"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
mattress,/
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).


Friday, March 8, 2013

"Fearful of My Joy"

By dint of familial circumstance, I needed to begin to cook when I was 12, at first very ploddingly and dutifully obedient to every dictate of simple recipes. Later and more recently cooking has become far more adventuresome and a great joy. I involve my children when possible: they love to help with the chopping and stirring and smashing and peeling, and I like to think I am imparting some skills to them that will be of use later in life, especially in what Eric Schlosser has written about so alarmingly and depressingly: our Fast Food Nation.

Cooking (which, bizarrely, people watch constantly on TV but rarely do themselves) is of course far more than a utilitarian necessity. It is a deeply, uniquely human activity the absence of which increasingly today can only be greeted with alarm--not only because of what its lack does to us psychologically as families and communities, but also physiologically: some studies have recently shown that the failure to cook regularly not only has deleterious effects on the family as such, but also on our physical health through the rise of diabetes and obesity even in very young children. The failure to eat together as humans is equally destructive in related and different ways.  

But I am not here, schoolmarm-like, to hector you about nutrition. Such busybodies are the most tiresome people around. As an unabashed fan of Evelyn Waugh, I firmly believe with him that "food can and should be about enjoyment. As for 'nutrition'--that is all balls." And I would note that when Jennifer Patterson, one of the two gloriously grand, uproariously funny and hugely incorrect "Two Fat Ladies" died of lung cancer in the summer of 1999--while still smoking in the hospital and eating caviar and drinking champagne apparently--I used some of their recipes to make a special dinner for some of my friends in honour of Patterson--a devout Catholic and parishoner at the glorious London Oratory of which I have such fond memories from a 1997 visit. (During that dinner, and too many others, I have often bored myself by quoting Chesterton too frequently: "Catholicism is a thick steak, a frosted stout, and a good cigar!")

Some days I am tempted to write a book "Towards an Eastern Christian Theology of Feasting and Fasting" but you will be spared the dyspepsia that would come from reading such a turgid volume because I think it has largely been done better by others, including Robert Farrar Capon (an Episcopalian theologian actually) in his Food for Thought: Resurrecting the Art of Eating and his The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection.

Among Eastern Christians, the best person to write on the connections of food-feasting-sacraments is of course Alexander Schmemann in his For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy, which I have been reading this semester with my students. Schmemann beings by observing that

"man must eat in order to live; he must take the world into his body and transform it into himself, into flesh and blood. He is indeed that which he eats, and the whole world is presented as one all-embracing banquet table…. And this image of the banquet remains, throughout the whole Bible, the central image of life" (11).

I recently tried to illustrate the centrality of the banquet by watching with my students a charming movie from 1987,  Babette's Feast. If you've not seen it, go and watch it. It's a marvelous illustration of the importance not only of feasting, but of the very sacramental nature of human life even in ways not often thought of in those terms--opera, dancing, music, and of course the preparing and enjoying of both food and wine. It also wonderfully illustrates the joy of cooking good food and, in doing so, the joy of giving joy to others--the joy of gracious hospitality graciously conveyed and received. (Mary may think she had the "better part" but there's a lot of delight for the Marthas of this world being in the kitchen.) 

The movie raised some difficult questions for my students--and I daresay for most of us today in our absurdly over-busy age--not least because of its languorous pace: each course (of seven) is focused on as each diner enjoys every bite slowly and deliberately. How rarely, they admitted, do they feast like that--even on a much less grand scale--at such a pace, and without doing so while texting, watching TV, or playing on the computer. What are we losing by not doing this regularly? Why do we deprive ourselves of one of the most basic and joyful of human encounters qua human? (One answer to that was provided many decades ago now, but all the more important today: Joseph Pieper's splendid work Leisure: The Basis of Culture.) Good food, wine, and conversation: what more could one ask for? Why would one absent oneself from that or pick oneself up from the table only to hurry back to what--the Internet or some ghastly bit of ironically so-called "reality" TV?  

At one point in the movie, one of the sisters, Philippa, is very nearly rescued from her very dour Danish preacher-father and very bleak upbringing by a Parisian ("papist"!) opera singer, who convinces her father to let her take singing lessons with a view to going off to Paris to make it big. But the passion the music--Mozart's Don Giovanni--arouses frightens her and she discontinues the lessons, leaving M. Papin to return to Paris alone and heartbroken. The words Philippa sings are deeply revealing: "I'm fearful of my joy." That, it seems to me, is the most succinct summary possible of a life that refuses to be sacramental. How sad. Instead of fear, these brief experiences of joy in feasting should make us long all the more for the heavenly banquet, where the food and feasting truly will be unforgettable--and where, with Jennifer Patterson devoutly interceding for us, there will never be too much double-cream:

1 comment:

  1. From an entirely different religious tradition,
    you might enjoy How to Cook Your Life;From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment by Uchiyama Roshi. It's a commentary on Dogen, ( founder of Soto Zen) and his Instructions to the Monastery Cook.

    http://www.amazon.com/How-Cook-Your-Life-Enlightenment/dp/1590302915

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