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Holy chow: the spiritual sustenance of food.

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- "When you cook, cook with love, because that love comes through the food. Love is the main ingredient for any menu, but especially life."

That's the advice of Twin Cities restaurateur and raconteur Mama D, who rarely uses her real name, Giovanna D'Agostino.

Mama D, 78, would agree that people who work with food partake "in cocreation with God in nourishing, sustaining and transforming human life."

That's the assessment of Holy Cross Brother Herman Zaccarelli, who has been involved in food service for decades and today directs the Educational Conference Center at King's College, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

Food has been intertwined with religion and spirituality down through the centuries, whether as the charoses of Jews' Seder suppers or the fish on Christians' Fridays.

God and gastronomy

Sometimes the connection is commonly known, as with Easter eggs or hot cross buns. Sometimes it has been forgotten, such as the legend that a ninth century Muslim mullah discovered coffee and the 16th century Roman Catholic Church banned coffee as "the wine of Islam."

Sometimes, food and spirituality are connected in explicitly personal ways:

* Mama D in 1965 promised God she would honor St. Joseph as long as she lived. So every year on his feast day, March 19, she feeds people for free.

"The first year, people thought I was doing it for publicity's sake," she said. "Now after 28 years, they know I promised God I would do it."

The crowds who come have swelled to almost 3,000, beyond the capacity of Mama D's Ristorante. St. Lawrence Parish, Minneapolis, has become the site of the annual feast.

* To show his gratitude for his parish, Eberhard Werthmann makes bubbling vats of clam chowder each Ash Wednesday and contributes them to St. Gregory the Great in St. Paul. All who come to Mass may share, without charge, clam chowder and bread suppers. Werthmann heads the chef-in-training program at the St. Paul Technical College.

* Father Robert Farrar Capon became an Episcopalian priest and subsequently a food columnist and author of books on theology and cooking with names like The Supper of the Lamb and Food for Thought: Resurrecting the Art of Eating.

* Similarly, Jeff Smith became a United Methodist minister and went on to become television's "Frugal Gourmet." He sprinkles true or apocryphal lore about food and religion throughout his books.

Scriptural sourdough

For instance, in The Frugal Gourmet Cooks American, Smith informs the reader of his belief that Jews brought "a wild leavening from the desert, a sourdough, into Egypt, and the Hebrew slaves taught the Egyptians how to bake raised bread."

In referring to "a little leaven leavening the whole," he says, the Bible "is referring to sourdough."

Sometimes the connection between food and religion is more communal than individual. Food can keep a religious community solvent, as through the selling of Trappist cheese or jelly. And religious communities' concern for food can form the basis for whole realms of tradition.

Werthmann has a deep respect for Jewish religious laws as the first sanitation laws, and not only Judaism's ban on pork, which can spread trichinosis. Jews also avoid shellfish, he said, and "we know now shellfish go through a molting season," during which they are high in poisonous iodine. Shellfish also can carry disease, he said, noting the near extinction of Arawak Indians in Jamaica from eating spiny lobsters.

Within Christianity, "even the host we consume every Sunday is made of grain, one of the longest sustaining foods," he said. If the host is made of unleavened bread, "you can carry it anywhere," he said, "and it will survive years if properly treated."

Savoring the spirit

More than most people, more even than many cooks, Brother Herman Zaccarelli has reflected on the relation between food and spirituality.

Once a cook in a religious congregation, he went on to develop continuing education programs for religious in food service, then founded and directed Purdue University's Restaurant, Hotel and Institutional Management Institute. Before coming to King's College, he was assistant to the president of the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco.

Zaccarelli contends that food is related to spirituality in various ways.

"Food is the symbol of unity in all cultures, but most particularly in the Western Christian culture," he said, noting that whenever a sacrament is conferred, be it baptism, confirmation or First Eucharist, whenever a wedding or funeral takes place, families and friends share a feast of celebration and unity.

Jesus' use of food demonstrated his concern not only for unity but also for ecology, said Zaccarelli, explaining that before Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes, he requested that the broken fragments be picked up so none would be wasted.

That "stands symbolically for Jesus' later insistence that none of God's creation be lost or wasted," Zaccarelli said.

Mama D similarly preaches conservation. Use celery leaves as well as stalks, she said. "Waste not, want not. ... Save your bread. It's a sin to throw it away when you can make bread puddings and so many different things out of it," Mama D entreated.

And she tells of God's generosity to the frugal. When she first hosted a St. Joseph's Day dinner, 300 people came, "and I was saying, 'Oh my God, I don't have enough food.' But I went into this room in the basement -- as God is my witness -- I found six pans (of food) lying there. I still to this day am puzzled. Where did it come from?"

For Zaccarelli, food is also tied to compassion. Whenever a friend is having difficulty, Zaccarelli takes the friend to dinner. During meals, "when we're relaxed and enjoying food, we can be effective in ministry," he said.

Just desserts

Those who work with food can dispense justice and peace as well as compassion, Zaccarelli contends. He opposes the term "soup kitchen" as degrading to the dignity of the poor. Call it a "dining room," he recommends.

"Even more radical," he would change soup kitchens to "restaurants," in which those who come regularly form an association. Some days they would serve food, not in a cafeteria line, but to people seated at tables. Other days they with their families would come to eat. They could order from a menu offering a few items "so they have a choice just like everybody else," said Zaccarelli.

Smith, the "Frugal Gourmet," similarly emphasizes the justice-and-peace dimensions of food. At the end of his book, he says: "If you have enjoyed reading and tasting this material, then I want you to send some food or money to your local food bank." Those who have enough are obligated to share with others, he says.

"The Bible is filled with stories of feasts to which the downcast and the poor were invited. This might be the very day in which to open your own table to those who are hungry, not only for food but for compansionship and affection."
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Author:Gibeau, Dawn
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Apr 23, 1993
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