accidental chicken soup

I use a lot of chicken thighs. I buy them in a value pack, cook a couple, and then put the rest of them into freezer bags.

I had defrosted a couple of thighs earlier in the week and didn’t get to them as quickly as I thought. Friday night, even though I’d already eaten dinner, I decided I needed to go ahead and cook them before they went bad.

I decided to poach them, in water, Italian seasoning, onions , red pepper flake and a little salt. I pulled them out of the water when they were done – and then it occurred to me that I had some wing tips in my freezer. No, not shoes. The third, inedible segment of a chicken wing. I do occasionally buy chicken wings, and when I do I cut them up myself and I save the tips for making stock. They may not have meat, but they have some flavor, and they have lots of connective tissue (which helps give body to stock or broth). I tossed the tips into the water I’d used for poaching the chicken and let them cook until bedtime. I strained out the wing tips and the onions and put the broth in a jar to chill overnight

I tasted the stock the next day –  it was delicious. A wee bit too salty, but it had so much flavor that I knew I could add a little water to it.

So today, after getting home from church, I put the stock and a little bit of water to the boil and threw in some dried Amish noodles I bought at the Cheese Barn. When the noodles were almost cooked, I added the chicken meat from the other night, plus a little bit of fresh-squeezed lemon juice just to perk up the flavor. I even grated the lemon zest and sprinkled it on top of the bowl.

Turned out pretty well, if I do say so myself.


Each year about this time, the Mountain T.O.P. ministry holds a celebration at its headquarters and base camp, Cumberland Pines, between Altamont and Coalmont in Grundy County.

The event serves several purposes. About three-quarters of those in attendance are twenty-somethings who’ve been part of the Mountain T.O.P. summer staff in the past few years. Many of the individual camp staffs become quite close, and this is a great chance for them to reconnect. I love hearing the little squeals every few minutes from the women as some new person enters the room, to big hugs and laughter.

InstagramCapture_1d781efc-6c93-4e1c-9092-f28ce24f0de3Old fogeys are allowed to attend as well: current and former board members, Adults In Ministry campers and other friends of the ministry. I’m a former board member, an AIM camper and (I hope) a friend of the ministry. It’s a reunion for us as well, and tonight I got to see good friends like Jan Schilling, Sonja Goold, Ray Jones, Bob Willems, Reed and Deeda Bradford, and more. (I even got to see Sandy Hayostek, who I actually know through a LEAMIS trip – I don’t believe I’ve ever been at a Mountain T.O.P. event with her before.)

Finally, the event serves as the introduction of Mountain T.O.P.’s theme for the year. Each year, the ministry chooses a theme scripture and accompanying slogan, which is made into a logo. The logo appears on T-shirts, banners and preparation materials, and it’s also used as a theme for various worship services and devotions at camp events.

10903823_10203343271808331_3047647520528749390_oThis year’s theme is “Overwhelmed.” (I stole this photo from Sonja’s Facebook feed; don’t think she’ll mind.) The theme scripture is Psalm 42, and the inspiration was a song by Big Daddy Weave. (I wasn’t familiar either.)

As Mountain T.O.P.’s executive director, Rev. Ed Simmons, pointed out, the Psalm itself sounds more like lament than praise. But if you look closely, you realize it’s also about allowing the love of God to overwhelm us when we feel overwhelmed by trouble.

Of course, this year the theme logo will also have to share some of the spotlight with another logo – one we haven’t gotten to see yet. Ed said preparations are still being made for a special logo to celebrate Mountain T.O.P.’s 40th anniversary this year.

Tonight, though, was all about the theme reveal.

Dinner was poppy seed chicken – a Mountain T.O.P. staple for pretty much all of the ministry’s 40-year history, well before I got involved in 1993.

The e-mail invitation had suggested that we wear vintage Mountain T.O.P. T-shirts, although not everyone noticed it. I wore my all-time favorite Mountain T.O.P. shirt. I bought it during my very first AIM camp in 1993, although I think the shirt was actually from a year or two before that.

All in all, a very nice evening, and well worth the drive to and from Altamont.

the sting

“The Sting” will be on Turner Classic Movies tonight. I love, love, love that movie. To me, it seems like such a part of popular culture that it might be beyond blogging about, but it occurs to me that some of my younger readers may not have gotten around to it yet.

Get around to it. Watch or DVR it tonight, or get it from Netflix or wherever. Just see it.

It’s a great showcase for its two stars, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, of course, but it’s just as good from an ensemble standpoint – Robert Shaw, Eileen Brennan, Ray Walston, Harold Gould, Charles Durning, Dana Elcar and on and on.

