COOKERY, CUISINE, AND THE SOUL by Charles A. Coulombe

 

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…I thought, if there be paradise in meat and in drink, so much the more is there paradise in the scent of the green leaves at evening and in the appearance of the sea and in the redness of the sky; and there came to me a certain vision of a real world about us all the while, of a language that was only secret because we would not take the trouble to listen to it and discern it.

Arthur Machen, The Great Return

We live in a culture and an era that – for all it obsesses over sexual issues – hates the body. Indeed, the very nature of those obsession, as reflected in a desire to “liberate” the individual from whatever gender he or she was in, coupled with much older effort to divorce sex entirely from procreation, shows the dualist atmosphere of our time. But our modern Manichaeans are far worse than the old, given that they despise or disbelieve in the soul as well.  Given that the life of the mind is not prized either, all we are left with as human beings  in the modern model is our Will – which dies with our bodies in contemporary myth, and in any case must be carefully guided by our masters in the media. The hatred of humanity as it is that all of this entail is second only to the loathing of the haters thereof for Him Who created it.  Nowhere does this hatred make itself clearer than in our society’s attitudes toward food and drink.

Now don’t get me wrong. In certain circles (of whom more later), interest in and appreciation for these staffs of life has never been greater – and many of those the most active in such interest and appreciation are enthusiastic adherents of  all or part of the ideology described. But good or bad, they are a small part of the entire picture, and for the most part cater to our elites. Of course, there are also the relative recent phenomenon of celebrity chefs – but those are perhaps more appreciated for that very celebrity than for their delicious wares. As for the hoi polloi (or at least the Middle Classes), the suspicion of culinary pleasure that plagued the Puritans who created our national imagination in great part has been reinforced with a myriad of health considerations ranging from obesity, cancer, and the rest.  The government, media, and every possible outlet for public opinion creation and manipulation work steadily on this unappetizing project, wherein good old American Kill-joyism meets the modern idea f virtue-through-health.


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We do have to be honest though, and admit that despite themselves, the Puritans and their descendants did produce a great number of lip-smacking comestibles, from Yankee Pot Roast to Indian Pudding. But all the New England boiled dinners in the world cannot conceal the fact that it is a simple cuisine, and purposely avoided spices and complexity. As they outlawed Christmas, so they banned mince pie. English cuisine, which like most Medieval cuisines mixed savoury and sweet in ways we would find challenging to-day (and a relic of which survives in true mince pie with its combined suet and fruit) soon became bland after the Reformation and the Civil Wars; New English became blander still.

In Christian countries, those that more or less retained the Old Faith – France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Bavaria, Poland, Austria, Hungary, and so on – almost inevitably produced more pleasurable dishes than those that did not. As a relatively late example, the two differing views of food – a sacred thing to be enjoyed and governed by the feasts and fasts of the Church year versus a mere means to an end – is epitomised by Babette’s Feast, (an Isak Dinesen short story and Gabriel Axel film) in which a Frenchwoman exiled to Denmark works as a cook using the dreary Danish cuisine. After many years she comes into a large amount of money, all of which she spends on the imported ingredients for a French feast in honour of the whole village that had taken in her in. – to their great bewilderment.  When the French, the Spanish, and the Portuguese left old Europe behind to colonise the World, they took their culinary principles and methods (and some ingredients) and created hybrid cookery in their new lands. To this movement we owe in the Americas the birth of the Creole, Cajun, Caribbean, Mexican, and other Latin American cuisines; even in Canada, although hampered by the same climate as far as ingredients go, the French Canadian kitchen still outshines that of the Anglo. Much the same happened in the East, as the birth of Filipino, Goan, Mangalorean, Manado, East Timorese, Macanese, Sri Lankan Burgher,  and Singapore and Malay Eurasian cuisines, to name a few.

At any rate, in Catholic cultures, food is – quite literally, sacred. Part of this is precisely because of the alternation between fast and feast; as Brillat-Savarin relates, “A close observation shows that the elements of our enjoyment are, difficult privation, desire, and gratification. All of these are found in the breaking of abstinence. I have seen two of my grand uncles, very excellent men, too, almost faint with pleasure, when, on the day after Easter, they saw a ham, or a pate brought on the table. A degenerate race like the present, experiences no such sensation.” But part of it is also the nature and symbolism of food. As the Anglican cleric, Robert Farrar Capon wrote in his The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection: “For all its rooted loveliness, the world has no continuing city here; it is an outlandish place, a foreign home, a session in via to a better version of itself-and it is our glory to see it so and to thirst until Jerusalem comes home at last. We were given appetites, not to consume the world and forget it, but to taste its goodness and hunger to make it great.”


