My first adventures in the culinary arts took place in Toronto when I was doing graduate work in theology. The technical conditions were not optimal: the ancient electric stove in my third-floor garret apartment had two heat levels — hot and Gehenna — so that “simmering” meant standing beside the stove, turning a burner on-and-off, over and over again. Yet somehow the fun of cooking stuck (not unlike a sauce or two best left forgotten). At the same time, I discovered the romance of cooking — the theological romance, that is.
Here, my mentor was Anglican priest and author Robert Farrar Capon, whose book, The Supper of the Lamb (Modern Library) was aptly described by New York Times food maven Craig Claiborne as “one of the funniest, wisest, and most unorthodox cookbooks ever written.” As both Christian and cook, Capon takes Genesis 1 — “God saw that it was good” — with utmost seriousness. And to a nation that, despite chronic obesity, retains deep puritanical instincts about the good things of life, he says, in effect, “Get a life.”
Or, as he puts it in The Supper of the Lamb (and with considerable theological insight):
“Food and cooking…are not low subjects. In fact there are no low subjects anywhere in the physical universe. Every real thing is a joy, if only you have the eyes and ears to relish it, a nose and tongue to taste it. But more than that, food and cooking are among the richest subjects in the world. Every day of our lives, they preoccupy, delight, and refresh us. Food is not just some fuel we need to get us going toward higher things. Cooking is not a drudgery we put up with in order to get the fuel delivered. Rather, each is a heart’s astonishment. Both stop us dead in our tracks with wonder. Even more, they sit us down, evening after evening, and in the company that forms around our dinner tables, they actually create our humanity.”
American cooking has improved vastly since The Supper of the Lamb first appeared in 1967. But reminding ourselves that the “eternal banquet” is one of the principal images of heaven and that our quotidian meals (simple or grand, ferial or festal) ought to reflect that remains a spiritual imperative. If you know a young person getting started in the kitchen, get him or her a copy of The Supper of the Lamb. Get one yourself if you’re reaching into the freezer for frozen pizza more than once a month.
Two people who don’t need Capon’s book are Robert Radzimski and Adam Chrzastowski, owner and chief chef of “Ancora,” a spectacular new restaurant in Cracow. They may seem, at first blush, an odd pair of restaurateurs. One spent four years testing a Dominican vocation. The other wrote an academic thesis comparing the social teaching of John Paul II to “conservative liberal” thought in the United States. Their bond is a commitment to great food, great wine, and great service, at affordable prices.
Poland is, as historian Norman Davies put it, the “heart of Europe.” Adam Chrzastowski’s brilliant cooking reflects that, and more. When I asked him to describe his cuisine, he said, “Well, it’s Polish, because I think in Polish, but I want to use ingredients and techniques from all over the world.” His black tagliolini with spinach, scallions, ginger, coriander, sun-dried tomatoes, chili paste, and smoked salmon testifies to his success in doing just that. But so do simple dishes like his steak tartare (ignore the cholesterol police for once). Like Robert Farrar Capon, Adam Chrzastowski thinks and cooks vocationally. And so he knows that the goods of cooking and eating come in both simple and complex forms, like “weekdays in ordinary time” and “solemnities.” To enjoy both is to meet God’s astonishing prodigality in creating and sustaining the world.
“Ancora” is across the street from Cracow’s Dominican basilica, to which thousands of young people flock every Sunday night. Go see them and be assured that, with Benedict XVI, that, “the Church is young.” Then go to “Ancora” and get a foretaste of the Supper of the Lamb.