For your culinary and reading pleasure
Most booklovers have suffered that “Oh, no” moment when a friend, with nothing but the best of intentions, presses an unfamiliar book into their hands with the words, “Read this — you’ll love it.” We receive the book with a smile on our lips but black foreboding in our hearts. We may love this gift, we may hate it — the odds, from my own experience, favor the latter five to one — but either way we are compelled to read it.
And not only must we read it — we must get back to our kindhearted friend to report what we thought about the book, like a fifth-grader delivering a report. The process can be painful for many readers, which is why they prefer gift certificates as gifts for buying their own books.
Recently two friends, a mother and her daughter, jointly gave me a copy of Robert Farrar Capon’s The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection (Modern Library, ISBN 978-0-375-76056-3, $16). “Read this and let me know what you think,” the mother said, which is a gentler approach than commanding me to love it but which still implies obligation. Gingerly, I took the book in hand, carried it home, and began what I believed to be another ordeal in required reading.
That ordeal soon became a journey of great pleasure. Author Robert Capon, an Episcopalian priest and the author of books on theology and family life, gives us treats in The Supper of the Lamb that have much more to do with living than they do with food.
He begins his “cookbook” with four different ways to prepare lamb, with the lamb, of course, representing in some ways Christ. Of the first few chapters, Capon’s most interesting moment as a writer comes when he bids us look at an onion and how to prepare it for inclusion in a lamb stew. Capon — a humorous name for a cook, as a capon is a chicken castrated to improve its flavor — makes us see an onion. Through his fine writing he puts an onion — in one sense, all onions — on the table before us and convinces us to study its wonders for a while before chopping it into pieces. He makes us aware of what good, natural food means to us.
In the first three chapters, Capon also calls us to regard the differences between festal and ferial cooking. Festal cooking is that preparation of food intended for feasts and special occasions. Ferial cooking — the term ferial comes from Roman Catholicism, referring to those days that the Church marks as ordinary time, or non-feast days — are those meals which we prepare daily for nourishment and for pleasure. Capon reminds us that we should slow down to enjoy those meals, both the preparation and the eating, as we do for our more festive dinners.
One of the great delights of this eccentric culinary manual comes from the writing itself. Capon’s enthusiasm, his ear for language, and his intelligence make the book a treasure-house of humor, wit, and eminently quotable sentences. Here, for example, he writes of festal meals prepared for guests:
“The greatest meals, like the greatest musical performances, must always seem simple, no matter how complex the execution of them really is. Strive for the good rather than the fancy; mere clutter, however expensive or recherché, is no virtue at all.”
Capon, who frequently inserts God into his mediations on stews and roasts, rejoices in simple, everyday objects. He writes that “Creation is God’s living room, the place where He sits down and relishes the exquisite taste of decoration. Things, therefore, as things, are inseparable from God, as God. Separate the secular from the sacred, and the world becomes an idol shrouded in interpretations; creation becomes too meaningful to make love to.”
The Supper of the Lamb is also marked with a real sense of celebration of food, of cooking, of eating, of life itself. (A word to those who take no joy in food, who fuss against butter and eggs, or who prepare their meals of greens and fruits not for pleasure but to hold back the death inevitably awaiting them: this is not the cook book for you). The great lessons taught by Capon here really have more to do with elation than with cooking and eating. His exuberance, his zest for life, and his love of God spill out into every recipe. The Supper of the Lamb really is all about “the joy of cooking.”
A final note: The Modern Library Press has reissued The Supper of the Lamb, which was written over 40 years ago. On the back of my book is a blurb from the original New York Times Book Review: “The Supper of the Lamb is as awesomely funny, wise, beautiful, moving, preposterous a book as this reviewer has come across in years … It is a love letter to a world that ‘will always be more delicious than it is useful.’”
True then. True now. And wonderfully so.