A Little Mythology Can Help

I have a friend who just completed the Hajj.  This is the pilgrimage to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, that all Muslims must try to make at least once, to fulfill the fifth pillar of Islam.  She had a small group to her house on Friday evening where she served us possibly the most delicious Tunisian food I have eaten and told us the story of her trip.  My mental image, previously, was simplistic, picturing Muslims, in their white clothing, merely walking a few times around the Ka’aba, the black marble shrine reputedly built by Abraham.

In reality, the Hajj is a sequence of activities that takes about a week to complete, and some may stay there as long as a month.  This link gives a concise explanation of the daily activities with a few good photos.  What struck me was the storyline these actions are linked to.  Coming from a Judeo-Christian worldview, I’m still taken by surprise every time I am reminded that the story I know to be of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son Isaac, the only son of Sarah, is not the narrative understood in the Muslim world.  In their view, the footnote of my story, Sarah’s maid Hagar (also Hajar) and her son Ishmael, who Abraham banished to the desert to quell Sarah’s jealously over being barren, becomes the real story.  The primary symbolism of the Hajj is about Abraham resisting Satan’s temptation to not obediently sacrifice his oldest son, Ishmael.  It is also about Hagar’s survival in the desert, how she searched desperately for water before discovering a spring that saved them.

My friend completely believes these stories of her faith, and so she was able to submit herself, with abandon,  to the spiritual lessons and personal transformation that were possible.  She returned radiant, open-hearted, and dare I say, pure.  It was remarkable to be with her as she recounted her experience.  The change in her is indisputable.

I thought the next day about the similarity of the Hajj to other pilgrimages such as The Stations of the Cross or even the Hindu pilgrimage we used to observe in Singapore called Thaipusam, involving piercing the body with many sharp skewers and then performing a walk in a pain-trance to atone for sin or show gratitude for good favor from the gods.  None of these displays, however, would be more than self-inflicted agony without an underlying story to give it significance.  It seems we often need a small storyline in our daily lives to help us get through challenging circumstances.  When life gets a bit too dire to fully confront, placing some faith in a convenient myth can help to take a little of  the edge off.  I recalled some of the “God’s will” language from my cultural background.  It does help at times to allow yourself to believe a situation is out of your control and that there is a wise, loving entity that will make it come out alright.  And in fact that may be entirely true.  It’s just that we don’t know, exactly, and so there must be some of our own imagination involved, which is what creates mythology.

I am facing my own difficult reality these next weeks.  I am leaving Tunis for Seattle tomorrow to have a hysterectomy.  If you are one of the dozens of women who have said to me, “It’s a piece of cake;  you’ll be a new person, ”  thank you.  Those affirmations really have given me resolve and courage.  I believe, without a doubt, that this is what I must do right now.  It’s just that the ugly reality of the actual surgery remains.  I try not to fool myself about realities in life, anymore.  I am trying to open my eyes and look at the truth as much as I can, as I’ve found that sheltering myself in my naive state can bring me more pain in the long run when my blinders must be removed.  I am fortunate enough to have this procedure at a time in medical development when invasive surgery isn’t necessary, and I can choose to have tiny robotic hands carry out the precise work.  Allan and I both tried to look at a YouTube video of a daVinci hysterectomy this week (notice:  no link, though I just gave you the search string if you think you can watch).  He was able to watch it through to the end because he wanted to really know what was going to happen.  I watched for about a minute, and when I felt myself becoming nauseous, I turned it off.  I found that I, too, needed some mythology to move me through this, because the truth was more than I could confront.  My preferred narrative is that I will take a warm, comfortable nap, and while I am sleeping, skilled doctors will release tiny fairies into my body.  These careful and sympathetic fairies will dislodge my ailing uterus, probably with a gentle rocking motion,  and will deliver it back to the point of insertion where the doctors can take it away.  I’m even surprised about the fairy thing.  I’m not generally into the fantasy world; I find it rather boring, but this image is working for me and fairies it will be.  If you are the praying/thinking type and would like to send your well wishes to my uterus fairies, it looks like I will be the first surgery of the day on Monday, November 25th, Seattle time.

