The Heavenly Delight of Haystacks
Keali'a, Kaua'i, Territory of Hawai'i, USA.
Three little kids playing in the sandy soil of a sugar cane plantation village. Two boys, ages 6 and 4, dressed in shorts with elastic waistbands and colored T-shirts. A girl toddler, 2 years old, sporting only a pair of cotton panties.
Father is at work in the cane fields. Mother, a few months pregnant, is washing clothes, looking out the window every now and then to check on the children.
I am the older and larger boy. Scratching my crew cut hair and wiping the sweat of my forehead with the back of my right hand, I squint in the zenith noon sun as I look at my squad.
"Okay, Sahgent!" I address my brother. "We going camp heah tonight."
"Why? What fo'? I no like da way you boss us around."
We speak in the only language we know--pidgin English. But no matter what our chosen tongue, the dynamics of older brother and younger brother would still be the same.
"Look, I da Lootenat, and you gotta listen to my orders! Nurse?"
Little sister looks up at me with big brown eyes. "Yeah?"
"What we goin' eat tonight?"
"Someting real ono!"
Little sister runs as fast as her chubby brown legs can go, stops at the simply built fence and pulls at the paper plate supply she's previously stuck between the lats.
Returning, she hands each of us brothers a plate.
"Okay, jus' copy me."
Little sister proceeds to place a handful of pebbles onto her plate.
My brother and I look quizzically at each other.
Little sister looks at us for just a second and then plops down on the dirt. "Look...watch me," she says.
My brother and I think the world of little sister, so we start to go through the motions. We quickly fill our plates with the tiny rocks. By this time, little sister is slowly sprinkling sand over the rocks.
"Ony lidda bit," she tells us.
We boys follow suit.
"Okay, now we need dis kine stuff." She's pulling grass and tossing it onto her plate.
By this time, my brother is starting to really get into the swing of things. He's done some quick scavenging behind the old rundown garage where the weeds and bushes have taken over an old garden patch. He's got all kinds of twigs and leaves and even a couple of chicken feathers.
Not wanting to be outdone, I strip a low hanging leaf off of a papaya plant, scrounge up two croton leaves that have fallen to the ground, and pick some tiny round berries from a plant growing wild.
A dead toad, its body flattened by someone's tire, the guts still oozing out of its mouth, catches my attention for a second. Aw, shucks! I don't want to scare my little sister, so I pass on the opportunity.
Our plates are beginning to fill up with stuff.
"Okay," little sister says after surveying our enthusiastic efforts. "Now we goin' put some Fren dressing all over."
With that, she runs over to her baby bottle, filled with water, and begins squeezing and shaking it over her garden salad of pebbles, dirt, grass, marbles, an old doll's head, and dandelions.
Gerald tries to grab the bottle from her. She swivels her body in the universal mine, not yours! gesture, shielding the bottle from his grasp. "No! Go fin' yo' own!"
"Hey, Gerald, we can use this!" I fill an old Coke bottle with water from the yard hose and offer it to him. He wets his plate lunch down and passes the bottle back to me. I make a few passes with the inverted bottle over my plate.
Little sister takes a deep breath and sighs. "Okay...now we goin' pray." She bows her head and closes her eyes. My brother and I grin at each other, knowing what comes next.
Sure enough, little sister raises her head slowly and winces in an effort to see what we're doing without completely opening her eyes. I pat her on the head and say, "Okay, let's pray. God is great, God is good. God, we thank you for this food. Amen."
Before my brother and I can stop her, little sister jams a fistful of grass and leaves into her mouth and starts munching away.
"No, Nana, no! Stop that!" I gently squeeze her cheeks with one hand while frantically trying to pull the debris out of her mouth. Meanwhile, she's trying to pull away from me. Little brother is yelling at me, "'A's yo' fault! If you wasn't so bossy!"
Somehow, we manage to survive another war episode. I get little sister cleaned up, promote my brother to Master Sgt. with the application of an imaginary medal to his chest, and pull them around the yard in my red wagon.
My mom asks me, "Jo-Jo, you guys playing nicely?"
I look up at her and say, "Yeah, but I think Nana's hungry."
Flash Return to the Recent Present
Sorting through my email inbox today, I found a pleasant photo message from my son. In celebration of having completed his graduate thesis as well as having just learned that a fairness review board had ruled in his favor regarding a grades dispute, he put together a simple dish that he'd learned how to make from his mother years ago.
The meal--a vegetarian's delight but surprisingly appealing in both simplicity and taste to meat-eaters as well--is called HAYSTACKS.
Rather than providing you with an organized recipe, I will describe the dish in a general fashion.
The basic ingredients are: corn chips, beans (a can of chile, heated, or beans that have been pre-cooked in a crockpot), lettuce, shredded cheese (usually cheddar but any cheese according to your taste), diced tomatoes, diced onions, salsa, and sour cream. You can add other diced vegetables if you like.
You form the base by making a layer of corn chips (Fritos or tortilla chips) on your plate. Over this foundation, you pour your hot beans. Sprinkle the shredded cheese over the hot beans. Over this you liberally adorn the dish with diced tomatoes and onions as well as a few lettuce leaves. Toss your salsa or other hot sauce over the top. The crowning touch is to apply several teaspoons of sour cream evenly over the entire mound of food.
The result is a small hill of food that is surprisingly nutritious and will fill you without being overly abundant in calories.
Simply put, think of it as a huge meatless taco without the shell.
Thirty-one years ago, I was introduced to this meal by my beautiful bride, Rita. If memory serves me well, it was our honeymoon meal.
As the years passed--all too quickly, at that--our young children learned how to prepare this meal on their own. We'd gather around the dinner table, occasionally with guests after church but more often than not on Friday evenings, listening to the latest radio episodes of Adventures in Odyssey, the cares of the secular work week tucked away and our hearts reveling in the joy of being a family.
Simplicity--life at its best.
This photo, then, elicits sweet nostalgia in my heart.
Essentially, it is Ryan trumpeting the progress he has made in his journey.
Ultimately, it is a father's delight at how rites of passage are embedded in even the simplest of things...layer upon layer of down to earth goodness, until, with the eventual wisdom that comes upon each of us with surprising grace and illumination, the only prayer left to our humanly devices is:
As with this meal, so with our lives.