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You see, in making anything constructive, from a farm to a novel to an automobile, a farmer or an artist or a craftsman is in a sense being a co-creator with God. His labour, his art, or his craft are the gifts he brings to work with the talent he has and the raw material at hand – the latter two both being gifts from on high. But most of us are not creators in this sense, at least in terms of our major means of earning a living – though we may have creative hobbies. But we all must eat, and the preparation and appreciation of good food is an art that is within the reach of all – even if it is just adding some particular spices and a hard-boiled egg to instant ramen noodles.

Since Julia Child became a most unlikely celebrity after the publication of her Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1961 and the commencement of her cooking show on what would become PBS three years later, there has been a small growth in interest in “good” as opposed to either “convenient” or “healthy” food.  Together with her friend James Beard, Mrs. Child  and various other professional chefs struggled to create for cuisine the sort of institutional basis in this country that the other arts and sciences enjoy. So we have the James Beard Foundation, the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts, the Culinary Institute of America, the American Institute of Wine and Food, and various others. The Slow Food movement at international, national, and local levels encourages cooks to avoid any kind of convenience food, while the Local Food movement preaches the need to use local and seasons products only, to patronise local farmers markets and the like. The various grain, dairy, fruit, vegetable, and meat councils beat the drum for their particular agricultural product – and their websites often boast delicious recipes. As noticed. These efforts affect only a minority of our most prosperous folk. But it may be hoped that if nothing else, the idea of the honour and nobility of the culinary arts will affect how we look at our attempts in the kitchen, even if our income allows us only the scope given by skilful combination of various Campbell’s soups with each other and key condiments.

Make no mistake either, about the nobility of foodstuffs in and of themselves. For all of our own art, science, and labour  in producing them, not only are they in origin divine gifts, so too is their survival to be put on our tables dependent upon Divine favour in the form of good fertile soil and adequate sunlight and water. Hence the importance of the Rogation Days, with their processions both asking God’s mercy and His blessing upon the crops, s well as the Ember Days, with their emphasis on sanctifying each of the four seasons. It is no surprise that these devotions, alongside prayers to St. Isidore, patron of farmers, form a large part of the Catholic Rural Life Prayer Book. The piety of peasants is renowned. But it is deeply based upon a knowledge of how important God’s blessing upon the crops really is for good harvests to occur. It is laso why we say Grace before and after meals.


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What is true of farm-raised foodstuffs is even truer of fish and game. Fishermen and hunters are often extremely away of how dependent they are upon God’s bounty for success on the line or in the field. Thus we have a very large number of prayers and devotions with both pursuits – most notably the blessing of bread and water for consumption by the dogs on St. Hubert’s Day – the patron of hunters.

In the rituale, there are a number of seasonal blessings for food and wine. In the blessing of wine for St. John’s day, we are told: “God… in creating the world brought forth for mankind bread as food and wine as drink, bread to nourish the body and wine to cheer the heart…”  At Easter, there are three food blessings. That for lamb tells us: “God, who by your servant Moses commanded your people in their deliverance from Egypt to kill a lamb as a type of our Lord Jesus Christ, and prescribed that its blood be used to sign the two door-posts of their homes; may it please you to bless + and  sanctify + this creature-flesh which we, your servants, desire to  eat in praise of you.” The formula for eggs reads: “Lord, let the grace of your blessing + come upon these eggs, that they be healthful food for your faithful who eat them in thanksgiving for the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, who  lives and reigns with you forever and ever.”  Easter bread gets its own blessing as well: “Holy Lord and Father, almighty everlasting God, be pleased to bless + this bread, imparting to it your hallowed favor from on high. May it be for all who eat of it a healthful food for body and soul, as well as a safeguard against every disease and all assaults of the enemy. We ask this of our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, the bread of life who came down from heaven and gives life and salvation to the world…”  The same ideas continue through the blessing of herbs and fruits on the feast of the Assumption: “God, who through Moses, your servant, directed the children of  Israel to carry their sheaves of new grain to the priests for a blessing, to pluck the finest fruits of the orchard, and to make merry before you, the Lord their God; hear our supplications, and  shower blessings + in abundance upon us and upon these bundles of  new grain, new herbs, and this assortment of produce which we  gratefully present to you on this festival, blessing + them in  your name. Grant that men, cattle, flocks, and beasts of burden find in them a remedy against sickness, pestilence, sores, injuries, spells, against the fangs of serpents or poisonous creatures. May these blessed objects be a protection against diabolical mockery, cunning, and deception wherever they are kept, carried, or otherwise used. Lastly, through the merits of the blessed Virgin Mary, whose Assumption we are celebrating, may  we all, laden with the sheaves of good works, deserve to be taken up to heaven; through Christ our Lord.” Similar ideas run through the blessing of seeds on Our Lady’s Nativity. At Byzantine liturgies is received after reception of the Eucharist specially blessed non-Sacramental wine and bread – the antidoron as it is called. Distribution of the similar pain benit is still done in a few French, Quebecois, and Louisiana parishes.


