God is a Trout Fisherman

(Author’s note: I could say that the lack of posting is because I have been absolutely swamped with work, or that I have been working long days and nights perfecting this post. However, neither of those two would be true. Rather, I’ve been bad about making time to write, and so my apologies for that. And special apologies to those of you who have been waiting for the next two entries in the Socrates and Lutheran theology series. Hopefully those will be coming soon.)

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Recently, I spent a couple of days on the North Shore of Lake Superior, north of Two Harbors, Minnesota. During my trip, I received hundreds of bug bites, a rodent chewed into my food, my sleeping pad sprang a leak, and the nights were so cold that I couldn’t sleep. In the midst of my misery, after hours of trying to force my way alongside rivers overgrown with weeds and infested with mosquitoes, I caught a trout. In fact, it was the trout featured in the picture at the top of this post. My trout wasn’t puny at all, but it definitely didn’t qualify for lunker status. After admiring it for a short period of time, I slipped it back into the water, and proceeded to catch zero more. And yet, despite my lack of success and despite the trials I endured, that one trout made the whole trip worth it.

You see, I’m crazy about trout. And as anyone who’s crazy about trout knows, there’s nothing like the feeling of catching a trout. The feeling of holding a trout in my hands makes up for any bug bites, lack of sleep, or rodent espionage that I may have to endure to experience it. But, and I’ll be the first to admit it, it’s not a universal human experience. There’s no rational reason that catching trout brings me such great pleasure. And there’s absolutely no obligation on my part to go out and catch trout. In fact, the vast majority of people don’t go out and catch trout because in their arithmetic, one 11 inch trout does not make up for two days of misery.

So, what exactly does trout fishing have to do with God? Trout fishing, dear reader, is an opportunity to re-frame the way that we think about God, because we’ve been taught so often to think of everything God does as necessary and rational. The whole reason that theodicy is so popular is because it allows people to put God under the microscope of “what makes sense.” But what if it doesn’t make sense? To take creation as an example, what if God didn’t create the world because it was “necessary” or “inherent to God’s nature?” What if God created the world simply because it brought Him extraordinary pleasure to do so?

Or, let’s push the metaphor a little bit further: What if God is a trout fisherman and you’re the trout? You’re hiding deep down in the waters of death, scared that everything around you is going to devour you. God could be a stamp collector, and, then, you’d be out of luck. Instead, because God’s a trout fisherman, He endures a cross and death just to chase after you, you sinful trout. And he does it for no reason, other than that He really likes trout. And the immense pleasure of holding one sinful, redeemed person in His arms makes up for it all, because Jesus means it when he says that He rejoices more in one redeemed sinner than a hundred righteous people.

It’s a clunky metaphor at points, I get that. But, it’s also an opportunity to play around and to try and escape the trap of thinking of God as some sort of divine bean counter, who meticulously calculates the necessity of His actions, moves accordingly, and then, once He’s done, expects you to do the same. Maybe God chases sinners, simply because, against all reason, He likes them.

 

 

The Funniest Fly Fisherman You’ve Never Heard Of

Because I’m not much of an ice fisherman, the season winds down for me in November and starts back up in May. While I’ll get out during warm spells in January or February, I spend most of the intervening six months prepping: fly-tying, cleaning equipment, and reading. One of the beauties of fly-fishing is that it’s inspired a lot of people (myself included) to put pen to paper. And so, in the dead of winter, there’s always something to read. Sometimes, I’ll read strategy, like Ray Bergman’s Trout, or science like Bob Behnke’s work. But none of them bring me the same enjoyment as reading Ed Zern.

Today, December 13th, is Ed Zern’s birthday. Zern wrote during the heyday of Madison Avenue advertising, and in addition to being vice-president of an ad agency, he wrote for Field and Stream, edited their fishing content and was president of various fly-fishing organizations. He was a successful guy, and most of that was because he was plain funny. His writing is satire at its best, concise and cutting right to the inner contradictions of fly-fishing as a past-time and an obsession. Sadly, time has not been kind to his memory; his books are all out of print and he doesn’t even rate a Wikipedia article. But, if you or a fly-fisher you know is in need of a good laugh this winter, hop on Amazon or head down to a used bookstore and search for Zern, Ed. You won’t be disappointed.

 

 

Keep ‘Em Wet, Catch and Release, and Pickled Pike?

If you look through my Instagram feed (@rev.doc.trout), you’ll see a lot of fish. And in those pictures of fish, I’ve tried, mostly to follow the “keep ’em wet” philosophy, which means I try to keep the fish in the water during hook removal, picture taking, etc. I tend not to catch gigantic fish, and so I try to send them back to grow larger, to take part in the food-chain, to provide enjoyment for other anglers, etc.

