I’ll talk more about that in my next post. But, basically, I’d say that the complementarianism of Wilder’s book is a lot less rigid than Hanssen imagines it to be, and that it can easily be used to describe families like Charity & Sylvia’s. Of course, that puts it at odds with the vision of complementarity that dominated the Vatican colloquium. Little House in the Big Woods, I’m afraid, doesn’t do what Hanssen says it does. Again, more on that soon.


For now, I’ll leave you with another link to Barney Nelson’s essay, which I recommend highly—not just for what it says about gender, but because it’s a very realistic depiction of the types of people (men and women) I’ve met over the past few years. Also, don’t miss Leann Mueller’s photos, which accompanied the story when it ran in Texas Monthly.