I’ve just started reading Robert Farrar Capon’s “The Supper of the Lamb.” Although listed as a cookbook, it could perhaps better be described as a memoir with recipes. Capon, a retired Episcopal priest from the U.S, has written a book that brings together two of his loves, theology and food. There is much of substance in this book and I believe I will be writing several posts about it by the time I have completed it.
However, my attention has already been arrested by the material in the third chapter, where Capon is talking about festal and ferial eating. Festal eating is that eating which surrounds an occasion. Feast days long held an important place within the Christian calendar, and not just days such as Christmas, Easter, etc.
Ferial eating on the other hand, relates to the meals we eat the rest of the time. (It’s interesting to note, that feria days were originally linked to feasts but have since come to refer to non-feast weekdays). Ferial eating might be called the meal of the kitchen rather than of the dining room table. Perhaps, more than anything else, ferial eating is the dining that is dedicated to the leftover, or perhaps better written, the left over, or maybe even the held back.
For from Capon’s perspective, leftovers are not something to be sniffed at. More than that, they are not meant to be the dregs of the previous night’s supper, dumped on a plate and reheated in the microwave. According to Capon ferial meals need not be any less good than festal, and he points out, many dishes that are “haute cuisine are simply worth specimens of ferial cooking at its best.”(25) Leftovers are items that are deliberately chosen and lovingly prepared. Leftovers are marks of creativity and reminders of the Creator.
I entitled this post “Keeping the Ferial,” and the reason I did so, is that I think that is something we have lost in our contemporary eating habits. There are a variety of reasons for this. Among them, is the focus that we have on “proper” nutrition, and the ever-increasing number of approaches to “good” eating that are limiting in the foods that they allow us to enjoy, allowing that for some people these limitations may be medically necessary. However, I don’t intend to address those issues in this post, and I may, or may not, write about them in the future.
There are two potential roadblocks to keeping the ferial that I would like to comment on. The first of these is time and the second is community. In my current situation, the first of these is of less personal resonance than the second, but both get in the way of keeping the ferial.
Firstly, time. Ferial cooking tends towards the time consuming. To take a chicken and create three different meals from it, as just one example, requires time both for planning and execution. We tend to allow our lives to fill up with so many things, that finding a place where we can put aside 4 to 8 hours at a single time to prepare multiple meals becomes very hard to do. Additionally, we can get reasonable quality and sometimes high quality meals relatively easily, not just from restaurants, but increasingly from our local supermarkets, and it becomes harder and harder to convince ourselves that it is worth the time required to prepare those meals by hand.
Secondly, and I think more importantly, the lack of community makes it harder for us to keep the ferial. This lack affects us on many levels, not just in the enjoyment of eating together, but in the preparation of the food itself. Growing up, Sunday morning was always one of the busiest times of the week for our family. With six kids to get ready before we headed off to church, making sure the Sunday roast was ready by the time we got home required teamwork on the part of my parents. While my mother stayed at home with us during the week, Saturday and Sunday were the two days that my dad would be in the kitchen helping to prepare the meals. This was particularly true on Sunday, the one meal of the week that would always result in leftovers, by plan, the next day.
On a deeper level, keeping the ferial requires community to for the sake of being able to eat the food together. As a single person, I am quite capable of cooking food that is both creative and flavourful (the two activities not necessarily being one the same thing), yet there is something missing when simply cooking for oneself.
It’s hard for one thing, to cook either single portions, or to cook multiple portions in such a way that you are not either eating the same meal four days in a row, or throwing food out, because by the time you got a round to the third serving of the third dish you had prepared there is white fuzz covering the top of it.
More than that, food was meant to be shared. As someone who had done a small amount of performing, who has produced work for others to read and reflect on, who has helped solve customer service needs for people, there are few feelings more satisfying than watching someone helped themselves to seconds of a dish you have prepared.
When I first moved away from home after graduating from university, I almost never cooked for myself. I ate out a lot, but I also spent a lot of time reheating things such as frozen dinners or tins of soup. I had occasionally cooked for myself during my university years. Whenever my parents went on vacation and I had the house to myself, I would cook meals for myself, however, when I moved out on my own that didn’t become engrained as a habit.
The change came for me in 1990. I spent the summer in Southern Ontario on a World Christian Leadership Development course sponsored by Student Mission Advance, an organization that ran Urbana style missions conferences out of Hamilton Ontario. During the second half of that summer I was living in a house in Scarborough with a small group of others connected with Arab World Ministries. There were eight of us in the house and we all ate together. We needed someone to volunteer to do the cooking, and despite some original misgivings about having a man being the main cook, I ended up doing most of the cooking that summer. Having people to cook for made the experience far more enjoyable than it would have otherwise been.
Since then, I have always enjoyed cooking and particularly the creating of dishes. I tend to be the sort of person who works off the top of his head rather than from a recipe book, or at the least will try and find some way to alter the recipe from the way it appears in the book. As the years go on, though, I find myself once again tending to stick to doing dishes that I can finish in one setting, or cook in one pot. With no one to cook for, food increasingly becomes a source of fuel more than anything else(of course, the other thing with having no one to cook for is that food can also increasingly become a form of and forum for self-indulgence).
Perhaps that will make a good Lenten resolution for me. Finding ways to keep the ferial during the season.