As Christmas approaches, many holiday celebrations are being planned to originate in the kitchen and take place around the table.
Three Catholic writers and food experts have advice for creating more meaningful meals for those gatherings, and they aren’t just talking about good recipes.
Their books, websites, radio and television programs are lessons in love and faith as well as in broiling and baking techniques. Sharing holiday and everyday meals — whether they’re served with linen and silver in the formal dining room, or with paper napkins at a potluck buffet — becomes an opportunity to nurture relationships and to grow in faith. That includes the grace of being able to serve and to be served.
“Faith and food go together,” Jeff Young, founder of The Catholic Foodie, told Our Sunday Visitor. “If you look back in Scripture, from cover to cover, from Genesis to Revelation, food plays a major role.”
This Christmas season, put love and faith on the menu as you serve your guests, or be a good guest and help in the kitchen. Do it all with a joyful heart that brings God’s blessings to the table. Remember, too, those who may be eating alone.
Young, plus Father Leo Patalinghug (who defeated an Iron Chef on the Food Network), and food writer Robin Davis offer insight into how to serve more than good food during the holidays.
Food as encounter
Young is known for The Catholic Foodie blog and podcast (catholicfoodie.com). The New Orleans resident puts faith and food together in multiple media to grow faith in the Church community and to encourage a stronger sense of communion at the dinner table.
“God made us to crave communion with himself and also with each other,” he said. “Communion most naturally happens when people are around the table, whether it’s the family table at home or at the altar that’s God’s table at the parish church.”
Young, a husband, father and former educator, grew up in southern Louisiana, where “food is a way of life, and we love to eat together. Getting together around the table with family and friends is one way we can really grow with each other.
“So often we don’t really encounter each other even though we’re in the same room. Even when we go to Mass, we don’t sit face to face and end up looking at the back of someone’s head,” he said. “At table, you can look at each other. It’s such an intimate image of real encounters between people. We can encounter God the same way when we come face to face to meet him. The same things happen when we celebrate traditions like Thanksgiving, Christmas and even Sunday supper.”
Sometimes it’s not possible for everyone to be seated, and that’s OK, too. For instance, Young’s extended family’s holiday tradition brings together 40 to 50 relatives for a Christmas buffet.
“There’s not enough room for everyone to sit down, but we stand up and mingle and move around while eating,” Young told OSV. “You see tiny babies crawling on the floor and old people who can hardly walk. Everybody is there, and you don’t have to sit down to experience that relationship (and) the good things that happen with the blessings of family.”
Feeding each other
|Catholic Foodie Jeff Young is videotaped by a television crew in New Orleans. Photo courtesy of Jeff Young
Father Leo Patalinghug is founder of Grace Before Meals at gracebeforemeals.com, on radio and television, and author of the upcoming book, “Epic Food Fight: A Bite Sized History of Salvation” (Servant, $17.99). The priest links a verse in the Gospel of John with two major incidents in his life. The most significant was that the quote of Jesus telling Peter to “feed my sheep” was printed on the holy card celebrating his ordination to the priesthood in 1999.
“Every response from Jesus to Peter, when he asked Peter if he loved him, was to tell Peter to tend the flock and feed the flock,” he said. “Feeding is a sign of love. Feeding is a sign of mercy. Feeding is what God does to us when we are becoming less of a prodigal son.”
Those verses became the inspiration for Father Patalinghug, a priest in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, to take food so seriously that he created Grace Before Meals.
“Food is not only God’s sign of love to us,” he said. “When we feed others, it is God’s sign that we can do what he does, and that’s to feed one another.”
Foremost, he said, approach food more humbly during the stressful holidays.
“People have to realize that they are not master chefs,” Father Patalinghug told OSV. “They are not the ones to create food. They are there to simply collaborate with what God has done. Be disciplined to do what they can do, and to do that well. And I like to talk about courage, so that people will try something different.”
They are lessons, he added, that also apply to the faithful’s roles in the Church.
“In the Church, we have only bread and wine, and a simple meal is a better way of eating. The simpler the better,” Father Patalinghug said. “Take a cue from Mother Teresa, and make meals a simple act with lots of love.”
And if you have no one with whom to share dinner at Christmas, find someone.
“Invite someone over or invite yourself to someone’s home,” he said. “We are not meant to eat alone. Or if someone is struggling so much (alone), they should plug themselves into the Church community, even if it’s to pray that day.”
A way to connect
Food writer Robin Davis, author of “Recipe For Joy: A Stepmom’s Story of Finding Faith, Following Love and Feeding a Family” (Loyola Press, $13.95), was having the time of her life in San Francisco and said that she would never get married, go back to Ohio or join an organized religion.
That all changed when she returned to Columbus after her father’s death, met a widower with three young children, converted to Catholicism and got married.
Her book chronicles how she turned her love of cooking into a way to reach out to bond with her new family.
“Food was my language, and it was what I was comfortable with,” she said. “I was very uncomfortable being a mother figure. The only thing I felt qualified to do was cook for them. Food can become the language that brings us together. It became an opportunity, a great canvas for exploring each other, and exploring a life that we could build together.”
Food as tradition
Davis brought a Christmas tradition from her own childhood — the making of a Danish pancake pastry called ebelskiver .
“My mother had a special pan for that, and one year the kids bought me a pan,” she said. “Ebelskivers are time-consuming, but we eat them as quickly as I make them.”
One thing she learned, though, about traditions in extended and blended families is that it doesn’t matter if no one likes another person’s must-have dish.
“It’s inconsequential if nobody eats it,” she told OSV. “What’s important is bringing the traditions to the table with you.”
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.