It’s a period piece, set in the Great Depression, although Marvin Hamlisch’s score (“The Entertainer” was a top-40 hit at the time of the movie’s release) is actually based on music from the 1920s. Johnny Hooker (Redford) is a small-time con artist. He and his partner/mentor Luther (Robert Earl Jones, the father of James Earl Jones!) are being pursued by a surly and mean-spirited police officer (Durning).

Hooker and Luther pull a con on a victim who later turns out to be a money-runner for a powerful Chicago New York crime lord, Doyle Lonnegan (Shaw). At first, they think they’ve hit the jackpot – but Lonnegan doesn’t like having his profits stolen, and sends enforcers after them, with tragic results.

Hooker wants revenge. He seeks out Luther’s old partner, a legendary but retired con artist named Henry Gondorff (Newman). The two of them put together an all-star team of con artists to bilk Lonnegan. But Durning’s cop character is still in hot pursuit of Hooker, and could ruin everything.

To say much more would be to spoil the plot. There are twists and turns galore, but the movie is so brilliantly-conceived that when you go back and watch it again, it all holds up. In fact, this movie almost demands that you watch it a second time, just to try to figure it all out.

It’s everything a movie should be – funny and exciting and happy and sad. If by some slim chance you’ve missed seeing it until now, please watch or tape it tonight.

book update

I am still working, off and on, on the possible self-published book I mused about a few weeks back. For those of you who missed it, I’m toying with taking some pre-existing material like sermons, adding some newly-written material, and self-publishing a book of sort of essays and devotions. I want to at least try putting it together and seeing if it seems like something anyone else would be interested in reading.

And I would use the same avenues I used for my Bad Self-Published Novel, so there’d be little upfront expense.

I’ve picked out a few sermons that I want to turn into essays – and that’s more challenging than it sounds. I have taken down a long essay on faith that I used to have on this site so that I can adapt big chunks of it for inclusion. And I’ve come up with some ideas for original material that I want to work on as well.

A couple of things I’ve worked on are a little too rambliing, and I need to figure out what to do about them. But there are things I’m proud of that I think would work well in print.

I’m in no hurry, but I want to keep working on it so that it doesn’t fall by the wayside.

elmo, kimmel and bob barker

I usually record Letterman and Fallon, which means I usually miss Jimmy Kimmel, even though I enjoy him as well.

I was watching a rerun of his tonight, and he randomly selected an audience member to go on a scavenger hunt on Hollywood Boulevard, right outside the theater where his show is taped (and where I once stood for two hours in the standby line, all for naught). She was supposed to bring back one of the costumed characters who pose for photos with tourists — specifically, Elmo — as well as a Christmas tree topper from a tree near the theater and a few other items.

But she wasn’t actually selected at random — once she was out of the theater, Kimmel revealed that all of the balls in the drawing had the same seat number on them. After she returned with Elmo and the other items, Elmo revealed himself to be her boyfriend, who then pulled an engagement ring out of the tree topper. I love stuff like that. (She said yes, by the way.)

When I was a child, the game show “Truth or Consequences,” hosted by Bob Barker before he took on “The Price is Right,” did a lot of stunts like that, often involving reuniting a serviceman, who’d been out of the country or at sea, with his wife. They would pull three or four audience members to play a game – which was, after all, the normal format of the show – but it would turn out that one of the audience members was actually a plant, and at some point before or during the game he would be swapped out for the husband. The game would involve costumes or some other gimmick so that the wife couldn’t see her partner in the game; she would assume that her teammate was the nice man from the audience she’d met a few minutes earlier. She’d be so caught up in the excitement of the game, and being on TV, that once the game was over, it would take her a second or two to look over in the right direction and process what she was seeing there.

I looked to see if I could find an example of one of the reunions on YouTube, but the only thing I could find was a reunion of two Italian brothers, who hadn’t seen each other in decades.

Come to AIM in 2015

I submitted, and they were kind enough to print, an item on Mountain T.O.P. for this week’s church newsletter. I’ll share it below as well. Mountain T.O.P. has some administrative ties to the United Methodist Church, but its programs are interdenominational, and are attended each year by individuals and groups from a wide variety of denominational backgrounds.
I will also share a couple of videos: My personal video from the AIM event I attended last summer, plus the camp slideshow from that same week. My video, by necessity, only shows things I was present for, which means there’s no footage of home repair. The slideshow is therefore more comprehensive.

