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Blessed are the cakemakers.

Surveying a bevy of cookbooks, Patrick McCormick finds something very Catholic and sacramental in the genre. But if cooking is truly a religious act, a form of worship, how can we continue to live as a "fast food nation"?

Cooking is one of those arts which most requires to be done by persons of a religious nature. --Alfred North Whitehead

WE HAVE ABOUT TWO DOZEN COOKBOOKS IN our kitchen--six glossy collections of recipes from the various regions of Italia, a few general works by Julia Child and Jacques Pepin, a handful of Mexican, stir-fry, low-fat, and/or vegetarian cookbooks, three soup books, two copies of The Joy of Cooking, one red-checkered Better Homes and Gardens three-ring binder, and something each from Southern Living, the Junior League, and a parish in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

Trust me, we're not running a cordon bleu kitchen. My wife, the real chef in the house, is pretty modest about her culinary skills. I've got slightly less than a half dozen meals in my repertoire. And our teenager is either a free spirit or "recipe-challenged," depending on your point of view.

Still, a lot of cookbooks might not be a bad thing. After all, the Bible is full of directions about the selection, preparation, and presentation of food. In Genesis, God tells Adam and Eve and Noah and his kin what they can and cannot eat, and in Exodus and Leviticus we find directions for preparing the Passover meal and a long list of rules about clean and unclean foods.

Then, of course, there are the stories of Jacob and Sarah, who win favor through their culinary skills. Jacob, whose savory lentil soup and appetizing lamb stew help him secure his brother's birthright, may be the most famous cook in the Hebrew scriptures. But his grandmother, Sarah, also prepares a wonderful veal dish for three strangers, for which she is rewarded with a child. Perhaps the way to God's heart is through her stomach.

There is something quite Catholic and sacramental about a good cookbook--or any great writing on food. Pour over the savory directions Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, or Jane Brody offer as they guide us through the preparation of a meal, and you can feel their love of food, their gratitude for the bounty of God's creation, and their awe of the art--even the vocation--of cooking. Or, if you really want a feast on the sacramentality of food, read M.F.K. Fisher's The Art of Eating (Hungry Minds) or Elizabeth David's South Wind Through the Kitchen (North Pointe). As cookbook editor and author Judith Jones notes, "When we take the raw materials of the earth and work with them--touch them, manipulate them, taste them, revel in their heady smells and gracious colors, and then through a bit of alchemy transform them into delicious creations--we do honor to the source from whence they sprang. Cooking ... is a form of worship, a way of giving thanks."

HOW TRAGIC, THEN, THAT WE MIGHT CAST AWAY THIS RELIGIOUS art for the convenience of a quick meal. That's just part of the complaint of Eric Schlosser's new Fast Food Nation (Houghton Mifflin), a muckraking attack on America's growing obsession with "happy meals."

According to Schlosser, an investigative journalist with Rolling Stone and The Atlantic, our nation's half-century romance with fast food has resulted in an unhealthy diet, unjust labor practices, urban sprawl, and unsafe food. Tracing the growth of McDonald's and other fast-food franchises, Schlosser takes aim at the way burgers, fries, and pizzas are clogging our arteries even as the establishments they're served in are cluttering our landscape. He also has a major beef with the low pay and benefits provided to those who pick, slaughter, prepare, and serve our "happy meals," and with the ways the fast-food industry circumvents safety regulations.

If cooking is a religious act that connects us to God's bounty, Schlosser's Fast Food Nation contends that our growing reliance on convenient, instant, and prepackaged meals laden with artificial flavors and additives is undermining our ties to the world around us. This sort of eating isn't just bad for our hearts, he says, it's bad for our environment--a position Schlosser shares with earlier critiques of America's meat-laden diet, like John Robbins' Diet for a New America (Kramer) and Frances Moore Lappe's classic Diet for a Small Planet (Ballantine). Reading these won't make you happy, but it could tempt you to crack open a cookbook.

Mary Ann McGivern offers something of a tonic for our modern alienation from good food and God's bounty. A gardener and cook, McGivern is also a Sister of Loretto, a member of the Catholic Worker house in St. Louis, and the author of Not By Bread Alone: Recipes and Reflections for Christian Cooks (ACTA).

A mixture of cookbook and breviary, this collection of meditations and recipes moves us through the liturgical and calendar year at an unhurried and unharried pace, pausing to savor the seasons and the spices of our lives and meals. In McGivern's cookbook we learn (or re-learn) to eat and cook at the pace of God's harvest and seasons. Our palates and prayers are reconnected to the shortening or lengthening days, to the tide of crops and harvests that bring food to our tables in their own time. We wait, or "fast," for our food, and in this meditative process recover our taste for it.

Another reason to like McGivern's cookbook--and indeed all cookbooks--is that they celebrate hospitality, a fundamental Christian value. After all, the meals we fashion in the kitchen are meant to be shared; the bread we bake is to be broken with others as a sacrament of communion and reconciliation. Cookbooks help us to prepare the feasts that make us companions (from the Latin, "to share bread with"). Even the niceties and technicalities of table arrangements and the presentation of foods are meant to make our guests feel welcome and loved.

Christine Pohl's Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Eerdmans) is not a cookbook, but it is a wonderful meditation on the biblical and Christian tradition of offering hospitality to strangers. And as Pohl, a professor of Christian social ethics at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, makes clear, the welcoming and care of strangers have often centered around a warm meal served to a tired, cold, and lonely traveler. Sarah and Abraham were rewarded because they showed such hospitality, and Lot was saved because he did the same. Likewise, the two women in First and Second Kings were blessed for the hospitality and meals they offered to the prophets Elijah and Elisha, and Luke tells us that the prodigal son was welcomed home with a banquet of unimaginable graciousness, while the rich man who failed to show hospitality to the beggar Lazarus was condemned forever.

THE CLEAREST EXAMPLE OF THIS hospitality, as Pohl and others have pointed out in recent years, is the so-called radical "table fellowship" of Jesus. For in his willingness to break bread with every sort of outcast, misfit, and stranger--and in his commitment to break down all the barriers and hierarchies that separated Jew from Greek, male from female, and slave from free--Jesus offered a set of table manners that scandalized and unsettled many, but welcomed all.

This radical hospitality, which made companions of enemies, strangers, and outcasts, is most clearly celebrated in the Eucharist; it explains why the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and indeed the members of the early Christian community, came to recognize Christ "in the breaking of the bread." And, as Pohl notes, this Eucharist, this holy and shared meal, sets a standard for the hospitality Christians are called to imitate and embrace.

More than 40 years after I first heard Captain Kangaroo read it to Bunny Rabbit and Mr. Moose (don't tell me there's nothing good on TV), Marcia Brown's award-winning Stone Soup--originally published in 1947--is still my favorite recipe book. I think of it every time I hear a sermon on the multiplication of loaves and fishes, and I marvel at the miracle of grace that allows frightened, hungry people to trust and share. Good cookbooks, like the Bible, invite us to sit down with one another, bow our heads, and give thanks.

PATRICK MCCORMICK, an associate professor of Christian ethics at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:McCormick, Patrick
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 2001
Words:1386
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