Over the last year or two, I’ve been reading a lot of food books. I have some criteria as to what books I read. I don’t read cookbooks. I’ll read books with recipes in them, but the recipes can’t be the central focus of the book. I also don’t read a lot of books that tell you what you should eat. In particular books that promise that eating or not eating one kind of food will change your life forever. I’m also not interested in coffee table books that glorify self-important celebrity chefs.
Not that I have anything in particular against these chefs, but most of these books are simply just attempts to sell more of their branded products. I do, however, appreciate good biographies of chefs. I also appreciate books that talk about food and community and how community is built around food. Books that tell how food and culture are intertwined are high on my list.
Finally, food books that combine theological reflection on food and eating together sit at the top of my pile. On top of this pile, sits one book that is my favourite food book of all, The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection, by Robert Farrar Capon.
Capon, a retired Episcopal priest, now in his late 80’s was for many years, in addition to working as a priest, a regular contributor to the New York Times on the subject of food.
The first appeal of this book is that it is an unhurried book. After giving the ingredients that will be used in this “Supper of the Lamb” in the first chapter, Capon goes on to spend the next chapter talking about the proper way to treat an onion. Yet, it’s more than that , the chapter serves to remind the reader of the many ways in which the cook is connected to the creation from which the onion. Further it reminds the cook that they only way they can appreciate this connection is to take the time to discover all of the elements present in one simple onion.
Capon also reminds the reader that there can be no enjoyment of the meat that appears on their plate without the shedding of blood. This he does not by describing the conditions of the slaughterhouse, but through the medium of poetry. Not a sweet poem, but a troubling reflection on life and death. Once again, a reminder of how we are tied up with creation and the cycle of life.
Yet, more than that. It recalls the sacrificial Lamb that is also the Lion. Looking forward to the day when to quote the poem:
Lion becomes priest
And lamb victim
The world awaits
The unimaginable union
By which the Lion lifts Himself Lamb slain
And, Priest and Victim
While this may sound like heavy reading, in fact the tone of the whole book is quite light. Capon writes with a light touch. He has an easy wit and playfulness that shines through time and again in the book.
As well, Capon never loses sight of the fact that he is writing a food book. Even if you are not interested in the theology that undergirds much of Capon’s approach to food, you will find this book one that gives a great deal of insight into learning to be a better cook.
I mentioned at the start, the kind of food books that I don’t like, and another virtue of The Supper of The Lamb is that it doesn’t fall into any of those categories. Capon, for example, is a fierce opponent of the nutritional approach to food. Something that you will also find in the writings of Michael Pollan. In Capon’s view our fixation on nutrition leads us away from eating real food, to the eating of food like substances.
The Supper of The Lamb is one food book that feeds you body and soul. Like a good meal it is meant to be savoured and consumed at a leisurely pace, allowing all the rich flavours to speak for themselves and to please your palate. It’s a book that belongs in the library of anyone who has more than a passing interest is food.