The best preparation for me today, for this sojourn that begins tomorrow, is visiting the stations of my kitchen.  That is my meditation and where I become grounded.  This is what I’m making for a comfort-food dinner with my husband tonight.  I hope we have some left over to keep him feeling loved, in my absence.

I know this is totally cheating, but I think I will borrow this beautiful photo, just this once, to save me the effort of setting up my own studio later to photograph my dish. Credit goes to David Prince.

Coq Au Vin

Serves 6

  • 2  750-ml bottles dry, full-bodied red wine
  • 2  3 1/2-lb chickens, cut into 4 breasts, 4 thighs, and 4 legs
  • 4 celery stalks, peeled and cut into 2″ batons
  • 2 heads garlic, sliced in half
  • 2 lbs. button mushrooms, cleaned and trimmed
  • 1 lb. pearl onions, peeled
  • 1/2 lb. slab bacon, cut into 1/4″ batons
  • 1 sachet of 8 sprigs thyme, 1 fresh bay leaf, 2 tsp. coriander seed, ans 1 tsp. cracked pepper, tied in cheesecloth with twine.
  • 4 T flour
  • 4 cups unsalted chicken stock
  • 1/2 bunch fresh parsley, leaves picked
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

In a large saucepan, reduce the wine by half, then set aside to cool.  Place the chicken in a large container with the celery, garlic, mushrooms, onions, bacon, and sachet.  Cover all ingredients with reduced wine and marinate in the refrigerator overnight.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.  Drain the marinated ingredients; reserve the wine.  Pat the ingredients dry, and season the chicken with salt and pepper.  Place a large Dutch oven over medium heat and add the bacon.  Cook, stirring until crisp, and then remove with a slotted spoon and reserve.  Sear the chicken on all sides in the bacon fat (you may need to do this in batches).  Remove the chicken ;  add the vegetables and sachet, and cook, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes.  Add the flour and cook, stirring, for another 4 minutes.

Add the wine, crisped bacon, chicken, and chicken stock.  Bring to a simmer, cover with a round of parchment, and transfer to the oven.  Cook, stirring and basting the chicken at least three times, until the chicken is tender at the bone, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

If the sauce seems too thin, remove the chicken and vegetables, return the sauce to the heat, and reduce until it reaches the desired consistency (it should coat the back of a spoon).  Incorporate all the ingredients back together, season to taste, and serve, garnished with the parsley.


  • 3/4 cup whole milk
  • 3 eggs plus 1 yolk
  • 1/2 cup creme fraiche (or sour cream)
  • 2 1/4 cups flour
  • 1/2 tsp. salt, plus more to taste
  • 1/8 tsp. ground pepper, plus more to taste
  • 1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg
  • 2 tsp. olive oil
  • 2 T butter
  • 3 T chopped parsley

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  In a small bowl, whisk the milk, eggs, yolk, and creme fraiche until smooth.  In a large bowl, whisk to combine the flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/8 tsp.  pepper, and nutmeg, and make a well in the center.  Pour the egg mixture into the well, and, using a spoon, stir from the middle outward, slowly pulling the dry ingredients into the wet.  Once fully incorporated, stir for a few seconds more until the batter looks sticky.  The batter should be fairly wet, but with a consistency thick enough to sit on top of a spaetzle maker, food mill, or colander.  Press the batter through the spaetzle maker or colander into the boiling water.  Once all the spaetzle rise to the surface, strain them, rinse in cold water, and toss in the olive oil to prevent sticking.

Brown half of the butter in a large nonstick saute pan.  Add half of the spaetzle, toss until lightly browned, and then toss in half of the parsley.  Transfer the browned spaetzle to a bowl, and repeat the process with the remaining ingredients.  If needed, season to taste with more salt and pepper.

Recipe by Daniel Boulud, printed in Elle Decor, November 2013

3 thoughts on “A Little Mythology Can Help

  1. My thoughts are with you as you head to Seattle and as you have your surgery. I had the same surgery many years ago, in Bogota. The surgery fairies will be with you – thankfully you will be asleep. They will be with you every day as you recover. Another name for those fairies is angels.

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