The rich tradition of Catholics in the kitchen

There is an intimate connection between food and faith. In the Garden of Eden, God provided food for Adam and Eve and commanded them not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; the Israelites ate manna in the desert; the most important feast for the Jewish people was the Passover, commemorated with a ritual meal; and of course, the quintessential “feast of faith” is the Eucharist, in which Jesus Christ is made present under the appearance of bread and wine.

Why is there such a connection between food and faith, between Catholics and cooking?

Traditions have developed over the years that have become part and parcel of Catholic life: fish fries on meatless Fridays; coffee and donuts after Sunday Mass; potlucks and Church picnics; meals of consolation for loved ones following funerals; and many more. The world of food blogs and podcasts and television shows also includes a significant Catholic presence.

Catholics bring a fascinating perspective to the world of food. Sometimes this is from ethnic or national cultures that are particularly Catholic, such as Poland, Italy, the Philippines or Mexico. Sometimes it is the result of profound theological reflection on the role that food has played throughout salvation history. Sometimes it is reflections on the importance of the family meal, of breaking bread together. A quick search on the web will yield a tremendous number of Catholics leading the charge.

The power of food

Father Leo Patalinghug has been promoting the link between food and faith for many years and in many media all over the world. Born in the Philippines but raised and currently based in the Baltimore area, Father Patalinghug is a priest member of a community of consecrated life called Voluntas Dei, a secular institute of pontifical right. According to their website, “The aim of the Institute is to be present in every milieu.” Father Patalinghug’s apostolate in the food world, where there is not much explicit priestly presence, certainly speaks to this mission.

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Father Patalinghug is the founder, host and director of Plating Grace (formerly known as Grace Before Meals), “an international apostolate to help strengthen families and relationship through God’s gift of a family meal.” While in seminary, during vacations and breaks, Father Leo would often take culinary arts courses, simply because he enjoyed it. It was a hobby at the time, but “we all know that if you give God everything, he turns it into a ministry,” Father Patalinghug said.

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Father Leo Patalinghug has built an entire apostolate around cooking. Courtesy photo

“My love for cooking began this apostolate,” he said, “which was originally to bring families together, but now more than anything it’s to show the power of food and why Jesus becomes it.” For Father Patalinghug, too many people do not understand the connection between food and faith, “because they don’t pay attention to why we come together at Mass in the first place. We go to be fed,” he said.

He identifies three possible reasons that people don’t get “fed” at church: first, because the priest is doing a bad job in feeding people’s minds with a good homily; second, the devil is doing a better job at feeding people, and they’re all turning to evil sources; third, people are not hungry to eat and to digest what God is serving. “So my work is to make communion with God more understandable when they celebrate true communion with each other around a dinner table at their own home — which happens to be a domestic church, gathered around a family’s altar. Because an altar is a place where sacrifice is made.” There must be a connection between who people are outside of church and what they’re doing inside of church. “They’re being fed with something very powerful. And they’ll only know that when they truly digest the message of Jesus Christ.”

A Sacred Balance
For many people, it can be tempting to idolize food, to raise it up to a level beyond that which it deserves. The best way to approach food is as a disciple, Father Leo Patalinghug said — remembering that this word has the same root as “discipline.”

To God and one another

Ryan Langr is a contributor to the feature Cooking with Catholic Kids at the website Peanut Butter & Grace. A former director of religious education, he is now a stay-at-home dad.

Cooking with Catholic Kids serves up a recipe associated with a special church celebration, usually a feast day, along with a reflection and a prayer to be used with kids. Langr and the others at Peanut Butter & Grace see food as a great way to live the faith.

“Food is an ancient form of community, and our faith is necessarily communal,” Langr said. “Food can provide an intimate (in some cases sacramental) connection to God, a space to talk about him, and a way in which to develop, establish and keep relationships which bring us closer to God.” While he hesitates to say food is essential for faith, he said that it is “definitely a large and important part of what makes the faith enriching and relatable.”

Langr sees the connection between food and faith as being a matter of sustenance: “We literally need food to survive, and Jesus and the Church have built upon that need because we also need Jesus to survive.” It’s a natural relationship, he said, as what speaks to our body also speaks to our soul. This flows from the incarnational nature of our faith.

Cultural imprints

In many countries, the Church has become such an integral part of the national culture that even certain dishes are considered profoundly Catholic. In Poland, there is Kremowka Papieska, or “Papal Cream Cake,” which is a pastry filled with cream that was Pope St. John Paul II’s favorite dessert. The pope even organized a Kremowka Papieska eating competition with friends to celebrate high school graduation.

Pierogi is another Polish dish that has developed quite the Catholic identity. Recently, a devoted pierogi fanbase has developed on Twitter; Father Alex Schrenk, a priest of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, even has a separate account (@pierogiplease) where he tweets about pierogi.

