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Restoring a Catholic Culture through Liturgical Cooking: Early August Thoughts

By Jennifer Gregory Miller (bio - articles - email) | Aug 08, 2014

I'm currently reading Eternity in Time: Christopher Dawson and the Catholic Idea of History edited by Stratford Caldecott and John Morrill. It is a collection of essays by various authors honoring Christopher Dawson's life and work as a Catholic historian. Throughout the years I have been influenced by Dawson in his vision and purpose of his work. His daughter Christina Scott explains "he was inspired by a single idea, namely, that religion is the soul of a culture, or to put it simply, faith and culture are one...he saw how Western civilization was born from a complete fusion of the Christian faith and a Christian way of life, which came be called Christendom." (p. 15).

Dawson saw Europe in the Middle Ages as the time this spiritual unity was very closely achieved.  Further in the book in the essay Christopher Dawson and the Catholic idea of history, Dermot Quinn explained:

It was...an age in which the implications of spiritual unity were worked out and made manifest in the life of a society. In the secular sphere, 'a new democratic spirit of brotherhood and social co-operation' arose, along with growth in communal and corporate activity. In the ecclesiastical sphere, the Church became responsible for education, art, literature, the care of the poor, the comfort of they dying: not institutional obligations but the duties felt by men towards men....But medieval spirituality joyfully embraced the goal of Christian brotherhood.... Separation between faith and life, or between the spiritual and material was avoided, 'since the two worlds [had] become fused together in the living reality of a practical experience'. Francis made that Augustinian fusion a reality, St Thomas gave it philosophical authority. It was Aquinas who recognized the autonomy of natural reason in epistemology, ethics, and politics, precisely because he recognized the incarnational implications of that autonomy....

This was the medievalism Dawson celebrated: an era and a people transformed by the power of the gospel. Here was no exercise in mere pietas, no lament for lost centuries. The importance of those centuries was 'not to be found in the external order they created or attempted to create, but in the internal change they brought about in the soul of Western man'. Dawson loved Langland's great visionary poem Piers Plowman, thinking it 'the last...most uncompromising expression of the medieval ideal of the unity of religion and culture'. Notice the implication: culture was not swallowed up by religion by was transformed and transcended it, so that Incarnation itself begins to be understood in and through culture, not apart from it. (pp. 80-81)

The Liturgy and Liturgical Year are the Tools

Now we can't turn back the clock to try to live as medievalists, but restoring and living a Catholic culture should be our daily aim. And the Liturgy especially through the Liturgical Year is the gift of the Church as the central guide to help us live that Catholic culture. This isn't an innovative tool. Lydwine van Kersbergen in Living with the Church (originally published as Normal School of the Laity) explains that the Church's cycle was the pattern used in the past and the same one we can use today:

In the past, all of Christendom moved to the rhythm of the liturgical year; the times of work and of rest, of mourning and of public celebration, were regulated according to the cycle of the Church year. As human beings we are always in need of a pattern of living…We have Christ’s own program for the year, a pattern of variety and beauty, of sorrow and splendor, of quiet preparation and magnificent climax. We have only to rediscover and live this pattern. It should all naturally fit into our daily rhythms and our lives will be filled with spiritual wealth and wonder.

In living the Liturgical Year we unite ourselves with the Church -- living, feeling, thinking, praying, fasting, and feasting. The aim is to have our daily lives transformed. Elevating every aspect to the supernatural will become second nature, just like breathing. We will breathe in and out a Catholic culture in our lives, in our family, which should then spread through society.

My Apologies to Dawson -- Narrowing the Focus to Liturgical Cooking

That is the picture used with the wider lens, seeing Catholic culture as a whole. In our daily lives we have to zoom in and sharpen the focus on the many little things that will make up the big picture. And one of the areas we discuss quite frequently here is liturgical cooking. I don't think Dawson ever thought someone would think of recipes in regard to his writing, but food is very cultural, and merging our faith with our food can be that intertwining of religion and culture. It is definitely not a necessity in living one's Catholic faith, but if one is living and breathing along with the Liturgy, it can come quite naturally. We all have to eat, and most of us eat three meals a day. Besides providing nutrition, the meal is a social gathering and can incorporate celebration, remembrance, and conduits for conversation and prayer. A certain dish can recall where a saint lived (the geography or culture) or bring to mind his/her vocation, or how he/she died.

I love to find historical cultural dishes that were eaten to celebrate certain saints' feasts. The Middle Ages is the high tide of liturgical dishes. I find that many of these traditional foods aren't necessarily directly related to the saint, but more of a reflection of the culture or season of the year. Fried pastry such as doughnuts or zeppole or beignets are a universal celebration food, each with a certain cultural interpretation, but all definitely a celebration or carnival treat. Other tendencies are saints' day dishes made from the foods that are ripe around the feast day. As I was thinking about the next upcoming August feast days, I thought I would share how one could brainstorm liturgical feasting.

