Of the myriad heavenly and earthly themes that season the epic poem The Odyssey, one of the most central is the meal. Homer uses eating, drinking, and the customs surrounding meals as a touchstone of character that reflects a person’s inmost nature. Thus is illustrated the true selves of the swinish suitors as they devour another man’s abundance; or the noble Menelaus as he waits upon young Telemachus; or the savage Polyphemus as he gorges on the dead. In all these scenes from the Homeric epic we find particular truths of our interior life revealed in something as simple as a meal.
The wisdom of depicting the act of eating as symbolic of the interior life is rooted in the mystical side of eating, an act essential for life and an occasion for the morality that springs from manners. The decline of the meal, therefore, reflects and contributes to the decline of life, of human culture. There is a new book that offers a rich solution to the crisis of food; a book designed to enrich and enliven the idea and identity of Catholicism that rises from a good meal like an aroma.
Breaking bread together is a deep sign of cultural togetherness for it bestows the natural nourishment of a person’s body as well as the supernatural nourishment of a body of people. A meal is a ritual: a manifestation of living together in harmony and health—an enactment of human civilization. Food provides a happy occasion for gathering and collective enjoyment, which is one of the pillars of friendship. As an essentially life-giving activity, the meal is like a sacrament of family and friends: a sign and strengthening of the life that follows and flows from those labors of love that bind people together. Meals also serve as a way of worship—a celebration of God’s gifts of food and fellowship.
Today, the idea and ethics of dining are unfortunately deteriorating into a hurried, harried, pre-packaged affair punctuated by interruptions. The very expression “fast food” is inimical to the most essential reason for meals, which arises not out of speed but out of care, consideration, and conversation. Just as Mass or prayers are not for hastening through, neither are meals: our human communion. The current tendency, however, is not only to eat in a rush, which prevents the enjoyment of a meal and demeans the dignity of food, but also eating alone, which diminishes the sense of community. When meals are sacred, the labor and leisure of communities will be sacred—and that sanctity is the basis of culture.
Just as the meal stands as a defender of Catholic culture in every home and every church, so is it fitting to couple excellence in meal-making to the 500-year-old tradition of those defenders of the head of Catholic culture who live where the Church makes her home—the Pontifical Swiss Guards. These superior soldiers, these elite sons of Switzerland, are a serious force when it comes to security, loyalty, and, as it turns out, to culinary appreciation. (They would otherwise be poor protectors of any authentic culture.) The Vatican Cookbook from Sophia Institute Press seamlessly unites two seemingly disparate entities in a single and beautiful vision that truly nourishes the concept and the taste for the vitality of Catholicism and the catholic (as in universal) appreciation for fine and filling foods. Presented by the Swiss Guards themselves, this book is far more than a cookbook.
Food, as Pope Francis has said, is a basic human right, and this book commemorating the tables of the Roman pontiffs while honoring the popes of Rome that presided over them gets right down to basics that are both beautiful and beneficial.
The Vatican Cookbook is alive with gorgeous and grand photography capturing both the world of the Vatican and the dishes that are associated with its magnificent history. As pleasing to the eye alone, these pages are significant—let alone the pleasures they can also afford to the belly. As a guide to the gastronome, the 70 recipes attractively presented in this book are not overly complicated in their execution, using a reasonable amount of easily-acquired ingredients, and offering gourmet results that are elegant and excellent. From holiday feasts to homely fare, these dishes are given as a clear means to bolster and inspire a rejuvenation and restoration of the fineries of Catholic culture.
The Vatican Cookbook also offers in glorious fashion a passage through the marvels of Vatican City as told by the Swiss Guards. These men of discipline and virtue who sacrifice much to offer the Vicar of Christ and his residence safety, have wonderful stories that any Catholic cook—and by that title is meant any Catholic with a kitchen—would enjoy and be edified by as they wait for the pasta bubbling on the stove.
The challenge of every Catholic is to partake in the life of the Mystical Body of Christ. The source and center of this life is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: the perfect prayer, and the enactment of the Mystery of Faith—and it is designed around a meal. Gatherings of Catholic families and friends is a reflection of the Catholic Church, where, as in the parish church, an atmosphere of truth and friendship is fostered, assisted by art and ritual, and ordered intrinsically to the worship and service of God. Members of a church gather at a table for a meal, for Communion, just as a family and friends gather at a table for a meal, for communion. The power and potency of the meal is a sign and source of wellbeing in Christ. There are deep reasons why Christ ate His way through the Gospels, from the wedding feast, to the feeding of the five thousand, to the last supper.
The Catholic Faith is a high-stepping, carnal faith, a faith of feasts following fasts, pairing its spiritual and intellectual profundities with complimentary traditions of art that fill the senses with satisfaction, awe, pleasure, and joy. It is for this reason, which is all too often forgotten, that it is good to reunite the essentially-connected realities of body and soul, of the meal and the Mass, of earth and heaven. The Vatican Cookbook provides precisely this reminder, or experience, in its surprising and unique manner of presenting an important aspect and image of the spiritual life. Good food goes hand in hand with culture, and this book, like the Swiss Guard, is a guardian of culture, of Catholic culture. Buon appetito!