By Joshua Gibbs & Dr. Jim Watkins, Upper School Humanities
For a moment, ponder how much of your day revolves around food.
We rise, we eat. But we do not right away. First, we decide what we will eat. Then we prepare what we will eat. Then we eat. Then we clean the plates and cups. Then we put them away. Then we wash what we have eaten from our teeth. We go to work for a little bit, and then stop to eat again. In the afternoon, while at work, we think of what we will eat in the evening. We look forward to what we will eat when the weekend comes. After work, we go to the grocery store and buy food. Then we drive our food home. Then we put our food away, and then we take it out again. We cut our food, cook our food, set the table, fill the table, fill our plates, fill our stomachs, clear the table, wash the plates, put the plates away. A little later, we look for a bedtime snack. Then we wash the snack plate. Then we wash the food from our teeth again.
The typical American spends about twenty cents of every dollar he earns on food. Put another way, twelve seconds of every minute a man works ends up in his mouth.
If a man has a poor understanding of food, he has a poor understanding of life.
Since January, the Theological Aesthetics elective has met to eat, to talk about eating, and to bring the full weight of Western philosophy and theology to bear on the stomach. Our text is Fr. Robert Farrar Capon’s The Supper of the Lamb, a text which is “part cookbook, part theological meditation— something like M.F.K Fisher meets the desert fathers.” Capon presents himself not as a professional cook, but an amateur— and the amateur is nothing but “the lover,” as the word is derived from the Latin amo, to love. His qualification for writing a cookbook is nothing more than his love for food and his love of God, the giver of food. These twin loves have given birth to study, obedience, and devotion to culinary art.
Capon’s book is unusual. He sees little difference between cooking and theology, little difference between taste and metaphysics. Every food is just a little sacramental. Every cook just a little priestly. Capon swings back and forth between discussions of God and onions as easily as a two-way door that the pantry from the study. He asks his students to view the kitchen as a microcosm of the whole cosmos, to understand the world by way of sauce, soup, stew, and stock.
Week by week, the Theological Aesthetics class works through a chapter from Capon’s book. Week by week, one student brings in a dish to share, writes a brief essay describing the food, interpreting the food, and then that student fields questions from their peers. Capon’s book has been assisted by readings from Dorothy Sayers, movies about sushi chefs, and documentaries about Italian art and cuisine.
On St. Patrick’s Day, the Theological Aesthetics class repaired to the Benko residence for a morning at the stove. The students were presented with butter, eggs, flour, cream, chuck roast, Gouda, cherry jam, bacon, mustard, yeast, salt. Three hours later, they ate a lunch of pasta alfredo, pan seared beef, bread and a bitter green salad dressed bitter and sweet.
Capon consistently commends palpable, tactile knowing. He resists knowledge by mere numbers and diagrams. If God wanted us to know by way of symbol and pure intellection, He would not have given us so many beautiful things and senses by which to enjoy them. And so the students measured out the floor, slowly incorporated the flour with eggs, kneaded dough, rolled dough and cut the dough into linguini. Capon eschews short cuts; a man does not rush that which he loves.
The work was time consuming, and so it was satisfying. The kitchen breathed, bubbled, steamed. All took turns kneading the dough, and all got their hands caked in wet flour. Over the course of three hours, we all took part in the transformation of glorious things into things more glorious still. We imitated the masters we had seen and read, and communed with a little of their goodness and wisdom.
As we ate, they were both satisfied and delighted by the work of their own hands. Some class periods are enjoyable, some are educational, but some class periods are transformational. Those transformational classes culminate in the student realizing some new and beautiful way of living, some new reconciliation of the self to the cosmos, some new image of human thriving… and with that image, a new personal peace treaty with the world is brought near enough to the student that it can be touched.
This was just such a day.