Becoming Human Through Cooking
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)