Mountain T.O.P. has announced the dates for its Adults In Ministry program for next summer. At the week-long camps, each individual adult volunteer can choose between participating in the home repair ministry or participating in a ministry which serves children and youth.

  • June 7-13, Home repair or Kaleidoscope. Kaleidoscope is an arts program for elementary-age special needs children; volunteers can either lead a workshop or volunteer to help with workshops led by others. “Special needs” is broadly-defined and includes a wide variety of situations.
  • June 21-27, Home repair or Summer Plus. Summer Plus is a program of enrichment workshops for young teenagers. Workshops can include anything from sports to cooking to crafts. As with Kaleidoscope, you can either volunteer to lead a workshop yourself or to help with workshops led by others.
  • July 5-11, Home repair or Quest. Quest is an adventure camp in which teenagers get to do activities like rafting and rappelling. Adult volunteers work in a support role; they can participate in activities but can skip any activity with which they’re not comfortable.

In the home repair program, teams of about six volunteers spend the week making improvements to the home of a needy individual or family.
Prior experience is NOT required for any of the four programs, and there will be volunteers of both genders and at all skill and experience levels in each program.
2015 is the 40th anniversary of the Mountain T.O.P. ministry, and so the ministry has a goal of recruiting at least 40 volunteers for each of the camp weeks. All of the weeks are held at Camp Cumberland Pines near Altamont in Grundy County.
Getting away on a short-term mission trip can be a time of spiritual refreshment as well as service; the experience of living for a week in a supportive, fun Christian community is a true blessing.
For more information, contact me or go to

Your daily word

DAB logoIt’s around the time of year for me to make my annual plug for the Daily Audio Bible, which I’ve followed for several years.

We sometimes have a bad habit as Christians of sticking to only our favorite warm-and-fuzzy Bible passages, and not making any attempt to understand the passages that bore us or, even worse, make us uncomfortable. A focused plan for going through the whole Bible forces us to address the whole Bible – which isn’t always easy or pleasant. Sometimes it raises questions and forces you to turn to your pastor, or to commentators or authors whom you trust, for clarification. Sometimes, you still aren’t sure what to believe. But I think it’s vitally important for us to confront the Bible and meet it head-on.

There are, of course, numerous Bible-through-the-year reading plans, such as the excellent one developed by Discipleship Journal magazine, which you can download here. There are also many Bible-on-CD products, generally with stentorian voices chewing on the holy scenery.

DAB is different from either of these. It’s a daily podcast – you can listen on your computer, use any podcast-catching software or RSS feed reader to subscribe, or download official DAB apps on your phone or tablet.

Brian Hardin, based in Spring Hill, takes you through the Bible in a year’s time. Each day there’s an Old Testament reading, a New Testament reading, a reading from Psalms and a reading from Proverbs. All of the readings proceed in chronological order – that is, the Old Testament readings start with Genesis on January 1 and wrap up with Malachi on December 31; the New Testament starts with Matthew on January 1 and ends with Revelation on December 31. Psalms is actually repeated twice over the course of the year.

Brian’s reading style is friendly and conversational, not like a performance. They don’t just repeat the same tape from year to year; even though the schedule is the same from year to year, each day’s reading is recorded fresh before it’s released. If Brian is sick or otherwise unable to record and post that day’s podcast, his wife Jill steps in. (The two of them also read Song of Solomon as a dialogue each year, which is kind of sweet.)

The version of the Bible used rotates each week – this is actually one part of the podcast I’d change if I could. Some of the translations are great, but a few of the paraphrases are gimmicky and distracting. A few years ago, when a special edition of the NIV was published based around the DAB schedule, Brian proposed using just the NIV that year so that people could follow along in the printed version. But I was outvoted by other DAB listeners, who apparently like the rotating versions.

The normal schedule for the podcast runs like this: Brian introduces the podcast, then does the readings. If he’s getting into a new book of the Bible, he makes a few introductory remarks about that book prior to starting it. Usually, after he’s given all four readings, he makes a few brief remarks about one of them. His remarks generally strive to be non-denominational, but the context he provides can sometimes be helpful, especially in the case of difficult passages. You can always use this as a jumping-off point for your own research, or conversation with a friend or clergy member.

Then he talks briefly about the DAB community, his upcoming speaking engagements, retreats, or trips to the Holy Land. Then, the podcast concludes by playing prayer requests received (by voicemail) on a 24-hour prayer line. Occasionally, maybe once a week, the announcements and prayer requests are replaced by a song appropriate to that day’s readings.

If all you want is the Bible reading itself, you can turn away as soon as it’s finished. Or you can listen to the reading plus Brian’s remarks and prayer, or you can listen to the whole episode. It’s completely up to you. The amount of time you spend each day depends on how much you listen to.

