The Last Homely House East of the Sea

Some fragmented thoughts on Fozzie the Foster Dog, welcome and belonging, and my mother's recipe for egg and tomato over rice

The 58th Day of Coronatide*
Grand Rapids, Michigan

Hey friend,

The big news here in our little corner of the world is that we got a foster dog. We’re told Fozzie is old. He might be 8, 10, maybe even 12, but we aren’t sure. According to the folks at the shelter where he’d been staying since September, his teeth were in such bad shape when he arrived that he might seem older than he actually is.

Fozzie on the sofa, just before a training session for the World Championships of Napping

I wish I knew more of Fozzie’s story. I know it hasn’t been an easy one. I want to know why he was so afraid to go up and down our stairs; after a full week in our house, he finally managed. I want to know who so neglected him that he has spent the past eight months healing from countless flea and tick bites as well as infections in both eyes and both ears. I want to know why he doesn’t really bark—he has a repertoire of little grunts and rumbles, as if he were permanently in quiet mode—and how he ended up 93% deaf. Was it those ear infections, or was he deaf before that? (Also, 93% seems awfully precise; how does the vet know that?)

From his first moments in our house, it seems to me, Fozzie has been trying to figure out whether he belongs. He gives us quizzical looks, as if to ask what he’s allowed to do and where he’s allowed to go. He stands at the kitchen door, unsure whether he can approach his food and water bowls. He has grown bolder, unleashing a little dance/yelp combo when he’s chasing our attention. On the second day, he claimed a spot against the right arm of the sofa in my study, where he snoozes as I type this. I used to sit there, but I’m happy to defer to Fozzie.

Since Fozzie arrived, I’ve been pondering what it means to welcome another being into one’s home and how to convince someone they belong. In many cultures, hospitality is considered one of the responsibilities of being human. It is both mandate and virtue. It is not optional. It’s not about your convenience or your freedom. It is a mark of decency and a reflection of humility and a sign of shared humanity. (Yes, yes, I know that Fozzie isn’t a human, but please don’t get all Aquinas on me about that.**)

I wish I could convince Fozzie that he’s welcome, that he belongs, and have him believe me. But that’s not how it works. How many times have I been told that I’m welcome, yet the evidence suggests otherwise? A house, a church, or a country can say all it wants about openness, welcome, and embrace, but it’s false witness unless it’s lived out. It’s our job to embody hospitality—and I don’t use the word “job” in a negative way. It’s holy and wonderful work to offer hospitality. It’s a privilege to make Fozzie feel at home. We scratch his belly and give him medicinal baths that soothe his skin. We walk with him, and we wait patiently until he finds that perfect spot to poop, and we carry him up and down the stairs. You know what else helps? Short rib.

In the first volume of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo ends up in enchanted Rivendell, staying with the elf-lord Elrond in the Last Homely House East of the Sea. He’d heard about this place. Elrond’s home was, according to his cousin Bilbo, “a perfect house, whether you like food or sleep or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all.” It was a safe haven. “Merely to be there,” Tolkien writes, “was a cure for weariness, fear, and sadness.” 

Most of us can probably think of our personal Last Homely Houses East of the Sea, where we experience embrace and rest. But it’s interesting to me that Tolkien doesn’t specify that this home of great welcome is curative only for the guest. “Merely to be there,” he writes, “was a cure.” So maybe hospitality also helps to heal and buoy the host. We know that we cheer our own spirits by inviting others to our table, by pouring them a favorite gin, by preparing a bed so that a friend can rest by listening to their stories, and by creating space just to sit and think. (I’m not so sure about the singing.) 

One casualty of Coronatide has been the opportunity to host. A shipment of flour just arrived in today’s mail—I never thought I’d write that sentence, but when there’s flour at the local grocery store, it’s the blah, bleached kind—and I can’t wait to make biscuits for our next houseguests. For now, Fozzie will have to hold that space. He is our 15-pound canine reminder that, by loving others in these ways, we too share in the antidote to weariness, fear, and sadness.


What I’m Growing: Is a dog not enough?! Fozzie sat in the yard with me the other day as I planted carrots, spinach, bok choy, and garlic. A while back, some farmer friends gave us an abundance of garlic. I couldn’t use it fast enough, so some cloves started to sprout. So I broke apart the bulb and planted cloves root-end down in a sunny spot on the south side of the house.  (You can do this in containers too.) This isn’t the usual time of year to plant garlic if you want bulbs; you need winter’s help. But I love green garlic and garlic scapes, so I’m hoping we’ll have those for our kitchen this summer. 


