In 1969 Fr. Robert Farrar Capon, an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Long Island, published The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection, a work which has remained in print ever since. The book is an engaging mix of cooking philosophy, recipes, hospitality, and theology and I am truly grateful to have encountered it. Fr. Capon pitches the book as if it is a cookbook, but it’s only a cookbook in the way that James Krenov’s A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook is a woodworking book. The act of cooking, like Krenov’s woodworking, is simply the medium through which you learn about the author’s worldview.
As an aside, knowing the time it which it was written, we shall forgive Fr. Capon of his gender biases which appear throughout the book, routinely talking to the wife cooking for her husband.
The book itself is written as a conversation between Fr. Capon and his reader, beginning with a recipe for “Lamb for Eight Persons Four Times.” That is a recipe for a leg of lamb, the intent of which is to provide leftovers. The remainder of the book reads like Fr. Capon, while attempting to teach you to cook this dish, digresses where his heart and soul will, as if you and he are old friends sitting in his kitchen with a glass of sherry. Were it ever so.
There are at least three lengthy passages in the book, one on the onion, another on a gentleman’s pocket knife, and a final one on the corkscrew, which are both incredibly instructive, beautifully written, and provide a look at what Fr. Capon holds dear.
“…But back to the onion itself. As nearly as possible now, try to look at it as if you had never seen an onion before. Try, in other words, to meet it on its own terms, not to dictate yours to it. You are convinced, of course, that you know what an onion is. You think perhaps it is a brownish yellow vegetable, basically spherical in shape, composed of fundamentally similar layers. All such prejudices should abandoned. It is what it is, and your work here is to find it out.
…Perhaps now you have seen at least dimly that the uniquenesses of creation are the result of continuous creative support, of effective regard by no mean lover. He likes onions, therefore they are.
…Man’s real work is to look at the things of the world and to love them for what they are. That is, after all, what God does, and man was not made in God’s image for nothing.”
Of the pocketknife he writes of his father and grandfather and how he was raised that gentlemen were never without them, ultimately asserting, “An old man without a thin, gold pocketknife is not a real old man.” I’d be lying if this didn’t force me to look at my own all stainless pocketknife with a bit of derision.
In similar fashion, he talks of corkscrews with no little authority and opinion.
“If you have never considered the subject carefully, you no doubt think that a corkscrew is just a corkscrew, and that one will do as well, or as badly, as another. The truth is, however, that there are more tin-fiddle manufacturers in the corkscrew business than anywhere else.”
It’s all pure genius.
As good as all of this is, “The Supper of the Lamb” does not really reach its full potential until the final 20 pages or so, when Fr. Capon begins to explain the how and why of dinner parties.
“…the dinner party is a true proclamation of the abundance of being – a rebuke to the thrifty little idolatries by which we lose sight of the lavish hand that made us…It was largesse that made us all; we were not created to fast forever.
…have at least one solidly personal reason for inviting whomever you call to your table, and be sure that that reason looks chiefly outward at your guest and not inward at yourself. To ask a man to break bread with you is to extend friendship, to proclaim in love that you want not his, but him.
…Your dinner party is an act of love, not a lecture on gourmandise.”
And so these last quote flood my mind with three images, but not images so much as nostalgic feelings.
In the first image, I’m quite young, probably less than 10 years old. I’m at my mother’s family’s original homestead in Charenton, LA, in one of the outbuildings we always called the “barbeque room”. I know I’m quite young because I don’t remember anyone’s faces. Everything is eye level with me, countertop, blue jeans, coveralls, weathered hands, and glass bottles. The men there, and it is only men, are uncles, great-uncles, my grandfather, perhaps my great-grandfather. They smell of sweat, beer, and smoke. So much smoke (it is the barbecue room) that it makes my eyes sting. They smell like men. They are all gathered round the literal and proverbial fatted calf. You see, these men are Cajuns, through and through, and gathering the family together means that everyone is invited, everyone is welcome, and we all feast on our abundance. And like all Cajun men…they cook. Looking back I realize this is probably my first understanding of family, of community, of the Kingdom of God.
The second image is more recent and has taken several different iterations. It is an image of the kitchen of my friends, Frank and Janet. They are consummate hosts in whose home Fr. Capon would have felt welcome and familiar. We have shared many meals there. Celebrations of life, friends, and family. Quiet, raw remembrances of the same, now past. There is always enough food and always enough wine, but somehow there is never enough time. When Frank cooks it is unquestionably an act of love that even now nearly brings tears to my eyes. To be in their home is to experience a glimpse of the Kingdom and even when the meal lasts for hours, I never want it to end. Oh, how I long to be a host like that.
The third and final image is of Christ Himself, seated among his disciples. He takes the bread and wine, offering it to them and says, “This is My body which is given for you, do this in remembrance of Me.” Luke 22:19 Although the church has rightly ritualized this act of broken bread and poured out wine in our Eucharist, I don’t believe that’s what Christ intended, at least not completely. I believe that what Christ meant was, “whenever you’ve gathered friends and family, to break bread and share wine, to fellowship with friends new and old, to offer all the love and hospitality you can muster, whenever you do that…the Kingdom is present, so never, ever take that for granted and rejoice in it always.
To me, The Supper of the Lamb is really about realizing how truly blessed we are to be loved by Christ and is but one example of how we can reflect that love from ourselves onto and into others.
“Eat well then. Between our love and His Priesthood, He makes all things new. Our Last Home will be home indeed.”
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