In Catholic culture, kitchen and altar both sacramental venues

In Catholic culture, kitchen and altar both sacramental venues

An image of the classic Italian Sunday lunch. (Credit: Wiki commons.)

Rome is a place where food and faith belong together, where the kitchen and the altar express the same basic sacramental instinct.

News Analysis

ROME – Two great global organizations are headquartered in Rome, the Catholic Church and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). I’ve always thought there’s something symbolically appropriate about that, because Rome is at least as much about food as it is faith.

Actually, that puts it poorly. Better said, Rome is a place where food and faith belong together, where the kitchen and the altar express the same basic sacramental instinct.

The point comes to mind in light of a Crux interview yesterday with Father Augusto Zampini, a Vatican official currently organizing a series of webinars intended to highlight the problem of global hunger. As part of the conversation, Zampini felt compelled to explain why the Church has a legitimate spiritual interest in food.

RELATED: Fight against hunger is both human and divine, Vatican webinars insist

Frankly, I was a bit startled, because it never would have occurred to me that the Church shouldn’t be interested. On the contrary, I’ve always believed that one marker of someone who’s fully assimilated the Catholic faith is a passion for food.

Nowhere is the logic clearer than here in Italy, where Sundays are traditionally devoted to two time-honored sacred rituals: Mass and lunch, and the entire family is expected to show up for both. In truth, from Italy you could write an entire history of the Catholic Church in the form of a cookbook.

For the record, that’s not an original idea. Several years ago two Italian priests, Fathers Andrea Ciucci and Paolo Sarto, published a book called Mangiare da Dio, featuring recipes for the favorite dishes of fifty popes.

Case in point: Spaghetti alla papalina, a dish I’ve known for years but only recently made for the first time. Literally, the name means “spaghetti with the pope’s skullcap.” It owes it origins to the 1930s, when then-Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, Secretary of State under Pope Pius XI and the future Pope Pius XII himself, made a request of his favorite Roman eatery, La Cisterna. Pacelli was a native Roman and loved the city’s signature pasta dishes, but he also had something of a delicate stomach. He thus asked the cook if he could make a lighter, more easily digestible version of spaghetti alla carbonara, which, with its zesty pancetta pork and strong pecorino cheese, can be a mouthful.

The cook came up with an alternative using a lighter, less intense cut of crude pork and parmesan cheese, along with a little bit of onion to add flavor. In what turned out to be a prophetic gesture, he named it papalina even though Pacelli wouldn’t actually be elected to the Throne of Peter until 1939. Pacelli was delighted, and the dish caught on.

Think about the insight that story provides about the whole Catholic approach to tradition – never breaking with the past, but forever tweaking and adjusting it to meet contemporary needs. It’s a culinary lesson in what Pope emeritus Benedict XVI would call a “hermeneutic of reform,” as opposed to one of “discontinuity and rupture.”

As for the current pope, he too is a bit of what the Italians would call a buona forchetta, a “good fork,” meaning somebody enthusiastic about food. According to Ciucci and Sarto, he’s especially fond of bagna càuda, a sort of hot gravy that’s a classic of the Piedmont, the northern Italian Alpine region from which his grandparents hail. The gravy is based on anchovies, garlic and oil, and is usually served over vegetables.

It’s no accident that Francis’s favorite movie is about a meal, “Babette’s Feast,” which he’s called “a hymn to Christian charity [and] to love,” nor that the pontiff recently did a dialogue book with Carlo Petrini, founder of Italy’s “Slow Food” movement that defends regional traditions against the encroachment of fast-food culture.

Personally, one of the ironic gifts of the coronavirus lockdowns of the last few months is that they’ve given me a chance to sharpen my own skills in the kitchen. The idea of passing months without my favorite Italian dishes due to restaurant closures was intolerable, so I had to step up, learning how to make a decent bucatini all’amatriciana, for instance, and a passable plate of scaloppine to follow.

That experience has taught me that cooking is actually a school of spirituality in addition to technique and craft. For one thing, it’s brought home the importance of patience, which is not a virtue in which I typically excel. Yet there are some things in the kitchen that simply can’t be rushed, and efforts to do so end in ruin.

It also teaches the value of simplicity. The classic pasta dish cacio e pepe, for instance, is indescribably delectable, yet it consists of just two basic ingredients: Pecorino cheese and fresh pepper (in addition, of course, to water and pasta). Italian cooking in particular captures the truth that genius isn’t always a matter of multiplying ideas – the usual American instinct – but of finding one, and then refining it to absolute perfection.

As a footnote, cooking also gets across that simplicity and complexity often go together. One of my favorite Italian chefs, Luca Pappagallo, likes to say that apparently simple dishes are actually hideously complicated, because even a tiny mistake along the way can have massive consequences.

Cooking also fosters a healthy respect for what Catholic tradition would call the sensus fidelium, especially because so many of the dishes we now think of as luxuries began as the food of the poor. Cacio e pepe originated with shepherds in the Lazio region surrounding Rome, who only had cured pork and pepper to work with over an open fire. Coda alla vaccinara and pajata in umido, featuring oxtail and veal intestines respectively, now considered classics of fine Roman dining, were developed by the urban underclass who couldn’t afford decent cuts of meat from the butcher’s shop and had to make to do with castoffs.

These reflections are simply by way of saying, it makes all the sense in the world that the Vatican should be fighting against hunger and for food security. If any religious tradition on earth grasps the transcendent value of food, it’s Catholicism.

The difference between FAO and the Church, I suppose, is that the former’s mission is simply to make sure everyone has enough to eat. For Catholicism, it’s equally important they eat well … because, as Pope Francis reminded Petrini, the sensory pleasure of a good meal is a taste of the divine.

Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.

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