Jamie Iredell


My sister says that what was most important to her about the Sacrament of Communion was that now she would be able to walk to the foot of the altar, like Mom and Dad, and be able to partake of the host, which she desired to taste, and that this would make her feel more grown up. Afterwards, she’d realize the host was a little, light yellow wafer that tasted like cardboard, and that the wine was vinegary and burned in her throat.

The German wine Blue Nun is arguably the first international wine sales phenomenon, due in part to their “whole meal” campaign that ended anxiety over wine pairings. A famous Blue Nun was Sor María Fernández Coronel y Arana de Jésus de Ágreda. After receiving Holy Communion, Reconciliation, Confirmation, Holy Orders, María fell into bouts of quiet religious ecstasy, kneeled in rapturous prayer for days without food or water. The black shoulders of her shawl attracted dust, as she would not stir, save levitating. María de Ágreda flew threw the air, across the Atlantic, and across North America, to Texas and New Mexico, and appeared before the Navajo and Apache. This, Catholics call the miracle of bilocation. And so the nun, like the wine, was an international phenomenon. Now, in America, Americans readily suck down that cheap swill, Blue Nun.

The first European to settle California, Father Junipero Serra, referred to California as the “vineyard of the Lord,” which is ironic now, considering California’s wine industry. But the Blessed Father of course alluded metaphorically to souls. My friend says that he never uses metaphor, and that metaphor is as dumb as rocks. I’ve read almost all of his writing, and there’s hardly a line that’s not metaphoric. So when he says that a character’s head is shook clean of later days, he means it literally, I suppose—that days somehow dirty this person’s head. I don’t know about that. It seems more advantageous to have a vineyard of the Lord metaphorically, than for the Lord to have an actual vineyard. I mean, what’s the Lord going to do with a vineyard?

On Ash Wednesday mom pulled me briefly from school, took me to mass, where Father Scott drew the penitential cross across my forehead. My schoolmates and I darted around the playground and the halls, brisking from class to class with these ashy crosses drawn on our faces. Only that night or the next morning would water rinse away the cross, swirling it in a vortex down the shower drain. With Lent came Friday’s disgusting tuna sandwiches packed into my brown bag lunch, along with an apple, and cookies. We ate fish for lunch and dinner on Fridays; no steaks or hamburgers, spaghetti or porkchops. Salmon, tuna, cod, and—more than anything—fish sticks. Disgusting, breaded, lined on the baking sheet and torched crispy, sometimes black, the-only-way-to-eat-them-with-any-joy-whatsoever-is-with-gallons-of-ketchup, processed Gorton’s Fish Sticks.

Mallorcans cook with a lot of saffron, a spice that would not have been found in North America. In Jalpan de Sierra, San Luis Potosí, Mexico, the staple edible crops are nopales and maguey. Father Serra instructed the Pames on the temporal government, which was the Church. As well, he instructed the Pames on agriculture, teaching them to use a plow and oxen, to sow beans and corn, to sell the surplus of their harvest, and to buy cloth and make clothing. Serra’s biographer, Father Palou, writes that by this teaching Father Serra led the Pames away from their natural inclination towards idleness, and lit the torch of civilization for these heathen. Though in reality the Pames had been part of the complex Aztec Empire for four hundred years prior to Conquistador arrival.

Before I came to Dillard, Georgia, the little mountain town closest to the writing retreat where I penned these paragraphs, I stopped at a grocery store and loaded up with the requisite foodstuffs: steaks and chicken, cereal, milk and coffee, bread and sandwich meat, and vegetables. But I'd also packed with me, perhaps naively, knowing what kind of a drinker I can be, a mere twelve pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.

This is the prayer we chanted, holding hands, every night before dinner: Bless us oh Lord, for these our gifts, which we are about to receive, our bounty through Christ, our Lord, Amen. Then we all said, God bless the cook! When we were with my grandparents, Grandpa said, God bless Chicky, and Holly, and Harvey, and Boots—all the dead dogs.

Blessed Father Fray Junípero Serra’s Alta California vineyard of the Lord. My Grandma and Grandpa owned a vineyard in the Napa Valley. Father Serra likely never saw the Napa Valley, as the Spanish had not explored that far north during his lifetime.

