The Gastronomy of Religion

I would be planting potatoes today – it’s a Good Friday tradition – but the ground is too damned wet. So much for symbolism.  They would have been Adirondack Red potatoes, too – pinkish on the inside, a little like bleeding flesh; down into the dark they would have gone, with a promise of resurrection tenfold.

thin sliced Healthway  Farms Adironcack Red potatoes

Of course, given that Easter is a movable feast, there is no strict meteorological or astronomical reason WHY potatoes should be planted on Good Friday; it’s pure ritual. The gardener’s year is as full of rituals as is the Church year.

Since I am a Catholic with a Jewish heritage, I am fairly comfortable with ritual – at least, as long as it involves food, and doesn’t take too long.  Lengthy chants don’t do it for me, outside of church, maybe because we were never a particularly musical family, maybe because of some dour grim Nordic tendencies coming down from the Bratten side of the family…Vikings, apparently, who sacked Britain and may have had something to do with the great white chalk horse on the hillside in Bratton, England (inspiration for Chesterton’s “Ballad of the White Horse”) then went over and persecuted the Irish for a while and finally came and settled in the US in the 17th century.  My father persists in thinking our family was originally Irish, but this is pure fantasy. Singing dancing ritualistic jolly people they do not appear to have been.  I imagine they were eating roast pig and in big ascendancy mansions, not planting taters on Good Friday.

Mum tried for years to get us to insinuate into our year traditions like the Advent “O Antiphons,” but we retaliated by stealing and hiding them.  If the Antiphons had been accompanied by some specific holiday fare, though, we might have found them more palatable.

What I do like about ritual, though, is the way in which it suppresses the instinct for self-aggrandizement that creeps into religious observance when everyone is given free rein to have his or her say. Usually I am all about freedom of expression, but when a worship service turns into a chance for the most long-winded to show off how eloquently they can pray, I appreciate the finitude of set ritual. Unlike free-wheeling spontaneous prayer, every ritual is guaranteed to have, eventually, a blessed end.  And often it ends with a meal.

Fish on fridays…Guinness and corned beef on St. Patrick’s Day…fried doughnuts on St. Joseph’s Day…Hamantaschen on Purim…the Seder Plate and matzoh-ball soup on Passover…lamb and challah on Easter (and all the chocolates and beer and wine one had foregone, theoretically, for forty days)…rare steak and sangria on the feast of Corpus Christi…latkes on Chanukah…ham on Christmas Eve…etc etc etc.  Did I mention the wine? Correct observance of the Seder requires the consumption of four glasses of wine.  No specification on how large these glasses should be.

Wine Bottle Glass

The religious year is one long smorgasbord of interesting confections, sweets and savories, all for the greater glory of God.  The only respect in which I have trouble keeping ritual is that I am always wanting to experiment with the culinary possibilities inherent in religious symbolism.  So with the exception of a few constants, I have a tendency to switch the meals around, every year.

This also might have to do with items that catch my eye while I shop.  Today, for instance, I noticed a Belgian-style ale called “Ovila,” which at first glance looked like “Avila” (my daughter’s name).  I read the description, and also the history of the ale, proceeds from the sales of which go to help restore the monastery of New Clairvaux.  Even though I have a sort of sneaking prejudice against the original Clairvaux, on account of St. Bernard’s persecution of my academic hero, Peter Abelard, there is something intensely comforting in the thought of monks going on with their centuries old traditions of ora et labora, tending herb gardens, poring over ancient tomes, and brewing beer.  Too bad they don’t illuminate manuscripts anymore.

Book of kells evangelists

There are even specific beers that were brewed heartily enough to sustain the monks through their Lenten fast.  That’s right, they lived on simply beer and water.  No wonder the Church has a mystical tradition.

German monk

I know the old Western monastic tradition was not as romantic as we might sometimes like to think – all those boys who were sent there since their fathers couldn’t think what else to do with them! – still, when you think of the Benedictine, the Chartreuse, the secret liqueurs, the astonishing ales – also the free hospitals for lepers, the doors open to pilgrims and refugees, the scholarship, the almsgiving – it certainly had its splendor.

I just went shopping for our Triduum meals, throwing economy to the wind.  For tonight I will make a small, simple broiled wild-caught salmon with sea salt, lemon, parsley and capers.  Oh, the mortification to which we subject ourselves on these penitential Fridays. I might make potato pancakes as well, with some of those bloody Adirondack Red potatoes. I hope I don’t earn myself a few extra rounds in the Gluttony circle of Purgatorio, for turning supposed fasts into surreptitious feasts.

The souls of the gluttonous

For Saturday evening, to break our fast, I got us a simple European repast.  Federico’s – one of the few reasons not to hate living near Steubenville – was humming with shoppers.  “Buona Pasqua!” said the jovial manager, bustling past with a shank of Prosciutto under his arm, to a bent old man in a fedora. Another man, ordering several pounds of salami at the deli, hastened to assure the woman behind the counter, “it’s not for me! I wouldn’t sin, eating meat on Friday…not even for pork!”  I proceeded to order domestic Prosciutto (half the price of the import, and almost as tasty) as well as smoked turkey, and left the deli workers uncertain as to whether I was planning to wallow hedonistically in animal flesh, even on the most penitential friday of the year. I also picked up goat cheese, Asiago, brie, dried fruit, crusty Italian bread, mixed oil-cured olives.  The Ovila monastery ale I picked up from Valley Wine Cellar, along with a bar of dark chocolate.  Brendan had already procured a bottle of Chianti, last night. No cooking at all for Saturday evening, but plenty of gastronomic satisfaction.