DAB tries to encourage a sense of community, although I admit I haven’t been too active in it. In addition to the recorded prayer requests, there are various message forums at the DAB web site. There are also a few other podcasts you can subscribe to at the site, including a daily Bible podcast for kids, a daily podcast with just Proverbs, and versions of the DAB in multiple languages.

I’ve found the DAB to be helpful, and I think some of you might too. Thursday would be an excellent time to jump in and try it out, just to see if you like it.

Mellow here, mellow there

I had a wonderful weekend in Sevier County with my father and Mrs. Rachel; my brother from North Carolina and his family; and my sister and two of her three children.

We stayed in Sevierville. We had a couple of big family meals together, one of them being at the Applewood Farmhouse Restaurant on the campus of the Apple Barn in Sevierville. I’d been there once before; it’s fantastic. Great, country-style cooking. They bring wonderful apple fritters and apple butter to the table before your meal, along with a little juice glass of a mixed juice they call an “apple julep.” It’s not alcoholic – although there is a winery at the Apple Barn itself, next door, and I bought a bottle of apple blush, a semi-sweet apple wine with a little grape wine to give it color. I’ll open it up one night this week, and will probably have a glass on New Year’s Eve.

For much of the weekend, we also spent time just going our own way in various groups.

On Saturday morning, my youngest niece Ila had the time of her life fighting dragons at MagiQuest in Pigeon Forge. Her mother Kelly was with her while Michael, Daniel and I were in another part of the building playing miniature golf. MagiQuest was right on the parkway in Pigeon Forge, and we noted that there was a Mellow Mushroom pizza restaurant right next door. I’d never been to one, but Michael and Kelly had, as had Jacey and Jacob.

Later in the day, we went to Gatlinburg, where I hooked up with Elecia, Jacey and Jacob for a while.

As the sun set, Mike and Kelly said they were going to the Mellow Mushroom for dinner. Jacob and I wanted to join them, while Elecia and Jacey wanted to go to The Island, a big shopping complex in Pigeon Forge, and eat at Margaritaville.

So Elecia and Jacey got off the trolley at The Island, while Jacob and I continued on to a stop at MagiQuest and walked next door.

Here’s the funny part. We had noticed earlier, when trying to figure out which trolley stop we needed, that there are two Mellow Mushrooms in Pigeon Forge, within a very short distance of each other. The one Jacob and I were at, along with Michael and Kelly and the kids, was right on the parkway. The other one was at The Island.

So we were greatly amused, in the middle of our (wonderful) meal, when Jacob got a text saying that Jacey and Elecia had decided  not to eat at Margaritaville because of a two-hour wait time to get a table. Instead, they were eating at … you guessed it … the other Mellow Mushroom.

Google Maps shows the two locations as being 7/10 of a mile from each other.

We all had a big laugh over it.

It was a really wonderful trip, and a great chance to spend time with the family.

rub a dub dub

I learned how to make soap for the mission trip I took to Kenya in 2005, and I’ve made it a few times since – but not in a long while. We never finalized the workshop list for my currently-postponed trip to Liberia, but Debra had mentioned soapmaking as a possibility, and so I’d been meaning to refresh my skills.

Then, a week or two ago, my father asked me if I’d made any soap lately, saying that he liked my homemade soap and was now out.

If I’d been on top of things, I’d have made soap a month ago, so that I could have given it out to everyone at Christmas this week – the soap has to cure for a month, and if something turns out wrong and you have to rebatch it takes even longer.

But Dad’s comment got me to thinking. I bought the cheapest little digital kitchen scale I could find a few days ago, while doing some Christmas shopping. I think the last good one I had was intentionally left with the church on one of my foreign trips. I had a little spring scale, but I didn’t trust it – and soapmaking, as I’ll tell you, is an exact science.

What I do, and what I’ve taught on two or three trips, is cold process soapmaking, which is slightly different from the method your great-great-grandmother might have used. The fats are heated up, partially to melt solid fats like lard or coconut oil but also so that the fats will be the same temperature as the lye solution when the two are combined. Lye is added to water, and it heats up on its own, due to a chemical process. The two liquids are therefore pretty warm when they’re combined, but no further heat is added. Your great-great-grandmother would have made hot process soap, a slightly different method in which the soap mixture is cooked to accelerate the chemical reaction.

