The summer heat in south Louisiana can be oppressive. It’s not like the dry heat of southern California or Arizona. No. It’s a heat with teeth … and a fiery humid tongue that licks right through you. It’s a heat that bakes your bones.
I am not a fan of the heat. The older I get, the hotter our summers seem to get. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe not. But my lack of tolerance for the heat plays a big part in the love I’ve always had for the month of October.
For me, October signals autumn and the beginning of cooler weather. But the weather doesn’t always cool down in October in Baton Rouge. Sometimes it doesn’t cool down until December — late December even. I remember Christmases that culminated in afternoon swim parties and snow cones. In the South we often dream of idyllic scenes from White Christmas, but snow is rare here. We don’t always get what we want. Sometimes all we can do is make good use of what we are given. That’s not always an easy lesson to learn.
October 1981 — I was 11 years old. It was the first year my parents allowed me to dress up as anything scary for Halloween. It was also the first time they allowed me to wear a full, over-the-head rubber Halloween mask. They thought those masks were too dangerous, providing only slits for eyes. But that year they allowed me to wear one because I wore them down. For weeks. That Halloween I was the Frankenstein monster.
A few weeks before Halloween, when the candy and the costumes first started lining store shelves, I happened to be with my mom at our local K&B (a convenience store/pharmacy chain in the Baton Rouge and New Orleans areas that unfortunately is no longer in business). That day, I saw the mask that would make all my Halloween dreams come true. I knew my chances were slim, so I did what any 11-year-old boy would do. I begged like there was no tomorrow. I pleaded. My mom’s answer? No. I was crushed, but I refused to give up. I continued to talk about that mask at home. To my mom. To my dad. To the dogs. To my sister. To anyone who would listen.
On Saturday morning the week before Halloween, my younger sister and I unenthusiastically accompanied my mother while she ran errands. Unenthusiastically, that is, until I realized that one of her errands took us right past K&B. When I saw that iconic K&B purple sign in the distance, I redoubled my efforts and poured layer upon layer of begging onto my mother. I was shameless. It was awful. But it worked. She relented. She caved. She turned into the K&B parking lot. I got what I wanted. I just knew I was going to have the most epic Halloween of all time.
We left the store, got back into the car, and started to exit the parking lot. While I sat in the backseat basking in the glory of my achievement (and rubbing it in my sister’s face that I got what I wanted and she didn’t), my mother pulled out of the parking lot into the street. Bam!
An oncoming car crashed into us. Nobody was hurt, thankfully, but we were all shaken up a bit. Actually I was shaken up quite a bit; I was convinced that the collision was my fault. I blamed myself because I had been so adamant that I had to have that mask and I had to have it right then. If only I hadn’t insisted and we hadn’t gone to K&B, I thought.With my face hot, wet, and tired from crying, I realized I didn’t want the mask anymore. It took a few days and several conversations for my mother to finally convince me that the collision wasn’t my fault. I came around. Mama had me in better spirits by Halloween night.
The mask was beautiful — in a Frankenstein-monster sort of way. The eerie gray-green face and black-haired mask was the centerpiece around which I created the scariest ensemble possible. I had to use whatever I had on hand: football shoulder pads, a tattered army-green shirt that was four times too big for me, tacky purple warm-up pants, and an old pair of ratty work boots that I wore when I cut the grass. The mask was the only item I had to acquire, and, as you can tell, it cost me.
My costume was indeed epic. I looked just like Frankenstein. I’m sure I stood 7 feet tall as I watched and waited in my front yard for the sun to go down, eager to start trick-or-treating. For all of the energy and angst that went into finally acquiring that mask, the glory was short-lived. That Halloween must have been the hottest I’d known. The full rubber mask and purple warm-up pants only made it worse. I didn’t make it halfway through my route before tearing off the mask and tossing it into my candy bag.
Believe it or not, savoring Sundays can be a lot like that Frankenstein monster mask. Maybe your family doesn’t slow down regularly, doesn’t gather around the table in peace and joy, and yet you desperately want them to. You know it’s really the best thing for them — and for you. If only I can make them. … If only they were better. … If only I was better. …
Sometimes all we can do is make good use of what we are given. Sometimes all we can do is start right where we are. And that’s OK.
Take this recipe, for example. It calls for lamb, a whole pumpkin, and special spices. Maybe you don’t have those and can’t acquire them. That’s OK. Play around with it, use what you have, and see what you come up with. Use beef instead of lamb. Use canned pumpkin instead of fresh.
Relax, have fun, and make something good with what you have been given.
Pumpkin Soup with Lamb Meatballs
For the kafta (lamb or beef meatballs)
- 2 pounds ground lamb (beef ground round can be substituted)
- 1 large sweet yellow onion, finely chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, well-crushed with a mortar and pestle (or minced)
- 6 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
- 2 tablespoons fresh mint, chopped
- 1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
- 2 teaspoons of kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
- 1 teaspoon allspice
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon cumin
For the soup
- 2 medium yellow onions, diced
- 4 ribs celery, diced
- 1 medium pumpkin, cleaned, peeled, and cut into 2 to 3-inch pieces
- 2 tablespoons garlic, chopped
- 1 gallon chicken stock
- 1 batch of lamb or beef kafta rolled into meatballs and browned
- 1 to 2 heads kale, cleaned and chopped into 2-inch pieces
- salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- cayenne pepper to taste
- 1 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- 2 tablespoons of olive oil
For the kafta (lamb or beef meatballs)
Preheat grill or oven to medium-high heat. If you are cooking meatballs in the oven, set it to broil. Mix all ingredients together and roll into meatballs. The size can be determined by the chef. Cook on the grill or broil in the oven, turning at least once for even cooking. Cooking time depends on heat of the grill or oven and the thickness of kabobs. Alternatively, you can brown them in a skillet on the stove set to medium or medium-high heat.
For the soup
Sauté onions and celery until translucent. Add garlic and pumpkin. Continue to sauté for 5 minutes. Cover with chicken stock. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Season with salt, pepper, allspice, nutmeg, cumin, and cayenne pepper. Cook until pumpkin is soft, about 25 to 30 minutes. Puree pumpkin with an immersion blender or a regular blender (or food processor). Please note: Make sure your blender or food processor can be used with hot liquids. Some blenders require that the soup must be totally cooled before blending. Return soup to the pot. Add lamb or beef meatballs and kale. Simmer on medium to medium-low until meatballs are fully cooked and kale is softened, about 25 minutes.