I got our salmon at Kroger, as well as the fixings to go along with the lamb shanks mum picked up for our Easter Sunday dinner.  I’m making Osso Bucco, but with a twist: I’m using fennel instead of celery, and adding some grilled tomatoes.  While shopping I entertained myself by looking at the items in other people’s carts: lots of fat hams, also lots of plastic containers of cupcakes with alarmingly neon frostings.  Over in the seasonal section folks were making a run on the Peeps.  Not I. I’m a food snob. We’ll all be gorging on dark chocolate and European cheeses, but I don’t grudge others their chemical-laden artificially colored marshmallow treats, as long as no one force feeds them to me.

Here’s the recipe I’m using for Osso Bucco:

4-6 Lamb shanks       1/4 c flour      salt and pepper          2 Tbsp butter       2 Tbsp olive oil

5 shallots, diced        2 carrots, chopped      1 bulb fennel, sliced      2 bay leaves

2 c broth or stock     1/2 c red wine      2 tomatoes, halved

6 garlic cloves, minced    1 bunch parsley, minced      juice of 1 lemon

– Dredge shanks in flour, salt and pepper.  Brown in butter and olive oil mixture, at medium-high heat.

– Remove shanks to a plate.  Add to pan shallots, carrots, fennel and bay leaves.  Saute until soft.

– Turn heat to high and deglaze pan with red wine.

– Return shanks to pan, add broth.  Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat to low, simmer 1 1/2 hours.

– Brush tomatoes with olive oil and place on grill or under broiler.

– Add grilled tomatoes to pan.

-Add mixture of minced garlic, lemon juice and parsley to pan, reserving a little to sprinkle over dish when served.

I’m going to make some saffron risotto to serve this with, but it is also good with polenta, or with fresh parmesan croutons.

Lamb Osso Bucco

People sometimes inform me “you can’t be both Catholic and Jewish.”  Can’t I? Well, just watch me!


About Rebecca Bratten Weiss

When I'm feeling optimistic about my life, I call myself a Renaissance woman; when I'm being realistic, though, I have to confess that I am no Pico della Mirandola girding my robes to debate the luminaries of the day, but rather an easily-distracted post-modern pro-life feminist environmentalist farmer and teacher, with too many theories and not enough discipline. Maybe that's okay, though: I've come to discover that academic rigor sometimes leaves no space for the kind of conversations in which philosophy really "happens." Or maybe this is just my excuse for preferring lively dialogue with friends over the drudgery of scholarship. Since I am busy raising a family and working several odd jobs, I don't have the time I need for genuine scholarship, anyway, but that doesn't mean philosophy takes a back seat or waits for me to get done with this phase of my life. Philosophy is at the heart of life. To be a thinking, questioning, valuing, doubting, believing, bodily creature - that's what it means to be human, after all. I have an eclectic religious background (Jewish, Evangelical Protestant, Catholic) - so, while I am now a practicing Roman Catholic I find myself more interested in building bridges of understanding with people from a variety of faith traditions, than in worrying about apologetics. I am fascinated by the different processes by which people try to figure it all out, this struggle called life. I am also fascinated by the ability of so many to ignore the struggle, to silence the conflicts of the human heart, whether by turning away from the "ultimate questions" - or by forcing overly easy answers to these questions. When it comes to matters of faith, I have moments of Nietzschean agnosticism, and moments of neo-classical Deism, and moments when I believe that beyond all the veils that lie across the faces of reality, there is a being who not only created the world and set things ticking, but also loves us. These moments of religious certainty are born not out of rationalism, nor any gifts of mystical insight, but just out of my stubborn existentialist refusal to think of a universe in which any person can live and die utterly unloved. That's why I have stuck it out with Christianity, fundamentally: the compelling image of a God who loved us so much he'd rather come down and walk among us in the mess and murk of human life and death than coerce us into perfection. If it weren't for this image of Jesus - if it were just the institution and the rituals and the apologetics and the authorities, I'd just say "to hell with it" and be a Zoroastrian.
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One Response to The Gastronomy of Religion

  1. Boldi Koenig says:

    Hail the Hobbit ever present in our heart!

    We had four different kinds of ham to feast resurrection on Saturday night (one of them crudo from San Daniele, Italy). And of course all our regular Easter-fare: casino eggs sprinkled with black lentils, salamis, fresh breads, lettuce, tender red radishes, spring onions. Also, my daughter Lili (11) baked a big brioche (and my Mom helpd), with hard boiled eggs nestled in its middle. Local white and rosé wines to drink, Rote Grütze and cakes afterwards.
    Ah, I shall not forget the cheese plate, which would have won approval from the top wizards of the Unseen University.
    Easter is our most important holiday all through the year, after all.

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