Finding myself cooking more than ever and in need of some inspiration, I’ve lately returned to Robert Farrar Capon’s Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection. Written by an Episcopal priest back in 1967, The Supper of the Lamb is both a quirky cookbook and a doxological digression on the nature of reality. Since he describes himself as an “Anglican, or moderately high-church, cook,” readers of this publication may discover a guide to Anglican identity even unto the kitchen (7). Yet regardless of tradition, this book is full of practical and theological insights that are pertinent in these strange days.
Now that we are trying to minimize grocery trips, I’ve been reminded of Capon’s distinction between “ferial” and “festal” cooking. While I’ve always seen his thoughts on “ferial” cooking as applicable for Lent, they’re even more practical now during the pandemic. When he refers to ferial cooking, he means everyday meals that depend on stretching out more expensive food items, like meat, as far as they possibly should go.
Here are the two principles of ferial cooking: “Never serve anybody a whole anything” and “If you can possibly do so, contrive to make even a part of anything come to the table twice”(23). While, he admits, these limitations can lead to miserliness, they have also led to superb culinary creativity. I’ll quote Capon at length:
The ferial cuisine, you see, was the poor man’s invention out of necessity, but it is light-years away from poor cooking. The poor man may envy the rich their houses, their lands, and their cars; but given a good wife, he rarely envies them their table. The rich man dines festally, but unless he is an exceptional lover of being– unless he has the soul of a poet and a saint– his feasts are too often single: they delight the palate, but not the intellect. They are greeted with a deluxe but mindless attention: ‘What was it, dear, sirloin or porterhouse?’ Every dish in the ferial cuisine, however, provides a double or treble delight: Not only is the body nourished and the palate pleased, the mind is intrigued by the triumph of ingenuity over scarcity– by the making of slight materials into a considerable matter. A man can do worse than be poor. He can miss altogether the sight of the greatness of small things*25)
On another level, this vision of “the greatness of small things” has been strengthening my heart in these anxious days. Throughout the book, Capon exults in the goodness of things. He famously encourages everyone to spend an hour with an onion. “Onions are excellent company,” Capon declares and perhaps we may take to heart in the midst of social distancing (11). And an onion — as representative of all creation — only exists because of the Creator’s joy: “He likes onions, therefore they are. The fit, the colors, the smell, the tensions, the tastes, the textures, the lines, the shapes are not a response, not to some forgotten decree that there may as well be onions as turnips, but to His present delight — His intimate and immediate joy in all you have seen, and in the thousand other wonders you do not even suspect”(17)
Encouraged by Capon’s attentiveness to “the greatness of small things,” my time in the kitchen has become increasingly contemplative and quietly joyful. I’m noticing flour and marvelling at celery as one who is imitating God. When I decide to not inundate myself with more online articles about what could be, I’m reminded while cooking that “[o]ne real thing is closer to God than all the diagrams in the world”(21). I gird up my soul by attending to the real things in front of me, in the image of the One who cares for every sparrow that falls, knows every hair on our heads, and stores our tears in bottles.
To conclude this reflection, here are some of my favorite quotations from Capon that can perhaps inform our cooking and eating during Lent and the Pandemic:
When you make bread (as it seems we are all doing now), knead it well.
It perfects the texture of the bread and more important, it is good for the soul. There are few actions you will ever take that have more of the stuff of history in them. A woman with her sleeves rolled up and flour on her hands is one of the most gorgeous stabilities in the world. Don’t let your family miss the sight(153).
When Lenten disciplines allow, pour a little wine:
God gave us wine to make us gracious and keep us sane. The light apertif en famille, and the half bottle or bottle split between husband and wife over cold meatloaf and brawling children, are not solemn alcoholic dosages. They are cheerful minor lubrications of the frequently sandy gears of life(93).
Fast well, but then eat unabashedly:
Let him sit down to nothing but coffee and conversation, if religion or reason bid him do so; only let him not try to eat his cake without having it. . . Let us fast, then– whenever we see fit, and as strenuously as we should. But having gotten that exercise out of the way, let us eat. Festally, first of all, for life without occasions is not worth living. But ferially, too, for life is so much more than occasions, and its grand ordinariness must never go unsavored (27).
And to end, a hopeful blessing from Capon, relevant for quarantine days: “May you be spared long enough to know at least one long evening of old friends, dark bread, good wine, and strong cheese. If even exile be so full, what must not our fullness be?” (148)