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Becoming Human Through Cooking

January 19, 2011

Call me a hopeless Romantic, but I won’t give up believing that humans are more than machines. Few cookbooks would reinforce my prejudice, but Robert Farrar Capon’s The Supper of the Lamb does the job splendidly.  Now, this is no ordinary cookbook.  It is a collection of recipes interspersed with exceptional prose.  Capon offers us a wonderful range of recipes including helpful tips on diverse subjects such as preparing stock and using a knife.  In between, he reminds us that we are what we eat, and that who we are and what we eat are often so much more than we expect.  It is impossible to do justice to this unique and incomparable piece of writing, but I did want to reflect on three ways that cooking reminds us of what it means to be human.

Paying Attention to Things: In his second chapter, Capon imagines an extended encounter with an onion.  He describes the slow and careful process of dissecting the onion to meditate on the miracle of something so commonplace and so smelly.  God made a world of things, and not a world of nutritional facts, and we are therefore members of the society of all things.  Cooking brings us face to face with the thing-i-ness of things:

Every time he diagrams something instead of looking at it, every time he regards not what a thing is but what it can be made to mean to him – every time he substitutes a conceit for a fact – he gets grease all over the kitchen of the world.  Reality slips away from him; and he is left with nothing but the oldest monstrosity in the world: an idol.  Things must be met for themselves.  To take them only for their meaning is to convert them into gods – to make them too important, and therefore to make ‘them’ unimportant altogether.  Idolatry has two faults.  It is not only a slur on the true God;  it is also an insult to true things. (20)

Returning To Our Senses: In a world increasingly populated by processed foods, artificial flavors, and vitamin supplements, it is nice to be reminded that there is more to life than biochemistry.  Cooking (and eating) is an education in the senses.  Surely health and nutrition are important, but the world is meant to be tasted, and we are meant to do the tasting:

Man invented cooking before he thought of nutrition.  To be sure, food keeps us alive, but that is only its smallest and most temporary work.  Its eternal purpose is to furnish our sensibilities against the day when we shall sit down at the heavenly banquet and see how gracious the Lord is.  Nourishment is necessary only for a while;  what we shall need forever is taste. (40)

The Unnecessariness of Our Being: “Food,” says Capon, “is the daily sacrament of unnecessary goodness, ordained for a continual remembrance that the world will always be more delicious than it is useful.” (40)  He reminds us that all of creation exists for the pleasure and delight of God, and that human beings are defined by the love of their Creator.  We are led to wonder at the miraculous contingency of the food we eat, and Capon directs us especially to the contemplation of wine.  Let us lift our glasses, I leave you with a toast:

To a radically, perpetually unnecessary world; to the restoration of astonishment to the heart and mystery to the mind; to wine, because it is a gift we never expected; to mushroom and artichoke, for they are incredible legacies; to improbable acids and high alcohols, since we would hardly have thought of them ourselves, and to all being, because it is superfluous: to the hairs on Harry’s ear, and to the seven hundred and sixty-eighth cell from the upper attachment of the right gluteus maximus in the last girl on the chorus line.  Prosit, Dear Hearts.  Cheers, Men and Brethren.  We are free: nothing is needful, everything is for joy.  Let the bookkeepers struggle with their balance sheets; it is the tippler who sees the untipped Hand.  God is eccentric; He has loves, not reasons.  Salute! (86)

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. January 19, 2011 8:51 am

    Great post, Jim! I love Capon’s book as well, but one thing I struggle with is that paying attention to food and rejoicing in the unnecessariness of being takes so much time. When I take the time, I usually do not regret it, but the usual pressures of the day often do not allow me to stop and appreciate the layers of an onion and its glorious thing-i-ness. I have to eat, and there’s a meal to be cooked.

    How do you negotiate the need to cook food (and often quickly) and the desire to appreciate the food and the whole process of preparing it? Do you have particular meals, maybe on Sunday, when you take a little more time to savor the substance and the style? I’d love to hear your thoughts, and I toast my morning coffee to the “restoration of astonishment.”

