“Were you born in a barn?” The questions hasn’t been directed at me for decades, but it used to be occasionally when I left a door open or abandoned my manure-covered boots where visitors might trip over them.
Though “Were you born in a barn?” is intended as a chide or even an insult, I never took it that way. Having been practically raised in a barn, I thought it would be rather pleasant to be born in one. In the dead of a dark South Dakota winter, Holstein heat made our barn so warm that we had to remove our coats while milking.
My first farm job was to stretch my 4-year-old arms over the manger, what I considered a cozy place, using a toy shovel to remove any grain or sileage that the cows had slobbered into their automatic drinking cups. And I thought the hayloft would have been a comfortable place to bunk down – indeed, in generations past, didn’t the hired hand sleep there?
Come to think of it, the reason we celebrate Christmas is because somebody was born in a barn. Somebody who changed the world.
Farmers and ranchers, I think, are among the most well-equipped people to relate to the tableau of the first Christmas. While we’re glad we didn’t have to deliver our own offspring in a barn, we can indeed visualize a little family of three sharing a space with warm, musky animals. If you’ve grown up in the middle of Los Angeles or New York City and never nuzzled a calf’s soft neck, never grasped the curly lanolin of a sheep’s back, never felt a pony’s moist breath on your face, it would be harder to imagine a Bethlehem stable.
Christmas Eve always felt a bit special in the barn. On the one hand, we wanted to hurry with the milking, so we get to Grandma’s to say grace over oyster stew and unwrap presents. On the other hand, there was something that made us linger with the animals each Dec. 24. Maybe we were remembering that their forebears were the first to see baby Jesus, even before the shepherds got there.
It’s also easier for us than for urbanites, I think, to understand the stories and parables woven through the Gospels. A farmer who scatters seeds on rocky soil? Anybody who has spent early June picking rocks pushed up by a deep January frost knows what that looks like. Harvesting a crop infested by weeds? Yeah, we’re still tweaking the best way to conquer those buggers. “All we like sheep have gone astray?” I got to help deworm ewes at the neighbors this fall. It was fun because I’ve never spent much time in an ovine operation. But I can agree that “astray” and “sheep” fit well in the same sentence.
This is a dark, cold time of year on the prairie. It’s been an especially rough year. But just as the stars shine the brightest on a clear December night, the light that shone over Bethlehem promises to be with us tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, whether they’re good days or bad.
If you have the good fortune to work with descendants of the first witnesses to a 20-century-old miracle, give them an extra pat, maybe a little extra in their ration tonight. And take it as a compliment if someone accuses you of being born in a barn.
Don’t forget your vegetables
There’s something about roasting vegetables that really brings out the flavor. Though I prefer the texture of fresh produce for this recipe, I’ve been known to open a package of frozen vegetables when in a hurry – the cutting is already done, and cooking/roasting time can be reduced as well. Sometime in the future I’m going to experiment with adding onions, or using turnips, potatoes or butternut squash.
Curry-style Roasted Carrots
About 1 ¼ pounds carrots, washed and peeled, and cut evenly into bite-size pieces
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 ½ teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon chili powder
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
5 tablespoons canola oil
Line a baking tray with foil and bring a saucepan of water to a boil. Preheat oven to 350°.
Drop the carrots into the boiling water and blanch for four minutes. Drain well. As the steam evaporates, the carrots should dry off. Once dry, place them in a single layer on the baking tray.
Mix cumin, salt, chili powder and turmeric in a small bowl. Stir in the oil, then drizzle over carrots; toss until coated. Put the tray in the oven for about 30 minutes, shaking it every 10 minutes or so to ensure the carrots roast and brown evenly.
If they start to burn, loosely cover them with foil. Put the roasted carrots in a dish or bowl and serve immediately.
You can substitute fresh broccoli or cauliflower, broken evenly into florets, for the carrots.
If you use a package of frozen vegetable, blanch for only one minute and drain well. If they are waterlogged, they will not brown nicely in the oven.