Beer has also become, in some ways, a quintessentially Catholic beverage. St. Arnold of Metz, a seventh-century Frankish bishop and patron saint of brewers, is reported to have said, “From man’s sweat and God’s love, beer came into the world.” There is a great tradition of Trappist monasteries brewing beer, and others (including the Benedictine monks of Nursia, birthplace of St. Benedict) have begun brewing and selling beer, as well.

The Catholic Foodie

In the food-lover’s hub of New Orleans, Louisiana, Jeff Young runs his website The Catholic Foodie. Young also offers a weekly podcast on the topic of food and faith, and is the host of a radio show called Around the Table.

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The main purpose of The Catholic Foodie, according to Young, “is to inspire and encourage families to get into the kitchen and back around the table. We are all so busy these days, with activities and commitments pulling family members in so many different directions, that what used to be the most normal thing in the world — the family meal — no longer is so.” Instead, he said, we eat on the go, and order out, and eat food that is processed and portable and not-so-healthy. What is lost is so important: “the meal itself — the time to really connect with each other across the table.”

With The Catholic Foodie, Young wants to make cooking and eating together fun. Over the years, he has done this through sharing recipes and stories via podcasting, radio, on-location presentations and cooking demonstrations, blogging, articles, and books.

The Catholic Foodie was launched in October 2008, when Young was teaching high school Spanish and religion. “I’ve always been something of a geek,” he said, “and I was into podcasts in the early days of the iPhone and iPod.” He wanted to start his own podcast and started by podcasting his Spanish lessons. The students enjoyed it and benefited from it, and Young thoroughly enjoyed podcasting and wanted to expand into something non-work related. “Two things that have always been important to me — and two things that fit so well together — are food and faith. I innately saw the connection between the two, and The Catholic Foodie was born.”

Home and hospitality

Love and faith both start at home, Young said. “I can’t fix the world, but I can start with me. I can start in my own home with my own family. Not to fix them, but to love them.” One way to do so is to commit to eating together as a family. For Young, this is one of the most important intersections of faith and food: the importance of the family meal.

While a daily meal together is ideal, he said, for many that is not feasible, so just do what you can. Make the effort. “Linger at the table. Invite the kids into the kitchen to help prepare the meal. If cooking is out of the question, then dine out together. But shoot for a place with minimal distractions (no restaurants with TVs!), a place where you can really connect with each member of your family.”

If your family already regularly eats together, “go further. Cast the nets out into the deep,” Young advises. “Pick up the mantle of hospitality and make it a habit to invite others into your home and around your table to break bread with you.” Young advises starting with people in your parish or someone who lives alone, perhaps a widow or widower, or an immigrant.

Mother Teresa said that she encountered poverty in the West, a poverty of the heart, a deep loneliness that she did not see anywhere else in the world. “Food shared around our tables can alleviate that poverty,” Young said. “Our open doors and open hearts can cure the poverty of profound loneliness.” This is one profound way that, through food, we can be disciples and evangelizers.

Part of the Salvation Plan
Jeff Young accounts for the profound connection between faith and food by an act of God’s will. “God made it that way,” he said. “God made us that way.” We were made for communion, he said — with God and with each other.

Deeper hunger

There is a profound longing within us that cannot be satisfied by earthly things. In traditional thought, the overindulgence of food and drink, in particular, is known as gluttony. Gluttony is a sort of idolizing of food, an intemperance in how we treat food. On a deeper level, this comes from trying to find fulfillment in things that can make us feel full but cannot fulfill us.

“Below the surface,” Young said, “we are trying to feed the deepest parts of ourselves, while trying to stave off a deep loneliness. It doesn’t work, of course. The same can be said of any addiction.” Young points out that most recent research shows the most effective cure for addiction is connection, relationship: communion.

One concrete way we can either heal from gluttony or protect ourselves against it is “to connect, to grow in our relationships with those close to us, with family and friends,” he said. Many find it helpful to fight gluttony by keeping food “in its proper context,” which is a meal shared with others. “For millennia it took a family to put food on the table. Once on the table, the food was consumed as part of a shared meal. What we see today — an overabundance of any and all foods imaginable, readily available any hour of the day or night, often consumed in isolation because of hectic schedules and broken relationships — is a sad new development in human history.”

Patrons of Food
There are many patron saints of the culinary arts. As with most saintly patronages, the saint in question usually has a connection to cooking.
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Grow in communion

While it may be impossible to make every meal a shared meal, it is important to do so as often as possible. “Doing so helps us keep a balanced relationship with food and helps us grow in relationship with those we break bread with,” he said.

So many of our Catholic traditions revolve around food, because God has placed within us a desire for communion, knowing that we experience communion most tangibly within the intimacy of a shared meal, Young said. “God hungers for us. He hungers for our love. And we hunger for God. He comes to meet us right where we are, and he invites us to dine with him” (cf. Jn 14:23, Rev 3:20). In light of Young’s observations, perhaps a paraphrase of one of St. Augustine’s most well-known lines is in order: Our appetites were made for you, O Lord, and we are restless until we find sustenance in you.

Paul Senz writes from Oregon.

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