The cold process mixture is stirred, by hand or with a stick blender, until enough soap has formed to thicken and emulsify the mixture and keep the oil and water from separating. This thickened stage is called “trace,” and the marker for it is that if you pick up the spoon and drizzle a little bit of the soap onto itself, you can see the line. If you’re stirring only by hand, as with my students in Kenya, this can take 45 minutes to an hour – and you have to stir constantly for the first 30 minutes. If you have a stick blender, it happens a lot more quickly.

Once the soap has traced, you can try adding coloring or fragrances. I say “try” because most coloring agents or scents added at this stage won’t actually take. The soap is still quite alkaline, and will be for weeks, until every last bit of lye has reacted with fat to produce soap. That alkalinity tends to kill off anything you add.

Most homemade soap that has colors or fragrances is “hand-milled” soap. The soap is made without any additives and then allowed to cure completely. Then it’s ground up, or “milled,” and melted down with a little water so that color or fragrance can be added. Hand-milling is a tricky process, and one I have not mastered. I end up with something that looks more like cottage cheese than soap, or else I add too much water and end up with a soupy mess.

By the way, there’s a different hobby called “melt and pour soapmaking” which is an easier version of this. It starts with a special soap base, available at any hobby shop, which has been formulated to melt easily and smoothly (think of it as the Velveeta of soap). You melt it down, then add whatever you like – color, fragrance, exfoliants, what have you – and pour it into molds.

Essential oils have the best chance of surviving when added to newly-made soap, but I had not thought to buy any. I added a little bit of peppermint extract to tonight’s batch, but I don’t expect it to actually survive. I think this will turn out to be fragrance-free, off-white soap.

Once the soap traced and I stirred in the peppermint, I poured it into molds – not the real soap molds you buy at Hobby Lobby, but little Gladware lunch containers that happen to be about the same general shape as a bar of soap.


It will take a couple of days for the soap to harden enough to be taken out of the molds, and then I will have to wrap the bars up in paper and let them cure for a month, on the off chance that there are any little crystals of lye which haven’t yet saponified.

It was fun to make a batch, although I’m always a little nervous when working with the lye. As recommended, I wore safety goggles and gloves. Fortunately, I still had some Red Devil lye left over from my older soap-making days. You used to be able to buy Red Devil, which was 100 percent pure lye and perfect for amateur soapmaking, in any store – it was sold as a drain-opener. But Red Devil stopped selling the product. That may have a liability concern, been because lye can be used in meth production, although the company never said for sure. Now, one has to order lye online by mail.

I have a spray bottle filled with vinegar standing by in case of any stray splashes of lye water or young soap. I also soak all the utensils in vinegar before washing them.

Soapmaking is a fun hobby. Part of the fun is searching for the holy grail of soap recipes. Some oils make a hard bar of soap, others provide more lather, and still others are great for conditioning. The website has a wonderful calculator that you can use to work out a recipe, and it will give you some idea of the resulting soap’s qualities.

Recipes must be followed carefully. You must have at least enough fat to react with all of the lye, but you can adjust the recipe to add just a little bit more, called “superfatting,” in order to give a moisturizing richness to the final product. If you try to add too much, however, your soap bar will be squishy and greasy.

I would like to have used palm oil as part of the mix today, but that, too, has to be ordered online, and I didn’t have any. Tonight’s batch included the cheapest light olive oil I could find (no sense wasting money on extra virgin!), a little coconut oil for lather, and some good old fashioned lard, all from the supermarket. When you first start soapmaking, you’re advised to begin with lard. It’s cheap, always a benefit when you’re learning something for the first time, and it makes a basic, well-rounded bar of soap. Its main drawback is a little bit of pork smell, some of which can even survive the alkalinity of the lye solution.

Some day, I want to try making goat’s milk soap. The goat’s milk is used in place of the water, and it’s supposed to give the soap beneficial qualities.

Another fun recipe to try is gardener’s soap – in which you use brewed coffee in place of the water and add some of the grounds to the recipe as a scrubbing agent.

One thing that all homemade soap has in common is that it’s rich in glycerine, a skin conditioner. Glycerine is a natural byproduct of the soapmaking process – but it’s used in so many other products, from hand lotion to toothpaste, that the big commercial soapmakers chemically extract some of the glycerine from their soap so that they can use it in other products. Homemade soap has all of its glycerine intact.

I hope this batch comes out well. It has continued to thicken after being poured into molds. When I take it out of the molds in a few days I should at least be able to tell if all my measurements and ratios were right. If I had too much lye, the soap will be powdery and crumbly. Too much fat, and it won’t harden up properly and will be soft and squishy. We’ll have to wait and see, and no one in the family will be getting any in their Christmas stocking.