Once upon a time, before food blogs and before the Food Network–but not before Julia Child–there was an Episcopal priest by the name of Robert Farrar Capon [Don’t ask me why he went by three names. Perhaps because he was Episcopalian…] He was a good pastor, fond of eating and drinking with sinners, just like his Master. He also enjoyed cooking as much as eating, and theology as much as writing, a rare combination. Then he put all of these talents to use and wrote The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection. It’s called a reflection and not a cookbook because although he does guide the reader through recipes, the book is not just about cooking, but also about savoring food, and of course, about God.**
The book is framed around a simple premise: one leg of lamb for eight people, four times. You’d think that would take about five pages at most. But Capon is a preacher, a very good one in fact, and he’s engaging, funny, and easy to listen to. However, don’t worry. The book is not written from the pulpit, but in front of the stove where he ruminates as he works. The result might be what you would get if Babette, the wonderful cook in Babette’s Feast,** decided to write down how she cooked her amazing meal. I doubt she would give any recipe that could be reduced to a 3 x 5 index card. It might even have 45 steps.** In the eponymous** movie version**, Babette doesn’t come across as talkative, but I think in her more exuberant moments she would end up writing something like The Supper of the Lamb.
Capon’s** instruction to slice an onion leads to a ten page meditation. There are discourses on knives and cutting and water and meat. He is an amateur in the true sense of the word: someone who cooks out of love not duty.** He is filled with a holy joie de vivre that echoes God looking at the His creation and saying it was good.
“Every real thing is a joy, if only you have eyes and ears to relish it, a nose and a tongue to taste it. But more than that, food and cooking are among the richest subjects in the world. Every day of our lives they preoccupy, delight and refresh us. Food is not just some fuel we need to get us going toward higher things. Cooking is not a drudgery we put up with in order to get the gruel delivered. Rather, each is a heart’s astonishment. Both stop us dead in our tracks with wonder.
Rereading this book [I first read it over a decade ago in the middle of my once-a-month cooking phase], I see the errors of my ways, given what I wrote about making Boeuf Bourguignon. To complain of labor, in Capon’s view, is to complain of love, for what we love we are willing to work for. If I have a problem then, the fault is not in Julia Child or French cooking, but my acceptance of the gospel of speed and efficiency.
In this corrupt world of high-fructose corn syrup, mass slaughterhouses, and food products created only to tempt and never to satisfy, cooking real food and eating it with friends is a very holy act. That’s why holidays like Thanksgiving are good for us. It’s a day that slows us down and gives us a chance to savor the bounty of God’s culinary creativity with the dear family and friends He has graced us with.
Happy Thanksgiving. May you enjoy your banquet feast and remember the Giver of all good gifts.
**Links and notes
**Capon on why he wrote the book:
“The world may or may not need another cookbook, but it needs all the lovers—amateurs—it can get. It is a gorgeous old place, full of clownish graces and beautiful drolleries, and it has enough textures, tastes, and smells to keep us intrigued for more time than we have. Unfortunately, however, our response to its loveliness is not always delight: it is, far more often than it should be, boredom. And that is not only odd, it is tragic; for boredom is not neutral—it is the fertilizing principle of unloveliness.”
**I will give a special prize for the person who knows how many times I’ve been able to use my new favorite word, eponymous, this year.
**The movie version of Babette’s Feast has the distinction of being the first [but not the last] Danish language film to receive the Academy Award for best foreign film.
**I wonder if Capon developed a love of cooking because his last name is a kind of prized cooking bird [actually a castrated rooster].
**Capon on being an amateur:
“The role of the amateur: to look the world back to grace… Instead, the world looks as if it has been left in the custody of a pack of trolls. Indeed, the whole distinction between art and trash, between food and garbage, depends on the presence or absence of the loving eye. Turn a statue over to a boor and his boredom will break it to bits…on the other hand turn a shack over to a lover; for all its poverty, its lights and shadows warm a little….”