In practicing catch and release, I hope to send the fish back in good condition, and the principle of keeping the fish wet through the whole process, picture included, makes sense to me. On top of that, I find that I often take more aesthetically interesting photos than the traditional grip-and-grin.  That said, I think there are also times when a picture that includes both fish and angler is called for. Someone’s first trout on a fly rod, for instance. It’s a great memory, and as Phil Monahan details in an informative article on the Orvis Fly-fishing blog, the fish will usually be none the worse for the wear.

But, you’ll also notice pictures where I don’t keep ’em wet, where you’ll see the fish on the bank, or even on a creel. The simple fact of the matter is that I like to eat fish. I take a few home every now and then, and enjoy it with a clean conscience. As people we’re part of the food chain, and though fly-fishing may be an unorthodox and inefficient way to catch dinner, I think it’s important to remind ourselves that fish sticks don’t naturally occur in the wild.

The question of catch and release has both a scientific and an ethical component to it. Scientifically, the question is: Can the fish population survive if I, and all the other fly-fishers, take home fish to eat? To answer that, I rely on the hard work of the state fish and game biologists who set the legal limits. I don’t treat eating the fish I catch as a right that I demand; rather, it’s an opportunity I take when the fishery can sustain it. Ethically, we can ask: Is catch and release more respectful to the fish and the environment than eating the fish? I think,  viability of the fishery aside, neither eating nor releasing the fish has any moral high-ground. Both are intrusions into the fish’s environment, and in terms of “naturalness,” eating the fish is probably more in keeping with the ways of nature. To put it more bluntly, I maintain that if fish are so wild and free and beautiful that they shouldn’t be eaten, we also shouldn’t be driving steel hooks into their jaws and hauling them around on our lines.


For those of you interested in what you do once you decide to bring a fish home, here’s an old-fashioned recipe:

 

Pickled Pike with Onions and Apples

(Note: This recipe takes 4 days to make, but most of that is just waiting for the brine to do its work. The first 48 hours, all that you need is the pike, salt, and water.)

Ingredients

  • 1 Northern Pike, preferably around 18 inches (If your pike are closer to 10 inches, use 2 of them)
  • 2 apples (preferably a firm variety like Haralson, Jazz, or Fuji), cubed
  • 1/2 white onion, sliced
  • 1 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds
  • 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
  • 1 1/4 cup of white vinegar
  • 1/2 cup of white sugar
  • salt

In a small pot, combine 1/4 cup of salt and 1 cup water. Bring to a boil, stirring until the salt dissolves. Add 2 1/2 cups of cold water, then place the brine in the refrigerator until it is completely chilled. Meanwhile, fillet the pike as though it were any other fish. With the acidity of the pickling liquid, there’s no need to worry about the Y-bones. Cut the fish into bite size chunks and then add these to the chilled brine. Let the fish sit in the fridge for 48 hours.

After two days, remove the fish and discard the brine. Don’t rinse the fish. In a saucepan, combine the vinegar, the mustard seeds, the peppercorns, and the sugar. Simmer and stir until the sugar is dissolved. When the sugar has dissolved, place the liquid in the freezer until cold. Fill a 1 quart ball jar with alternating layers of onions, fish, and apples. Once the pickling liquid has chilled, pour it into the jar, and let sit for 48 hours. Serve the pickled pike with crackers as part of a spread, or bake it into a hot dish, like Jansson’s Temptation (recipe to come).

A Fishy Halloween

Something happens in the fall, when the first bite of winter air enters the atmosphere. The change in colors and the shortening of days trips a switch and nature’s fangs comes out. Underwater, the rush to pack on calories before the world freezes over has begun.

As a fly fisherman in Minnesota, the beginning of fall also brings the end of stream trout season. Appropriately, just as Halloween is around the corner, my focus shifts to toothier quarry. My 3x tippets get swapped for steel leaders and bushy streamers take the place of minute dry flies. Instead of watching patiently for a fish to sip the fly underwater, I brace for 20 inches of pure muscle to try and mutilate whatever I’ve offered. It’s a different kind of thrill, and a bit of an acquired taste, like boxing or watching defensive lineman work. Northerns seems more intent on killing the fly than eating it; even once they’ve been landed, they’re more than happy to take a piece out of my hand in revenge. The first time I looked inside a northern’s mouth, and saw the rows and rows of teeth covering the upper jaw, I had a glimpse of how terrifying it must be to be a minnow. A house of horrors indeed.

In the fall, I begin to understand again, why some fishermen devote all of their time to chasing giant predators. It’s a giant game of trick-or-treat, although the fish always gets the trick, and we always get the treat. And just like trick-or-treating, the big fish of the genus Esox provide enough of a scare to make the leg work worth it.

