Sunday, January 22, 2012
Christian Cooking: Recalling the Drama of Salvation
While riding on a train on my way to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham this week, I decided to put down my devotional reading (too much of that makes your eyes go cross!) and pick up the Telegraph only to have the most bizarre advert jump up and attack me, thereby robbing me of my peace and stillness.
Apparently, in the U.K. Uncle Ben’s makes a sweet and sour sauce that’s quite popular. It looks like red glue with chunks of Play-Doh mixed in it. But that’s not what got my attention, though that alone is reason enough to avoid it.
The ad made a stunning claim that Uncle Ben’s sweet and sour was the ‘perfect way to celebrate the Chinese New Year’. Yeah, read that again: the perfect way to celebrate the Chinese New Year in Britain – or wherever you may be – is to buy Uncle Ben’s sweet and sour. Yum, yum?
Now, not to impugn Chinese New Year observers, but since when did Britain become so secular that the Chinese New Year would get its own sauce and full page ad in the Telegraph? Now, before you lecture me or put down our British brothers and sisters, I know much of this is the power of advertising, and that’s all fine and dandy. I like a good gimmick like the next guy. My beef is not with clever marketing.
My issue is deeper and more allusive, really. And it is thus: since when did we as a culture become so removed from the Christian Year, the intentional observances of God’s redemptive acts in history and celebrating the lives of the Saints as handed to us in the Church Year, that we’re prone to celebrate the Chinese New Year by eating (some might say stooping to eat) Uncle Ben’s sweet and sour? Specific to this blog, would be questions like: what happened to the likes of king cakes for Epiphany; Christmas pudding (UK only); hot cross buns on Good Friday; pancakes for Shrove Tuesday; Easter eggs; Lamb for Easter Day; etc.? Sure, these foods still exist, but how many self-identifying Christians ever endeavour to consciously enjoy them or share them with others?
Eating certain foods on certain days of the Church Year, you see, reminds us that even something as simple as our daily cookery participates in the mystery of redemption by becoming a symbol invested with meaning, especially when intentionally framed by the larger story of salvation.
The early Church, taking its cue from much of the biblical narrative, considered honey, lamb, grapes, wine, fish and olives all to be powerful symbols of the faith. To consume them was to recall a certain aspect of salvation, a certain partaking of the beauty of redemption. At one level, since food is a gift from God, all meals are, in a sense, deeply religious experiences.
Above all, I hasten to remind us, dear ones, that the Mass – the primary means by which we are spiritually nourished – is the sacred meal of salvation par excellence. To deny that material things participate in redemption is to deny the Incarnation and, ultimately, Christ. Until the Reformation, when both the baby and bathwater were discarded, and up until the lingering darkness of the Enlightenment, Christians of all stripes understood this quite well.
But I’m not a war-torn old cynic who’s content to pine for the old glory days just for sake of putting down modernity, revealing its negligence of historic gustatory matters and highlighting its ignorance of sacred time. I’m actually quite keen – thankful really – to be living in these exciting times.
Therefore, I consider this current malaise an opportunity to turn once again to the past – back to the history of explicitly Christian cooking. For in years gone past, our forbearers marked sacred time not only in their parish prayer lives but in their kitchens, too.
And reclaiming this heritage is a modest way to keep the faith before our eyes in simple, daily and meaningful ways. For it is in the daily life that God wills to be found. Those insisting that Christianity is a primarily a series of emotional and ecstatic highs, meant only to be experienced by the true believer – whatever that is – are sorely misguided. Instead of Rita Coolige’s James Bond theme song, ‘We’re an All Time High’, the Christian’s cry, as a friend of mine recently commented, is loudly and only ‘Lord, have mercy’, which of course He did have mercy in sending us so great a Saviour.
And there is hardly a better way to recall our Lord’s tender mercy than by commemorating His feasts and observing the prescribed fasts of the Church Year accordingly.
Of course, our current season of Epiphanytide is famous for the king cake, the galette des rois, as it’s called in France. But during the Middle Ages in England and later in Colonial America, particularly in Anglican colonies, Epiphanytide was marked by drinking lamb’s wool punch, a hot cider drink.
My own take on lamb’s wool follows, but I have removed the traditional ale and replaced it with Prosecco, the dry Italian sparkling wine.
Epiphany Lamb’s Wool Punch
8 Honeycrisp Apples (cored, peeled and sliced)
2 bottles Prosecco or Cava (you may, of course, use a pale or dark ale, as is the traditional means for making lamb’s wool punch)
1/4 cup Butter + 1 tsp. for coating baking sheet
1 cup Sugar
1/4 cup light brown sugar
1/2 tsp. Penzey’s nutmeg
1/2 tsp. Penzey’s ground ginger
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Bake apples for forty minutes on a buttered cookie sheet with brown sugar sprinkled on top. Remove from oven and place all ingredients, except the Prosecco, in a saucepan over medium heat. Cook the mixture five minutes on medium heat after the sugar has dissolved. Fill a flute 1/3 full with room temp Prosecco and top with the lamb’s wool mixture. Enjoy.