by Nelson Fragelli
Nowadays we so often hear: “Home Cooking?! How old-fashioned! Gone are the days sweating over the stove preparing nice dishes. Ready-made meals are a must! Time is precious.”
There is a widespread notion that carefully prepared dishes with special recipes and ingredients are a waste of time. This idea harms everyone and does not consider that nice meals reflect the indispensable dedication and affection crucial to maintaining family unity. Both parents and children feel they are special when they see how much effort is spent on preparing a well laid out meal.
Meals create an ambience capable of influencing personal relationships. St. Francis de Sales said that meals favour the charity Christians should have towards one another.
A meal is a mirror that reflects the real tenderness of a spouse and mother. Pedro Luiz, a friend of mine, married late when he was almost 40. As a single man he stayed at home with his mother who prepared the packed lunch he took to work. Everyday he had different well-prepared sandwiches with fresh fruit juices. From his thermas, his colleagues could smell the delicious aroma of coffee. His tumbler, coffee cup and cutlery were all packed in a leather box within an immaculate and perfectly ironed napkin that could be used as a tablecloth.
None of his colleagues had anything of the sort. They ate their sandwiches wrapped in cling wrap and drank their coffee in plastic cups. However they enjoyed seeing Pedro Luiz eat his light meal.
But one day Pedro Luiz started taking his sandwiches out of a plastic bag bought from the supermarket. For dessert, he had a chocolate bar. His coffee now came from the office machine. And this went on for 3, 4, 5 days as Pedro Luiz ate his vulgar fare. Around the fifth day one of his colleagues enquired:
Pedro, what happened? Did you get married?
No not yet. My mother is spending ten days in hospital because of her rheumatism.
Here we see how a simple meal can carry a message: care or the lack of. Pedro Luiz’s colleagues noticed it and made explicit today’s sad reality: whatever the reason, nicely prepared meals are frequently neglected.
It is wrong to think that the Church, in order to avoid gluttony, recommends fast and abstinence as a general rule for society. There is a time and place for that, but for centuries the Church has always favored the confection of new recipes as a factor of development.
Christianity benefited all the arts. Under its influence architecture reached the splendor of the gothic style never before seen on Ancient Times. The paintings of Fra Angelico and music such as Gregorian Chant attained heights of sublimity. The same happened with culinary art that had its great development in the monasteries and abbeys.
The Benedictines from the Abbey of Cluny in Burgundy took it upon themselves to elaborate recipes for fish, eggs and vegetables—since they abstained from meat. Everyday the menu served to the monks in the refectory varied. It obliged them to reflect on possible flavors and food combinations. In this way the primitivism of the pagan food culture was left behind.
From Cluny date the first recipe books to be used to educate those peoples still imbued with barbarian customs. As they immersed themselves into the heretofore unknown tastes of Creation, the monks knew that their tasty dishes, so pleasing to the body, would encourage virtues in the soul. They imagined how delicious the mana of the desert could have been, as well as the wine offered by Our Lord Jesus Christ at the marriage feast of Cana. Did not God in this way manifest His desire that men also seek refined tastes? Would this not awaken in souls virtuous desires analogous to those felt on the palate?
“God established mysterious and admirable relations between, on the one hand, certain forms, colors, sounds, perfumes, and flavors and, on the other, certain states of soul. It is obvious that, through the arts, mentalities can be profoundly influenced.” This thought of Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira in Revolution and Counter-Revolution he repeated and developed in countless talks and chats with his friends.
In the Middle Ages, abbeys were accustomed to give great banquets where both lords and monks—who frequently also came from the nobility—could thus share God’s gifts elaborated with good taste. The sacrality of the rituals of the meal led to a spiritual union that calmed the wild spirits and diminished quarrels.
The monks prepared delicacies out of charity and, in so doing, established an etiquette which in turn elevated the customs. Conversation and courtesy were perfected. Gradually this socializing begot the rituals of civil society that made Europe a model of civilization. Is this not the highest goal of a meal?
The great abbots of Cluny—St. Odo, St. Odilon and St. Mayeul—had great chefs. St. Thomas Aquinas appreciated well-prepared dishes and ate with gusto. St. Gregory VII like elaborate dishes. St. Pius V had a famous cook, Bartholomew Scappi, who left his recipes in a well-known book.
Almost all heresies, under the pretext of promoting austerity, were against good meals “to which the Church had sold its soul”. Luther, although a notorious glutton, was one of the worst attackers.
In his excellent work French Gastronomy: The History and Geography of a Passion, by Jean-Robert Pitte surprisingly states:
“Luther’s sensual tendency did not stop the Protestant Reformation—especially the Calvinist one—from adopting austerity. To understand this, one must necessarily relate the moral attitude of the protestants to their denial of the Sacrament of Confession. By denying confession, they necessarily live in fear, keeping their adherents in a state of constant anxiety”.
Although surprising, it is nonetheless likely; since the anxiety caused by refusing the Sacrament of Confession—with the resulting lack of forgiveness—leads certain protestant denominations to seek a false austerity by renouncing a pleasure that is not only licit but necessary for spiritual elevation as is the case with a tasty meal.
In the movie Babette’s Feast, premiered in Cannes in 1987, one can find a symbolic example of the harm Protestantism did to Christian culinary art and, as a consequence, social relationships.
Today, with canned food, powdered mixes and the proliferation of takeaways, the preparation of meals ceases to have souls and human relationships in mind. The oven has been abandoned and food factories have taken its place. This type of food represents the triumph of matter over spirit.
I once heard a Frenchman, who loved his meals, ask a friend if he wanted to eat something. His friend responded:
“No, I am not hungry.”
To which the Frenchman replied:
“But do you only eat when you are hungry?”
Many French people believe a good meal especially enhances the relationships between souls. Fastfood tends to facilitate the disappearance of respect for the dignity of the other person.
Although it seems to be a paradox, those who, without necessity, prefer this type of meal may be committing the sin attributed to gluttons who only think of food as satisfying their bodily needs.
One day a family I knew received into their home an old and dear friend who had travelled from afar. He had a special preference for duck with plums. So the family prepared this dish for his arrival. Just before the meal was served, someone gasped:
“This is Lent, a time of abstinence!”
Worried but without any other dish to worthily offer his friend, the head of the family consulted the cannon of the cathedral. Seeing it was an honest mistake and taking into consideration the circumstances, the old priest responded with certainty:
“Serve the duck. In this case, Charity comes before sacrifice. We should do penance, but not impose it upon others.”
Good meals and a table nicely set are part of Christian charity.