 

Fall (and Fancy Pork Chops)

I am a fall convert. Growing up in southern California, where we didn’t really have seasons in the proper sense, summer was always the main attraction, the season for camping in the mountains and fishing a the cabin. But, since moving north to Minnesota, fall has captured my attention. I have come to enjoy wearing sweaters and stomping around in boots and feeling the crispness in the morning air.

The coming of winter lends an urgency to everything in fall. The fish and the fishermen become a little more urgent, both knowing that the season is coming to an end.  There is the urge to sneak out for just a few more minutes every afternoon, to get as many casts in as possible before the long winter of fly-tying and reminiscing.

And even the garden takes on a hurriedness. The shortening days and the uncertainty of the first frost date adds an extra stress to the effort to get the garlic in the ground and to protect the plants for the winter.

I have come to love fall because it is a fleeting season. In summer or winter, I can always convince myself that it’s too cold or too muggy to go outside, but fall in Minnesota inspires me to get busy and to get outside. In fall, I can always find an excuse to go fishing, to go for a hike, or just to go outside and soak up the last warm rays for a few months.


Flambéed Pork Chops with Apple, Squash, and Onion Compote

In the fall, I like my food to be a nice transition point between the freshness of summer grilling and the heavy stews and roasts to come. This recipe is adapted from Andreas Vierstad’s fantastic cookbook Kitchen of Light. It’s a simple dish, but the flambéing adds a dramatic touch that makes it suitable for entertaining.

Ingredients

  • 2 frenched pork chops, about 1″ thick
  • 1/2 of a butternut squash, peeled and chopped into 1″ cubes
  • 2 apples, cored and chopped
  • 1 red onion, chopped
  • 2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1/3 cup of dill-flavored aquavit, such as Gamle Ode
  • sea salt
  • black pepper
  • olive oil
  • butter
  • 1 match or lighter

About an hour before you’re ready to eat, preheat the oven 375 degrees. Put the butternut squash in a ziploc bag, then pour in about a tablespoon olive oil. Season with salt and pepper, then toss to coat. Place the squash on a baking sheet, then bake for 45 minutes.

Once you have the squash in the oven, remove the pork chops from the refrigerator. Pat them dry, then rub each chop with 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon pepper, and 1 teaspoon thyme. Set aside and allow the chops to come to room temperature.

When the squash is finished baking, begin making the compote. In a large pan with high sides, heat 2 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. Add the onions, and cook, stirring often, until they have begun to brown and caramelize, about 10 minutes. Add the apples, and cook until they have softened, about five more minutes. Mix the squash into the onion and apple mixture. Season with salt and pepper to taste, then turn off the heat and cover.

Heat a cast iron skillet over high heat. When the skillet is hot enough that a splash of water sizzles, add a tablespoon of butter. Add the pork chops. Cook on high heat until the chops are seared on both sides, about two minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low, then cook for an additional two minutes on either side.

Once you place the chops in the pan, measure out the 1/3 cup of aquavit and have the match or lighter close at hand. When the chops are done, pour the aquavit into the pan, then light it with the match (the flame will really shoot up, so be careful not to drop the match into the pan). Let the flame subside, then transfer the chops to a plate and let them rest for five minutes.

While the chops rest, add a pat of butter to the pan and deglaze, scraping the bottom with a wooden spoon. Cook another minute, then pour over the chops.

Serve the chops with the compote, rice or potatoes,
and a green salad on the side.

Flambe!

Trout and Cast Iron?

The delightfully witty episcopal priest, Robert Farrar Capon, once praised the wedding service in The Book of Common Prayer for being full of “death and cast iron.” I love the poetry of that description, and I hope, when people look back on my life and work, they can say (with slight modification), “Now, Kristofer Coffman, there’s a man whose life was full of trout and cast iron.” For me, to be full of trout and cast iron means to be full of the edges in this world where the beauty of God’s creation meets the stark fight for survival. It means to be full of things that take grease and care and last a lifetime. It’s not a way to save yourself or to improve your credit score, but it is a life of learning new things and taking old things seriously.

This blog is  about church history,  Bible translation, preaching, and all the other assorted things that make up my life as an almost pastor and a would be academic. To be honest, there will be nothing really new here; but, there will be a lot of old things that I think have been overlooked for too long, to the detriment of American Lutheranism. And because words are my chosen medium, this blog is also an exercise in learning to write. In A Movable Feast, Ernest Hemingway said that when he sat down to write, he started by trying “to write one true sentence.” This blog is my own personal effort to write one true sentence. Thanks for coming along. In the words of the inimitable, Rob Gronkowski, “Stay hyped.”

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