There are just a few cookbooks I like. They occupy space on my bookshelf, near my St. Gregory’s (Nyssa and Nazianzen), Dante, St. Maximus, Pelikan, Homer and Amis’ The King’s English.
If you’re interested, here they are:
The Joy of Cooking, nth ed., Rombauer, Rombauer Becker, and Becker.
The New Food Lover’s Tiptionary, by Herbst (unbelievably helpful).
Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts, which is full of rare tidbits like “Clam Cakes with Kidneys and Bacon,” how to play poker and win, and a short course in how to read a book by Mortimer Adler (I don’t care what Joe Epstein says about him, the cur).
The Supper of the Lamb – a culinary reflection, by Fr. Robert Farrar Capon.
You might have noticed a paucity of ethnic cookbooks in this list. I am surprised, too, given my penchant for most dishes Rusin and Greek. I suppose I would rather go over to the church kitchen and help the ladies pinch pirohi, bake nutroll and stuff halupki. Why bother doing that sort of thing on your own, when a solo effort would only end in despair? Also, if I want baklava or lamb, my neighborly Greek friends are just a few blocks away at the Presentation of the Lord Church.
And I certainly don’t need a recipe for prosfora: that’s a thing you do with your hands and your soul, kneading flour, yeast, a soupcon of salt and the water of warmth until the elements combine into the substance of man’s strength. When I was a new priest, the making of the loaves was as hard and self-conscious as a dimwitted searching for a boy in the wilderness who had been long-sighted enough to bring a lunch – oddly enough, one loaf for each thousand.
Now, I add the fine white milling, the leaven and mined preservation, and the spring until a single stuff forms, annealed, grasped (like St. Thomas) and touched with caloric effort and supplication: with every knead, I call for mercy.
In holy bread, work and prayer make faith. But then again, faith and prayer make work. And come to think of it, work and faith make prayer. I know it doesn’t make much arithmetic sense, but there you have it: daily bread.
Here are a few tidbits from Capon’s delectable work:
On the evils of virtual (not “virtuous”) eating
Against all that propaganda for fancy eating and plain cooking, I hope to persuade you to cook fancy and just plain eat. First of all, it is better for your soul. Only a daily renewed astonishment at things as they are can save us from the idols; it is our love of real processes and actual beings that keeps us sane.
On feasting and fasting
I would rather have one magnificent meal followed by a day of no meals at all, than two days full of ambitious mediocrities at close intervals. In this vale of sorrows, we should be careful about allowing abundance to con us out of hunger. [Hunger] is not only the best sauce; it is also the choicest daily reminder that the agony of the world is by no means over … Fast, therefore, until His Passion brings the world home free. He works through any crosses He can find. (145-146)
If you take all your meals seriously, none of them gets a chance to matter. On the other hand, consider lunch … it need be nothing more than a crust, a leaf, and a glass of wine.
Light meals, therefore – or none at all – until we can use our appetites for their true and human end: not simply to satisfy ourselves, but to confer greatness on what we love.
On cheese, wine, friends and bread (practice for paradise)
May you be spared long enough to know at least one long evening of old friends, dark bread, good wine and strong cheese. If even exile be so full, what must not our fullness be? (147-148)
I carry a strong affection for Capon’s book. It is one of the few volumes that cheers me instantly with a winsome, fireside and musk-smelling inn-feeling that is rare, that is the atmosphere of friendly humanity. He insists, as do I, on the simple fact that one of the many reasons why the divinely-ordained evening dinner that glues a house together has failed so rottenly in America is because of this horrifying fact: men and children and the worker-bees that come home for dinner are not interested simply because they are not hungry. They have grazed all day on the pouched stuff of the Brave New World.
I call, like this good Episcopalian priest, for fasting, and we certainly do a lot of that in the Orthodox Church. But where we are deficient, my friends, is that we have forgotten how to feast. (Few things are so ironically symptomatic of this deficiency as the sad fact that we pride our Lenten cookery for its similarity, in taste, to secular cooking -- that is a defeat of the purpose of the former, and an indictment of the latter).
Conviviality is a lost art. There is no civilization without it.
And one cannot really fast until he first knows how to feast.