This just came in my email inbox, from my uncle:

A new priest at his first mass was so nervous he could hardly speak. After mass he asked the monsignor how he had done. The monsignor replied, “When I’m worried about getting nervous at mass, I put a glass of vodka next to the water pitcher. If I get nervous, I take a sip.” Next Sunday he took the monsignor’s advice. At the beginning of the homily, he got nervous and took a drink. He proceeded to talk up a 
Upon his return to his office after the mass, he found the following note on the door: 

1. Sip the vodka, don't shoot it.

2. There are 10 Commandments, not 12.

3. There are 12 disciples, not

4. Jesus was consecrated, not constipated. 

5. Jacob wagered his donkey, he did not bet his ass. 

6. We do not refer to Jesus Christ as the late J.C.

7. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not referred to as Daddy, Junior, and The Spooky.

8. David slew Goliath, he did not kick the shit out of him.

9. When David was hit by a rock and was knocked off his donkey, don't say he was stoned off his ass.

10. We do not refer to the cross as the “Big T.” 

11. When Jesus broke the bread at the last supper he said, “take this and eat it for it is my body.” He did not say “Eat me.”

12. The Virgin Mary is not called '”Mary with the Cherry.” 

13. The recommended grace before a meal is not “Rub-A-Dub-Dub thanks for the grub, Yeah God.”

Easter dinner mom roasted a leg of lamb and served it with mint jelly. I still cannot stand mint jelly, but I’ve come around to lamb. Lamb of God. Take away the sins of the Earth. Lamb of God, fatty on my tongue. Lamb of God, dressed with mashed potatoes and steamed broccoli. Then came ordinary time, which is not what I would have called it then, for everything was ordinary as a Catholic boy: “something regular, customary, or usual. Ecclesiastical: an order or form for divine service, especially that for saying Mass; the service of the Mass exclusive of the canon. History/Historical: a member of the clergy appointed to prepare condemned prisoners for death.”

Our Lady of Refuge Catholic Church held an annual fundraiser, The Ham Dinner. They still do. But, I like to think of it as The Big Bear Dinner. And in this fiction, I think that maybe they called it that because of the story of the Valle de Los Osos and the missions, and that would mean someone knew a good deal about early California history. In both the real and fictional versions, the proceeds from your ticket went to the church. All of this is real: Dinner was a slab of ham, along with mostachioli and marinara, salad, and candied yams. No bear was served, either a plate or on one. What’s weirder is that the young lady chosen to be that year’s Artichoke Festival Queen appeared at the dinner, and she donned a crude mask, made to look like Miss Piggy from the Muppets. At The Big Bear Dinner it would be a Fozzy Bear mask. Either way, a raffle was held. The Queen assisted in this task: kissing winners, Fozzy Bear mask, Miss Piggy mask, hip-hugging dress, manicured nails.

In 1771, along the banks of the San Antonio River, Father Serra, along with Fathers Buenaventura Sitjar and Miguel Pieras, consecrated the ground and erected the foundation cross in founding Mission San Antonio de Padua, third of the missions of Nueva California. In celebration, before the High Mass, Father Serra had the main bell strung upon the branch of a live oak and, ringing it, he hollered to the empty flat of the valley studded with yet more live oaks: “Come! Come you pagans and receive the faith of Jesus Christ!” When his fellow friars asked their prelate why he exerted himself so, in a land devoid of other humans, he replied, “Just as Sor María de Jésus de Ágreda, that venerable mother, brought the Holy faith to the gentiles of Nuevo México, here also this bell cries, beckoning to the heathen of this sierra.” After the gospel, when Father Serra turned from the oaken altar to deliver his homily, he spied a solitary Salinan Indian in view of the rite. The Blessed Father exclaimed, “I foresee that this Mission San Antonio will reap a great harvest for the Lord, for the fruits of paganism are already at hand!” And he gave to the native gifts of beads to entice him to return to the mission and to bring his friends.

Speaking of fruit, Father Francisco Palou details the abundant foods available to the Salinan Indians of el Valle de los Robles, where the fathers situated Mission San Antonio de Padua. For the natives’ sustenance the Earth provided rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, deer, geese, ducks, snakes, lizards, clams and mussels, trout, piñon pine, and acorns. Palou described the great oak-filled plains as if they resembled the landscaped parks of Europe, for the grass grew low beneath the trees. The natives systematically burned the grass to facilitate the acorn harvest, but the Europeans did not see this and assessed the tribes as cultureless heathen.

At Lake San Antonio, Dad said that the Indians ate acorns. So, I tried some, after gathering and shelling them. Dad laughed when I grimaced at the bitter taste, and the way the nut dried my mouth. I said, “How could they eat that.” Dad said, “When you’re an Indian you eat what you have to.” Only as an adult, after research, would I learn how Native Americans prepared acorns, so making them palatable—those “cultureless heathen.”

