The final book in J.R.R. Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy — “The Return of the King” — begins with Aragorn, Gimli, Gandalf, and others journeying from Helm’s Deep to Isengard. There they find two Hobbits, Merry and Pippin, feasting on salted pork and smoking the legendary Longbottom Leaf tobacco among the ruins of the city.
“Welcome, my Lord, to Isengard!” greets the well-named Merry to Gandalf. Gimli the Dwarf is stunned into angry reply, “You young rascals! A merry hunt you’ve led us on, and now we find you . . . feasting! and . . . and smoking!” Pippin quickly responds, with a mouth full of salted pork, “We are sitting on a field of victory, enjoying a few well-earned comforts. The salted pork is particularly good.” Gandalf, both wizard and prophet, responds with a perturbed snort: “Hmmmmph . . . Hobbits.”
Like Merry, the liturgical calendar in June, combined with the warmth of summer, seems to emphasize feasting after our Lenten fasting. Tolkien deftly reveals that the victory over evil and death is made the sweeter by the feast, and that those who gave their all on the field of battle can be remembered better by an early summer’s ale. Two recent books written by thoughtful Catholics remind us that both feasting and fasting have their place in our lives, and for good reason.
Lest I receive a Gimli-like murmur from an otherwise friendly reader, let me remind all that in March’s reviews we covered over 10 books appropriate to the season of Lent. On the week after Pentecost, let us consider the victorious feast. And who better to feast with than those heroes of our faith, the saints?
Based on experiences of sharing meals together with their pastor, we are thrilled to feature a wonderful cookbook/saintly history/reflection that is sure to please. “Cooking with the Saints” is structured through the months of the year and the feast days of selected saints. Where else can you find St. Basil’s Cake on Jan. 2, star-shaped cookies for the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, Normandy apple tart for the feast of St. Claude de la Colombière (Feb. 15), and we still have 10 months yet to go? Not all the recipes require 5-star-chef culinary skills; on the feast day of St. Katherine Drexel (a favorite saint of this transplanted Philadelphian), we learn not only the details of the blessed woman’s life and educational ministries, but how to make an authentic, delicious-looking Philadelphia Cheesesteak Sandwich, including white onions, green bell peppers, garlic, deli roast beef shaved just right, thinly-sliced provolone — with the hometown option of Cheese Whiz, of course! Oh, memories of this hot melting concoction!
The book is a delight to read, with handsome binding, beautiful photography, and saintly meals for each month. Who could go wrong with September’s offerings: Albanian Lemon Butter Cookies in honor of St. Teresa of Calcutta; Rose Petal cookies in honor of St. Padre Pio; Potato Cakes in honor of St. Vincent de Paul; and Arroz con Coco (rice with coconut milk) in honor of St. Peter Claver? At the end of this delightful book, there is a thoughtful reflection of food and faith by Father Hezekias (Sabatino) Carnazzo, the Executive Director of the Institute of Catholic Culture, whom we admire. He observes that “food is meant to be the bearer of the life of the one who gives it. When food is prepared as a gift by the one who loves, the one who receives the gift receives more than food: he receives the food charged with love, charged with the life of the one who lovingly prepares it” (p. 309). We could not agree more.
And what is a feast without a toast, a lifted glass and words well-spoken at dinner’s end? We have stopped listening to the teetotalers and anti-Catholic malcontents who look askance at the beer perfected by medieval monasteries (still some of the finest available today), the whiskey invented by Irish monks (who may have leaked a few secrets to the Scots during their missions), and the California wine industry initiated by the Blessed Junípero Serra and reborn after Prohibition by the LaSalle Christian Brother named Brother Timothy, whose namesake wine sits ever so gracefully in our own cellar?
Finally, I am in violent agreement with G.K. Chesterton, who is said to have converted to Catholicism because it was the only religion that could reconcile the pipe, the pint, and the cross (though my doctor has limited the cigars these days). The ultimate cause of our sharing a drink is that we understand all creation as “sacramentum,” or “divine sign,” pointing to the luminous goodness of God. Like the poet William Blake, Catholics see a world in a grain of sand and Heaven in a wildflower. And we get a foretaste of that Heaven in the simple pleasures of table and tavern. And it was another Catholic writer, Hilaire Belloc, whose doggerel still brings a smile:
Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
There’s always laughter and good red wine.
At least I’ve always found it so,
After a wonderful introduction (and a reminder that the biblical way to shake a drink is 40 times — five sets of eight), we are informed in “Drinking with the Saints” about things our parents never thoroughly taught us: how to mix a drink, how to make a toast, and how to mix a prayer (oration) with a cordial (libation). So, we have this wonderful gift, a year’s worth of drinks in honor of the saints. We read blessings for beer, blessings of wine for the sick and blessings for other beverages. We have translations of toasts from around the world. “Prost” (“to your health”) was one of the first German words I learned from my grandfather, who walked home from work each night in Brooklyn to his exactly one Pabst Blue Ribbon.
We learn of drinks associated with the holy ones. Who knew that St. Gabriel is also a winery in Germany that makes a wonderful Riesling and a classic Liebfraumilch (literally “the milk of Our Dear Lady”)? Thus, we have the option of either raising a glass on March 24 (to the Angel Gabriel) or March 25, for the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
We have friends and fellow clergy who are involved with Opus Dei. To help readers celebrate the feast day of its founder, St. Josemaría Escrivá, the book gives instructions on how to mix a “Mangy Donkey” (p.143). The drink recalls his fondness for the humble donkey that carried Christ into Jerusalem.
We also learned — and had to taste-test, just for accuracy’s sake — the “Monk’s Rope Coffee” in honor of St. Charles Borromeo (feast day Nov. 4), a wonderful mix of hot coffee, Frangelico, dark crème de cacao, and heavy cream).
Those who have shared the happiness and joy of a shared meal will welcome “Drinking with the Saints,” as both food and drink speak of the love of our Creator, and the joy he places within our hearts when sharing precious fellowship.
(Contact Deacon Rick at firstname.lastname@example.org)