    • Jim permalink*
      January 19, 2011 9:09 am

      Wes, I think you are absolutely right that it is difficult to find time to enjoy cooking in the kind of way that Capon suggests. And, in fact, Capon seems to be aware of this and he recognizes that not all cooking will result in a feast (for our bellies or our senses). But I think that most people could make time every once in a while to enjoy the making of food. I am not particularly good at this. Emily, my wife, is much better. Really enjoying cooking requires education. As Capon says, his book is for the amateur in the real sense of the word: as the one who loves a particular discipline or practice. I am still in the midst of the long process of becoming an amateur. But there are some meals, such as pizza, that I enjoy making from scratch, and I try to this on a regular basis. The real point of Capon’s book, I think, is a reorientation of ourselves. I think he is pointing out that that way we perceive food is closely related to how we perceive ourselves, and that sometimes we need reminders about what it is and who we are. This does not mean that we never eat fast food, but that we maintain the proper perspective.

      • May 14, 2017 5:51 pm

        Sorry I didn’t answer your question.What I stand by today is that everything we do should have a reason, a logic based in our purpose. Not just subjective, indulgent, enremtainrent.Fotm follows function.We are in the mass communication business, not fine art.That booklet is a start point for the logic of our function.It’s not the be-all and end-all of what we do, but it should be the basic minimum.

  2. Anna permalink
    January 19, 2011 9:47 am

    I think i need to borrow this book from one of you when I get back to the kingdom of fife. Sounds exactly like what i’m looking for. I’ve found great joy in cooking over the last year in particular. It’s one of the few activities (other than exercise) where my mind is able to fully engage in the task at hand but yet not over analyse. A perfect antidote to a long day of reading and writing! I love the way fresh ingredients smell when they are cooking and being prepared – the satisfactory crunch. Oh, and the joy of that onion when roasted – the way it becomes sweet – there’s almost nothing better; well, there is, but only if it’s kangaroo i’m roasting….and that’s not happening anytime soon in Scotland. I’ll just settle for a glass of red luxuriously enjoyed and that toast above.

  3. January 19, 2011 1:40 pm

    Beautifully said! Thank you.

  4. Jim permalink*
    January 19, 2011 8:16 pm

    Anna, you are most welcome to borrow the book as long as you bring some kangaroo back to Scotland with you, and then teach me how to make a kangaroo burger.

    Michael, thanks for the kind words!

    • Anna permalink
      January 19, 2011 10:53 pm

      unfortunately, I have a funny feeling that customs would not approve of me bringing game (indeed any meat) into the UK, however lax their procedures seem to be….but i will commit to preparing it for you if you ever find yourself in Australia (or we’re in the US (California imports it) where i can get hold of it). It’s really lean and delicious! And i’m fully aware many will find me odd after reading this!

      I do think we need to hear you give that toast at our Feb Transpositions dinner! Also, did you take that awesome photo? (cause you should credit yourself!)

      • May 14, 2017 8:57 pm

        There are no words to describe how bodouiacs this is.

      • September 2, 2017 9:49 am

        hát az analógia helyes. én annyit tenék hozzá, hogy akkor nekem a terhesség az egy olyan gyaloglós zarándokút, amire rossz cipÅ‘ben indulok el. A szülés meg a kedvenc sportom, az is olyan mint a hosszútávfutás, és az a legjobb az egészben, hogy a végén valahogy kapsz egy erÅ‘többletet valahonnan, nem tudom honnan, de mindig kap az ember, és akkor jöhet a sprint. utána meg a jól megérdemelt baba 🙂

    • May 14, 2017 5:44 pm

      That’s way the beetsst answer so far!

  5. January 20, 2011 2:40 am

    This is one of the most memorable books I read in my first year of college. Love love love it. The materiality of the world being exulted in and enjoyed because of God and His people, rather than being seen as tripping up our spiritual lives – something more of us need to understand.

  6. May 14, 2017 5:38 pm

    Suririspng to think of something like that

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