St. Dominic, August 8

The August  month is a particularly busy time with our family, with many birthdays and anniversaries. August 8 is the feast of St. Dominic. This is a special day in my family, celebrating one brother’s birthday, one sister’s wedding anniversary, and formerly Great, Great Aunt Clair’s birthday, a very special, saintly lady. When recalling the family occasions, we also incorporate St. Dominic. He has become an intercessor and a family saint.

There is one food traditionally associated with St. Dominic: the orange. In 1220, Honorius III invited St. Dominic and his order to take residence in Santa Sabina in Rome. According to legend, St. Dominic planted an orange tree by seed and is thought to be the first to bring the orange to Italy. There is still an orange tree at Santa Sabina that is said to be the direct descendant from the one planted by St. Dominic. The orange tree became a symbol of the Dominican Order, when it flourished was a sign that the Order would flower. This explains the images of St. Dominic with an orange tree.

Summertime is not the high season for most citrus, but there are a variety of simple ways to add a bit of orange to remember St. Dominic, such as a simple glass of orange juice, orange seltzer water (such as San Pelligrino or Izze Sparkling Clementine), or the adult drink of Mimosas. Since this years his feast falls on a Friday, citrus salmon would incorporate the orange and also keep the dinner meal meatless.

I don't limit myself to only oranges for St. Dominic. It is mid-summer in the Northern Hemisphere. This is the time of the year (in my area, Virginia) where my garden and the farmers' markets are overflowing with in-season fresh produce. There are many ripe fruits: blackberries, peaches, nectarines, plums, watermelons, and even the apples are beginning to ripen. The vegetables are also in abundance, such as the red ripe tomatoes, peppers of all colors, shapes and sizes, okra, new red and white potatoes, squash, and zucchini to name a few. It is such a wonderful blessing to just step outside and gather food for dinner from the garden.

St. Dominic was from Burgos in Old Castile in Spain. He was born and worked in Spain (including the Inquisition), worked against the Cathars in France and then moved to Italy where he died in Bologna. Liturgical cooking can run the range of simply having a glass or wine or treat in honor of a saint, or going more deeply in the saint's life and have foods that might reflect his culture. I could pick some Spanish recipes, choosing ingredients that I have in abundance: ripe tomatoes and zucchini. Recipes such as Spaghetti with Fresh Tomatoes, Zucchini, and Basil or a grain free Stewed Zucchini, Peppers, and Tomatoes would be simple, flavorful, incorporating the seasonal foods and provide reminders and opportunities to talk about this Spanish saint over the meal. But I could also zoom in even closer and choose foods and wines from the exact regions where he resided. Whichever approach, over the foods we can discuss the era that St. Dominic lived, how he was a contemporary of St. Francis, how he founded the Order of Preachers, why the Dominicans and Franciscans were able to fight the heresies of the time and much more.

August 10, St. Lawrence, Deacon and Martyr

Another example would be for the Feast of St. Lawrence the Deacon of Rome, who was roasted on a gridiron to his death. He is the patron saint of cooks, and the cooking tradition is two extremes: serve cold dishes, particularly gazpacho, a cold soup made from ripe vegetables of summer or flaming or barbecued foods in imitation of his martyrdom. Grilled skewers of fresh vegetables would combine the seasonal harvest with the fire aspect. His feast is August 10 (which is superseded by the 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time this year). During the month of August, most of Rome is on summer vacation, so a light cold meal or barbeque picnic style is also reflective of the relaxation in the kitchen. 

St. Clare, August 11

August 11 is the feast of St. Clare of Assisi. This is another family day, with many family members named after St Clare. Assisi is in the Umbrian region of Italy, and the foods are very different than southern style Italian. Nuts, especially almonds, truffles, olive oil, legumes are highly featured. Celebrating a saint from Italy could be simply declaring it Italian or pizza night, or choosing foods that might be more reflective of the saints' region. If you ever traveled to Assisi, the feasts of Saints Clare and Francis might mean one food: gelato. The gelato in Assisi is delicious! Thinking further, St. Clare lived a life of abstinence and fasting and it may seem more fitting to pick small treats, like meringues or different versions of crunchy cookies, or the recipe for Almond Slices which is thought to have originally come from St. Clare. The simplicity also keeps one out of the kitchen in the hot summer.

Cooking and eating with the Liturgical Year in mind reached culmination during the Middle Ages. Religion and culture were more unified, with daily actions having the reflection of the Faith. With my apologies to Christopher Dawson, I realize liturgical cooking is only a small reflection of renewing a Catholic culture, but it's a beginning. We keep in mind our own seasons and culture, but as we prepare and eat our foods made in memory of the saints, we are also aim to imitate and ask for their intercession. We are working to unite ourselves with the Church -- living, feeling, thinking, praying, fasting, and feasting--and have our daily lives transformed to be always connected with the Incarnation. We start small but hope to spread and restore a true Catholic culture.

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  • Posted by: Bernadette - Aug. 08, 2014 8:45 PM ET USA

    I'm copying your essay for my grandson, Thomas More, who graduates tomorrow, August 9, from a tech school with an associates degree in culinary arts. He and the whole family should enjoy this one! Thanks!

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