Not long after I wrote this, my dad suffered a stroke, and the food he chewed as he recovered in his hospital bed, shoved to his mouth’s left side—the side his damaged brain neglects—stayed there, his cheeks puffed like a chipmunk’s, until we instructed my dad to tongue it out.

Acorns are high in tannic acid, as are walnuts or pecans, and that’s what leaves the dry film rimming the inside of your mouth. Native Californians learned to leach their acorns of the tannic acid, after having harvested in the fall, when the seeds have ripened and fallen from the trees. Ripe acorns typically fall cap-intact. Capless acorns are usually wormy, the wiggles of a worm wrenching the acorn from its cap prematurely. Ripened acorns are golden and shiny, their shells uncracked and whole. After harvest, the acorns were dried, shelled, and ground. Salinan mizzen sites speckle arroyos in the Santa Lucia foothills. Large flat boulders pocked from these ancient Californians’ labors tell stories from before the coming of the Spanish Empire. The acorns were ground to a grit-like consistency, or a very fine powder for baking into loaves. The acorn meal was then taken to the sand at the nearby arroyo. Natives heaped the sand into mounds and dug out cavities, filling said cavities with acorn meal. The clear cold spring water washed out the tannins into the sand below, a natural sieve. To cook, Salinans used water-tight cooking baskets which they filled with the prepared acorn meal and water. They heated select clean round rocks in a fire to very high temperatures, which they stirred into the water and meal in their cooking baskets, removing cooled rocks and returning them to the fire for heating in rotation. Quickly, the water came to a boil. The natives cooked their meal in a variety of thin, soup-like, or oatmeal-like consistencies. They added salt and elderberries to the mixture for flavor.

Despite the abundance of said nature’s fruits, the Spanish missions of Nuevo California, because of the Europeans’ insistence on “civilized” agriculture, were in the midst of a severe famine within the first year of existence.

In this famine, when mission food stores at San Diego dwindled to their cows’ milk, starving soldiers scoured the hills, their horses gaunt, the hills emaciated.

“In times of hunger, there was almost always enough milk available to the inhabitants of the missions, and the Franciscan friars encouraged, and even forced, their neophyte Indians to drink it. However, while humans are among the only mammals capable of drinking milk into and through adulthood, not all have this ability. Europeans are among the few ethnicities with the correct enzymes to digest milk; the indigenous people of the Americas, for the most part, are unable to digest milk past infancy, which actually contributed to the dysentery and even the death of some converts in the missions.” From Shipek, “The Conflict Between the California Indian and White Civilization,” p. 184.

When Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaíno landed at Monterey Bay, of the men not already dead, forty were too ill to continue, including the pilot, two helmsmen, the cosmographer and the scrivener. The local Rumsen told the Europeans of the acorns that were the staple of their diet. There can be up to sixty milligrams of Vitamin C in one hundred grams of acorn. But the Spanish would not eat this heathenish food that would have saved their lives.

Not long after Father Palou settled himself along the shores of Laguna de los Dolores he received as visitors Ohlone Indians, and the padre presented them with beads to show his good will. The native Californians, in turn gave to the priest “presents of small value, principally shell-fish and grass seeds.” The Franciscan also looked disparagingly at the other native foodstuffs, that he lists exhaustively: their seeds they ground into a flour with which they made a tamal that was evidently very savory, tasting like toasted almond; they ate fish and shellfish from the bay and ocean; they hunted deer, rabbit, geese, ducks, partridge, thrush, quail, beached whale, sea lions, seals and otters; acorns; nuts and blackberries and wild onions. Within a year of its founding, San Francisco’s missionaries, soldiers, colonists, and neophytes found themselves in the worst of famines, for the baptized Indians had forgotten how to survive off the land, and San Francisco’s notoriously harsh weather prevented substantive agriculture from taking root.

Among Junípero Serra’s and the other missionary fathers’ most prized commodities imported from Mexico: chocolate.

Yet another joke from my uncle via email:

An Irishman goes into the confessional box after years of being away from the Church. He is amazed to find a fully equipped bar with Guinness on tap. On the other wall is a dazzling array of the finest cigars and chocolates. Then the priest comes in. Excitedly, the Irishman begins, “Father, forgive me, for it’s been a very long time since I’ve been to confession, but I must first admit that the confessional box is much more inviting than it used to be.” The priest replies, “Get out. You're on my side.”

I have no idea why it’s important to this joke that the man is Irish.

Jamie Iredell is the author of several books. This essay is excerpted from Last Mass, a book-length lyric essay forthcoming in 2015 from Civil Coping Mechanisms.

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