My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Robert Farrar Capon can come across a bit pompous, even pretentious, I admit. There were several times I cringed or rolled my eyes reading this work. He writes with a spirit of absolute confidence, and his tone is not mitigated (or only slightly mitigated) by the fact that he is so absolutely, insufferably, correct throughout.
That intro almost makes it sound as if I didn’t love this book. This is a cookbook that will change your life, and anything that changes your life– especially something that gets you to admit you’re only half awake and missing most of the important things transpiring around you because of your own laziness, ineptitude, and pure inattention– is going to be something that might rub you the wrong way a little bit. This is a book both glorious and terrible, but the older kind of terrible, when it meant something that could chew you up, not necessarily something simply of poor quality.
Capon is a materialist in the grandest Christian tradition. For him, the world is holy. Material things are holy. We are not saved from the world, he writes, we are saved through the world. And the book itself, a melange of prose, recipes, reflections on life, and exhortations to excellence, is a celebration of the reality and the wonder of food and its preparation. It is Michael Pollan meets G. K. Chesterton, and it reads about as wonderfully and heavily as you would expect such a combination. Read it slowly. Try to put aside– as was difficult for me– the feelings of inadequacy next to Capon’s grandiose claims for kitchen life and entertaining.
Read this book. We live in an age dominated by two great heresies: on the one hand are the spiritualists who tell us (and many of whom claim Christianity teaches) that the physical world is insignificant. On the other hand are the consumerists who see in the physical world only material to be used, marketed and exploited. (Often these two hands are one and the same.) Against this stand the Christian materialists, in a long line upon the modern branches of which you will find Tolkien, Chesterton, and Lewis, among others. This is Capon’s lineage.
By the second chapter you know where Capon stands. He calls us to meet an onion– to actually look at it, examine it, spend time with it, and reflect on the wonder that it represents. After this there will be plenty of time for the ins and outs of how meat should be prepared and why knives today aren’t as good as they used to be. But the theme that begins here is central: the world exists to be appreciated, and man exists as the priest of nature, lifting it up and offering it up with thanks and humility to God. (If this sounds a bit like Schmemann, you’re not far from the mark.)
There is much to say, but perhaps it is simplest to trust to Capon’s own distinctive voice, from the concluding chapter, in which he offers his own solution to physical heartburn and then reflects on the deeper burning of the heart that will be familiar to any readers of Lewis:
For all its greatness, the created order cries out for further greatness still. The most splendid dinner, the most exquisite food, the most gratifying company, arouse more appetites than they satisfy. They do not slake man’s thirst for being; they whet it beyond all bounds. Dogs eat to give their bodies rest; man dines and sets his heart in motion. All tastes fade, of course, but not the taste for greatness they inspire; each love escapes us, but not the longing it provokes for a better convivium, a higher session. We embrace the world in all its glorious solidity, yet it struggles in our very arms, declares itself a pilgrim world, and, through the lattices and windows of its nature, discloses cities more desirable still.
You indict me, no doubt, as an incurable romantic. I plead guilty without contest. I see no other explanation of what we are about. Why do we marry, why take friends and lovers, why give ourselves to music, painting, chemistry, or cooking? Out of simple delight in the resident goodness of creation, of course; but out of more than that, too. Half of earth’s gorgeousness lies hidden in the glimpsed city it longs to become. For all its rooted loveliness, the world has no continuing city here; it is an outlandish place, a foreign home, a session in via to a better version of itself– and it is our glory to see it so and thirst until Jerusalem comes home at last. We were given appetites, not to consume the world and forget it, but to taste its goodness and hunger to make it great. (my emphasis)
Read this book.