What I’m Cooking: I got a request from a reader for a vegetarian recipe. Though my people do love the swine flesh, we try to have at least a couple of fully vegetarian days per week in our little household. It might be a stir-fry of tofu and zucchini in oyster sauce and sriracha over rice or some pasta with whatever vegetables we have on hand. 

One of my favorites is a homey dish that my mom often made during my childhood: egg and tomato over rice. You’ll find this dish on many Chinese kitchen tables and very few restaurant menus. Some years ago, after she visited, I asked my mom to write this recipe down, because friends kept asking for it. So she did what she never does, which is to measure everything out as she’s cooking. She did it because she’s my mom.

This dish is better when heirloom tomatoes are in season. But because it’s such a forgiving recipe, even wan supermarket tomatoes taste better than they ought to. I’ve heard you can also used a can of diced tomatoes, but I’ve never tried that

番茄炒蛋 (Tomato Stir-fried with Egg)
3-4 medium-size ripe tomatoes, cut to bite size
2-3 eggs
2 t oil
finely chopped green onion or chive
salt
pepper

For the sauce (mix all these ingredients together in a small bowl):
2-3 T vegetable or chicken broth (or water if you don’t have broth)
1 t cornstarch
1/2 t vinegar (any kind except balsamic)
1 t ketchup 
1/2 t soy sauce
1/4 t sugar

Heat 1 teaspoon of oil, scramble the eggs, and season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Using the same pan, heat the other teaspoon of oil and saute the tomatoes over medium heat until the texture is a little mushy. (If the tomatoes are not ripe and no juice comes out, add a splash of broth.) 

Add the egg back into the pan. Mix well with the tomatoes. Season again with salt and pepper. Then pour the sauce mixture in and cook until the sauce thickens a bit. (If it seems too gloopy, add a splash of broth. If it’s too watery, stir together a teaspoon of broth and a teaspoon of cornstarch, add to the pan, and cook for a minute or two.)

Sprinkle the green onion or chive over the egg and tomato. Serve over rice.


What I’m Reading: My friend Kaitlin Curtice published her book Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God on Tuesday. It’s part-memoir, part-manifesto. 

I hesitate to use the word “manifesto,” because I don’t want to give you the idea that it’s some screed. It’s not. Yes, Kaitlin writes with fierce conviction but also deep gentleness and winsome elegance. And “manifesto” feels right because it comes from a Latin word that means “to make public.” She makes public her own story, one that’s full of both beauty and pain. She examines her roots and her identity in in the hopes of helping us examine our own as well as our relationship with the world around us. 

I think it’s brave of her to make her story public. Kaitlin is a citizen of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. For too long, this country has neglected and demeaned the place, the culture, and the belonging of Native peoples on this land. That’s part of our ugly, messy story—and in raising her voice, she invites us toward a better way of being.

“To begin at our own beginnings, we ask questions about this created world, about our place in it, about what it means to belong,” Kaitlin writes. “We think about how we are called to care for one another.” That’s certainly something we ought to be thinking about more—and now. (You can buy Native here—and support indie bookshops too.)


What I’m Listening To: I’m not unique in disliking the sound of my own voice. But I had to help my friend Wes Willison with the podcast he produced about Cultivate, the retreat we hosted last summer at the Farminary. Many people end up in some line of work, some life rut, just because. Then, years later, you wonder, What happened? We wanted to make room for people to ask questions they typically have neither time nor space to ask. So, months before, we’d put out an invitation: Folks between the ages of 25 to 40 could apply to join us at the farm for five days of eating, composting, weeding, harvesting, baking, singing, talking, and discerning. We got 220+ applications, which meant we had to go through an excruciating process of choosing just 12 people to join us. The Cultivators Podcast tells a story of what happened over our five days together.


Questions? Comments? You can always email me at jeff@byjeffchu.com or write me the old-fashioned way at P.O. Box 68565, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49516. Sometimes I’m slow to write back, but I will do my best to respond eventually.

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I’m so glad we can stumble through this together. I’ll try to write more soon.

Much love,
Jeff

*I’m counting my days from March 10th, when my governor, Gretchen Whitmer—also known as That Woman in Michigan, First of Her Name, “Big Gretch”—declared a state of emergency. May she continue to speak out to protect the common good. And for the love of God and the sake of our neighbors, may we continue to #StayHome.

**Crudely summarized short version, with apologies to every Aquinas scholar who might now be preparing their footnoted “Well, actually…”: Thomas Aquinas thought that animals were essentially mechanistic instruments, because “they are not rational.” This assumes a lot about humans being rational—and too little about animals.