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Dining with the Saints:
The Sinner’s Guide to a Righteous Feast

by rev. leo patalinghug and michael p. foley
regnery history, 500 pages, $35

As a child in Mexico during the seventeenth century, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz would dress as a boy and sneak into male-only schools to sate her educational hunger. She entered the convent at age eighteen, and became a prolific writer. But her intellectual interests provoked scandal because of her sex, and so Sor Juana was relegated to the kitchen.

This proved providential. Sor Juana transformed the convent kitchen into a culinary and intellectual workshop. The culinary arts enabled her to reach a higher form of knowledge and wisdom than even formal philosophy and theology instruction could have, according to Dominican friar and professor Angel Méndez Montoya. “Had Aristotle cooked, he would have written a good deal more,” she once remarked. Her talent for writing was also applied to the creation of a cookbook.

In Sor Juana’s example, we learn that sabor and saber, savoring and knowing, are siblings. To know God is to savor his cosmic feast, especially in the superabundance and self-sharing of the Eucharist, the ultimate banquet of the senses. Although hunger is a result of the Fall, we should elevate the pleasure of our earthly meals with gratitude, reverence, and good company. In Dining with the Saints: The Sinner’s Guide to a Righteous Feast, readers are in the company of a motley crew of God’s friends who have known, savored, and served the Divine Chef.

Written by award-winning chef and priest Father Leo Patalinghug and Drinking with the Saints author Michael Foley, Dining with the Saints is humble yet sophisticated, cosmopolitan in its culinary scope, but not fussy or intimidating for non-hobbyists or those who’d rather not embark on a wild goose chase for exotic ingredients. This book is the liturgical calendar of recipes, not only including recipes for each saint’s feast day, but also recipes for the fat and meager days of the year.

As a cook, I’m a culinary pilgrim who has always sought in my kitchen the kind of intellectual and spiritual respite Sor Juana found in hers. I was raised by Christian immigrants from the Holy Land and immersed in the food traditions of the Byzantine church. I was pleasantly surprised by the ease and accessibility of this book’s recipes from North America, Europe and Asia, and especially Christ’s birthplace.

Each recipe is designed either to represent a place of importance to the saint being honored that day or to symbolize a significant detail from his or her life, as explained in a short description of the saint. One of my favorite dishes featured in the book is the Palestinian musakhan, which showcases some of the defining flavors of Middle Eastern cooking: citrus, nuts, and astringent but sweet sumac combined with other staple spices to season the chicken. Musakhan was appropriately assigned to Saint Justin Martyr of modern-day Nablus, whose feast day is in April.

The book provides a nice balance of sweet and savory, and the recipes don’t sacrifice ambition for ease, often including substitutions for ingredients that aren’t staples. Tiramisu, a dessert that requires mascarpone cheese, marsala wine, savoiardi (Italian lady fingers), and whipped eggs for zabaglione, is simplified for Saint Maria Goretti, whose feast day is July 6. The child-friendly version in Dining with the Saints excludes the alcohol and other ingredients that would require a trip to an Italian deli. Perhaps the most peculiar recipe was that for Brunswick Stew, which is made with squirrel meat (for those uninterested in hunting, the substitute protein is chicken breast).

Dining with the Saints offers a telos to dining that even some of the best secular cookbooks, such as Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, can’t deliver. The Scottish biographer James Boswell wrote that he defines man as a “cooking animal,” and that this ability is what separates us from the beasts. I would add that man is a praying animal, a species God designed to be the crown jewel of the universe and whose purpose is to know him. To cook and to give thanks, to savor and to know, amounts to a fullness in appetite non-rational animals can never achieve.

The kitchen and dining table are civilizational labs, with their own economies and sociologies. The dining table ought to be a place with a culture, rituals, and formality, but for many American homes it is interchangeable with the bed or couch. This kind of eating—usually solitary, usually accompanied by the distracting blue glow of a screen, usually without prayer—is passive and often mindless, akin to the feeding habits of wildlife. It’s also distinctively American, a national norm that most other cultures find uncouth.

Although our eating habits are disordered when compared to those of the French, for example, Americans are better than Western Europeans at something far more important: daily prayer. According to a 2018 Pew survey, 68 percent of American Christians pray daily, while only about 18 percent of Christians across fifteen surveyed European countries did. We are hungry for encounters with Christ. The dinner table should be an intellectually, spiritually, and physically nourishing place. The dinner table can even have its own liturgy, and serve as a counter-sign to worldly consumption.

The classic Danish film Babette’s Feast (1987) offers a moving example of dining-as-liturgy. Fleeing civil war in Paris in 1871, Babette finds refuge in the austere home of two elderly sisters in a Nordic fjord town. The community distrusts Babette, who, as a celebrated Parisian chef, represents the sort of earthly delights spurned as spiritually corrosive by their strict Lutheran sect. When Babette prepares a lavish feast, paid for with her lottery winnings, to express her gratitude, the sisters and the villagers take an oath to abstain from the meal. In the end they are seduced by the bounty spread before them. As their cheeks grow flush from the wine and delectation, grudges among the villagers are reconciled and an earthly burden is lifted from the table. There is a palpable conversion, a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. The feast concludes with a blessing. It is a culinary liturgy worthy of Sor Juana.

Food and drink in the Gospels are often used as forms of divine communication, such as in the miracle of the multiplication of loaves and fishes, the changing of water into wine at the wedding of Cana, and, of course, the Last Supper. Dining with the Saints facilitates this conversation with the divine in domestic life, making the lives of the saints feel tangible and approachable. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. 

Marlo Slayback is the national director of student programs at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. 

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Image by August de Richelieu licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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