One of my favorite books is Robert Farrar Capon’s “cookbook” The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection. Originally written by an Episcopal priest in 1967, it is a gem of a book, describing a great-hearted embrace of creation that fills your soul with joy and laughter.
As I was thinking about cooking with constraints during Lent, I was reminded of Capon’s discussion of “ferial” versus “festal” cooking. “Ferial” cooking refers to everyday meals that depend on stretching out expensive food items, like meat, as far as they possibly should go. Capon insists that both of these have their place, but that there should be a sharp distinction between ordinary eating and extraordinary eating.
Capon discusses how the limits of “ferial” cooking have actually led to superb culinary creativity. I often think about how being human means to be limited and how real freedom comes with accepting our limits with joy. This is yet another example of how the accepting of limits becomes the wellspring of creativity. Capon states,
“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 exception 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.”
A page later, Capon rages against the “low-fat” diet idea and what people have done to food and eating for the sake of losing weight.
“Both the ferial and the festal cuisine, therefore, must be seen as styles of unabashed EATING. Neither attempts to do anything to food other than render it delectable. Their distinction is grounded, not in sordid dietetic tricks, but in a choice between honest frugality or generous expense. Both aim only at excellence; accordingly, neither is suitable for dieting. Should a true man want to lose weight, let him fast. 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.”
Capon ends this section with a prayer for the “return of sanity to our tables.” It may not be precisely Lenten, but I still think it is pertinent and wonderful.
“O Lord, refresh our sensibilities. Give us this day our daily taste. Restore to us soups that spoons will not sink in, and sauces which are never the same twice. Raise up among us stews with more gravy than we have bread to blot it with, and casseroles that put starch and substance in our limp modernity. Take away our fear of fat, and make us glad of the oil which ran upon Aaron’s beard. Give us pasta with a hundred fillings, and rice in a thousand variations. Above all, give us grace to live as true men– to fast till we come to a refreshed sense of what we have and then to dine gratefully on all that comes to hand. Drive far from us, O Most Bountiful, all creatures of air and darkness; cast out the demons that possess us; deliver us from the fear of calories and the bondage of nutrition; and set us free once more in our land, where we shall serve thee as thou hast blessed us– with the dew of heaven, the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine. Amen.”