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Indeed, Jesus Himself knew of the importance of dining – not merely as a thing in itself, but as a sign of unity and some sort of connexion. Thus it was that He ate with Pharisees, but not Sadducees or priests. Eating together was also a sign of unity among His Apostles and Disciples – and so he fed them, whether it was with bread and fish at the Mountain of the Beatitudes, or the latter solely as on Lake Tiberias. The Marriage Feast at Cana opened His ministry, even as the Last Supper closed it.

Indeed, although since the 1960s some clerics have emphasised the communal meal aspect of the Mass to the point of seeming to exclude either or both its Sacrificial aspect and the Real Presence, we should not let that abuse make us forget that it is indeed a part of it all – the Mass is as much a continuation or representation of the Last Supper as it is of the Death on the Cross. The mistake those clerics made was to isolate one of the three aspects of the Blessed Sacrament from the other two; they are inextricably bound together, as Christ Himself said: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven.  If any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever; and the bread that I will give, is my flesh, for the life of the world. The Jews therefore strove among themselves, saying: How can this man give us his flesh to eat?  Then Jesus said to them: Amen, amen I say unto you: Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you.  He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath everlasting life: and I will raise him up in the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed: and my blood is drink indeed.  He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, abideth in me, and I in him.  As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father; so he that eateth me, the same also shall live by me.  This is the bread that came down from heaven. Not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead. He that eateth this bread, shall live for ever.” (St. John, 6: 51-59). As the Greek Liturgy of St. James tells us, in the passage immortalised as the hymn Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence: “King of kings, yet born of Mary, As of old on earth He stood, Lord of lords, in human vesture, In the body and the blood; He will give to all the faithful His own self for heavenly food.”


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While the vast majority of Eucharistic miracles are Hosts that bled, that of Lanciano concerns wine that turned to blood and bread that became heart flesh at a moment when a priest saying Mass doubted the reality of  Christ’s presence. In this act, apart from affirming His Real Presence, Christ also prefigured the devotions  to the Sacred Heart and Precious Blood.

True as all of this is, just as when He walked the Earth, participation with Him in the Mass by receiving the Sacraments is not an open door endeavour. The ability to receive Holy Communion at a Catholic Mass is the sign of being “in Communion” with the Pope and all prelates – East and West – “in communion” with him. To be expelled from the Church is literally “excommunication.” While we have “impaired communion” with the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches, the Assyrian Church, and the Polish National Catholic Church, the reality that some tenuous tie with them remains is illustrated by Canon 844 of the New Code of Canon Law: “Whenever necessity requires it or true spiritual advantage suggests it, and provided that danger of error or of indifferentism is avoided, the Christian faithful for whom it is physically or morally impossible to approach a Catholic minister are permitted to receive the sacraments of penance, Eucharist, and anointing of the sick from non-Catholic ministers in whose Churches these sacraments are valid. Catholic ministers administer the sacraments of penance, Eucharist, and anointing of the sick licitly to members of Eastern Churches which do not have full communion with the Catholic Church if they seek such on their own accord and are properly disposed. This is also valid for members of other Churches which in the judgment of the Apostolic See are in the same condition in regard to the sacraments as these Eastern Churches.”  Lest this be thought to be an expression of some sort of Modernism, it should be remembered that Pope St. Pius X and the Holy Synod of Moscow approved of their respective priests bringing Communion to POWs of the other Church during the Russo-Japanese War. Moreover, as Archbishop of Smolensk, current Patriarch of Moscow, told Der Spiegel: “Schism between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches reminds of a divorce as it is resulted from human sins: West and East divorced as they thought they would not need each other.  Reunion is possible only through a spiritual closing on. We can sign as many papers as one wishes. But if we do not have a feeling that we love each other that we are one family, that we need each other there will be no reunion.”  It is precisely at this level of “Communion” that we should begin to try to feel that love and that need.

It makes no difference whether our next meal is elaborately prepared from one of Julia Child’s books, using only artisanal foods produced locally; or else it is hamburger helper thrown together in a single skillet. We should give thanks for it not only as our God-given means of sustenance and an opportunity to co-create with Him, but as a reminder of higher things. For behind every meal lurks remembrance of the Eucharist – itself our appointed means of entry to the “Realms of Endless Day.”


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