I enjoy cooking. Much to my surprise some people actually enjoy eating my concoctions. There is a sense in which the pleasure is communicable from person at stove to person at table. Quite mysteriously, there is an infusion of joy in the preparation that is unlocked with a fork and knife. But this invisible transfer of mirth from pots to plates doesn’t have the effect of sucking all of the pleasure from the cook, rather it opens up a nexus whereby mutual satisfaction flows back and forth ad infinitum with wonderful reciprocity. The delight grows as both Stove and Table take part in the experience of mutual merriment. For me, watching a person try to chew while smiling is more nourishing than the dish itself. Behold, I tell you a mystery: out of the eater comes forth meat. Just so, I have meat to eat that ye know not of.
To feed someone is to impart life; it is to sustain existence, to preserve body and soul. The quality of the fare is emblematic of the cook’s capacity for wonder. Unless we desire lives that are bland, dry, and completely lacking in both texture and taste, we cannot afford to feed hungry folks food that has lost its savor. Every meal is an opportunity to flavor the future of the world. Don’t underestimate the grace of a good gravy.1 And if you care about the souls of men, never skimp on the seasoning.
While I am certainly not the best cook, I am the best kind of cook—one laboring hard to get to the end of the meal. Of course, I have the telos of the table in mind. I am aiming for empty plates, full bellies, and fat souls.
Eating well, much like cooking well, is a learned skill. Our problem isn’t that we don’t know what to eat, but that we don’t know how to eat. We spend too little mental energy contemplating feasts, and even less time enjoying them. We misunderstand the nature of feasts because we misunderstand the nature of food.
Holy Scripture begins and ends with food. Our Lord’s first words to humans are an invitation to eat. The inaugural conflict in the Bible is over forbidden fruit; the final act of Jesus before his death is to share a Eucharistic meal with his disciples; and the eschatological portrait of the new heavens and earth is of a joy-filled wedding banquet. Yes, the God of Sacred Scripture is preeminently the Lord of the Table. So it is little wonder that creatures made in His image derive such great pleasure from eating.
Perhaps the person who has exerted the most influence upon me with regard to these ideas was Alexander Schmemann, an Orthodox theologian who died in the year of my birth. In his masterful work, For the Life of the World, he writes:
“Man is what he eats.” With this statement the German materialistic philosopher Feuerbach thought he had put an end to all “idealistic” speculations about human nature. In fact, however, he was expressing, without knowing it, the most religious idea of man. For long before Feuerbach the same definition of man was given by the Bible. In the biblical story of creation man is presented, first of all, as a hungry being, and the whole world as his food.
Second only to the direction to propagate and have dominion over the earth, according to the author of the first chapter of Genesis, is God’s instruction to man to eat of the earth: “Behold I have given you every herb bearing seed … and every tree, which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat….” Man must eat in order to live; he must take the world into his body and transform it into himself, into flesh and blood. He is indeed that which he eats, and the whole world is presented as one all-embracing banquet table for man. And this image of the banquet remains, throughout the whole Bible, the central image of life. It is the image of life at its creation and also the image of life at its end and fulfillment: “… that you eat and drink at my table in my Kingdom.”
A bit later he says:
“Man is what he eats.” But what does he eat and why? These questions seem naïve and irrelevant not only to Feuerbach. They seemed even more irrelevant to his religious opponents. To them, as to him, eating was a material function, and the only important question was whether in addition to it man possessed a spiritual “superstructure.” Religion said yes. Feuerbach said no. But both answers were given within the same fundamental opposition of the spiritual to the material. “Spiritual” versus “material,” “sacred” versus “profane,” “supernatural” versus natural.
Schmemann is rejecting the dueling dichotomies which plague modern thinking. He insists upon an alternative that is rooted in the creation, cognizant of the consummation, and is consciously eucharistic and liturgical. Beginning with creation, he points out that Adam was created a hungry being, with a need to take life in from without, but insisting that the food Adam needed was never purely “physical” sustenance: “In the Bible the food that man eats, the world of which he must partake in order to live, is given to him by God, and it is given as communion with God.” That is, both the food and the eating are gracious gifts of God with a view toward worship. Every eater dines on God’s bounty, and every meal is enjoyed coram Deo. Every meal is a potential eucharist, beginning with and infused by thanksgiving. It is gratitude that transforms food into a feast.
Further, it is precisely this world, the world of eating and drinking, of baking and banking, that lies at the heart of Christian worship. At the center stands a table, and the climactic event toward which all liturgical action moves is a meal of bread and wine, a feast on the good things of this earth. Remembering the quiddity of creation, the “thisness” of things, is essential to understanding their character as holy things. Robert Capon poignantly expresses this in The Supper of the Lamb,
Man's real work is to look at the things of the world and to love them for what they are. That is, after all, what God does, and man was not made in God's image for nothing. The fruits of his attention can be seen in all the arts, crafts, and sciences. It can cost him time and effort, but it pays handsomely. If an hour can be spent on one onion, think how much regarding it took on the part of that old Russian who looked at onions and church spires long enough to come up with St. Basil's Cathedral. Or how much curious and loving attention was expended by the first man who looked hard enough at the inside of trees, the entrails of cats, the hind ends of horses and the juice of pine trees to realize he could turn them all into the first fiddle. No doubt his wife urged him to get up and do something useful. I am sure that he was a stalwart enough lover of things to pay no attention at all to her nagging; but how wonderful it would have been if he had known what we know now about his dawdling. He could have silenced her with the greatest riposte of all time: Don't bother me; I am creating the possibility of the Bach unaccompanied sonatas.
But if man's attention is repaid so handsomely, his inattention costs him dearly. Every time he diagrams something instead of looking at it, every time he regards not what a thing is but what it can be made to mean to him - every time he substitutes a conceit for a fact - he gets grease all over the kitchen of the world. Reality slips away from him; and he is left with nothing but the oldest monstrosity in the world: an idol. Things must be met for themselves. To take them only for their meaning is to convert them into gods - to make them too important, and therefore to make them unimportant altogether. Idolatry has two faults. It is not only a slur on the true God; it is also an insult to true things.
Just so, this meal of the things of this world is a foretaste of a future banquet in which we enjoy the good things of the age to come. This world will be transfigured into the new heavens and new earth. Our bodies will be raised, and the world of the resurrection is this world transformed, not a “holy world” that replaces this “common world,” but this world will be transfigured into the kingdom. That eschatological reality has come in Jesus, the firstfruits of the resurrection, and the eschatological banquet begins already now in the eucharistic meal. Thus, every eucharist is eschatological; a weekly parousia, a tantalizing taste of the future. All of creation is destined to be what the Lord’s Table now is, it is all destined to be the medium of our communion in Christ with the Father through the Spirit.
In Jesus, the “age to come” has broken in upon this age. Anticipating the eschaton, the eucharistic meal of bread and wine already enfolds the world of baking and banking into the sacrament. Through the works of farmers and merchants and engineers and cooks, the whole world has been brought into the presence of God and rendered up as a thanksgiving offering. Was this not what Adam was called to do?
Creation was given as an act of communion, for the purpose of communion, with a view toward communion. Communion at the Lord’s Table is a “common meal” in that we all share together in the presence of God. But the common meals that we share together everyday are a form of communion for the very same reason. As Schmemann said, “All that exists is God’s gift to man, and it all exists to make God known to man, to make man’s life communion with God. It is divine love made food, made life for man.” Christians gathered around a festal table are in the perfect place to discover that joy is the kind of thing that can drip down one’s chin like the oil upon Aaron’s beard. Behold how good and how pleasant that is.
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When making a sauce or gravy always use stock or wine unless you are let hitherto by physical restraints. To add plain water is to strain the bounds of reason; it is a form of madness. It is also to despise mercy; demanding a cruel exertion from a sauce, to have it arrive at the table overwrought and overworked. A gravy is not a banquet stew. It doesn’t have that excess of mouth-watering meat upon which a family can feast for days. It is a simple dish to be pitied and spared the burden of inordinate expectations. Accordingly, any liquid that goes into it should be of the most charitable and kindly disposition—a bonum diffusivum sui—which understands how much more blessed it is to give than to receive. Let your liquids be of the most generous sort; Samaritans rather than Levites. May their entrance make the world ever stronger and more vibrant. Stock then, never water. Or in the case of most sauces, wine. Wine—the lovingkindness of God in creaturely form—covers a multitude of culinary sins. Taste and see that the Lord is good.