Volume 18, Issue 4: Ex Libris
The Supper of the Lamb by Robert Farrar Capon
Reviewed by Brendan O'Donnell
Goodness, what strange things we find to put in our mouths. What intrepid soul first stared a live lobster in the face
and thought, "I want to eat that"? Mushroom-hunters find their delicate prey springing out of all manner of rotting feces
and decaying filth. The best cheeses come with the mold marbled throughout. Some Southerners are not unknown to, after
slurping the meat and seeds out of a watermelon, pickle the rinds for later consumption. Never mind what we have figured out how
to distill, brew, and ferment until drinkable. Men have ploughed the earth and overturned every rock. We have swept the
deep places and plunged under every wave, combed the skies and shaken every tree, always supposing that something good to
eat would be found. And the creation has seldom disappointed.
But it is the business of idols to disappoint, and of idolaters to be disappointed. In spite of all the strange and
astonishing things our dinner plates present us, many of our meals have been garnished with strife and ingratitude instead of grace
and joyous incredulity. Here in the modernist West, familiarity with the full table has bred a pseudo-ascetic contempt of
food. Goodness, look what that contempt has borne, says Robert Farrar Capondieting! Concerning the man who wants to "eat
his cake without having it," this is one who bows before "a little golden calf with dietetic icing."
Among its many charms, The Supper of the
Lamb, Father Capon's 1967 "Culinary Reflection," is routinely and
robustly disrespectful of the idolatry of modernism. Capon, an ordained Episcopal minister with numerous theological works to
his credit, comes at the subject of food the way men ought to be able to talk about their wivesas a passionately
interested, contemplative, delighted lover who will wring the neck of anyone who imagines to attack her. And modernity, efficient,
ruthless, tasteless modernity, which boils all its eggs and would put all other foods in pill form, which imagines that nutrition obviates
the necessity of taste, finds Capon's thumbs pressing down on its throat: "A curse on them all! May an endless variety of
worms feed sweetly upon their thrifty little efficiencies."
Capon knows the effect of love on the thing that is loved: "The graces of the world are the looks of a woman in
love; without the woman they would not be there at all; but without her lover, they would not quicken into loveliness." Creation
exists "not because it is such a solemn necessity that no one can get rid of it, but . . . because at least one lover has never quite
taken His eye off it" The whole creation is an extravagance, and to the Christian, it is a well-loved extravagance. God redeemed
foods for the belly, and the belly for foods, and will destroy both. How meaningless, how useless"Vapor!" says the
Preacherand the idolater, preferring "meaning over matter . . . the useful over the delicious," when confronted with the delicious matter
of food, will love neither the food nor the extravagance of it, being too stupid to see to whom it all points.
And so The Supper begins with a chapter-length meditation on the common supermarket onion, examining it not as
a specimen, but as a work of art. Capon remains at once intently focused and easily distractedhis discourse drifts from
the onion to heavenly topics the way Gregory of Nazianzus drifted from the one to the three to the one. At the end of
his meanderings, his point is this: pay attention, lest you instead merely make a diagram and cheat yourself of both Creator
Throughout the book, Capon's Chestertonian astonishment at the oddness and loveliness of creation repeatedly brings
him back to this point. This is apparent even in the final 80-odd pages, where Capon describes meals in a way that qualify more
as sketches than as measured and reasoned recipes. Early on he says that the man who won't delight in how "custard sets and
flour thickens" won't make much of a cook; the work of cooking, the ardor of it, is as much to be enjoyed as the results. And
one must be very much at ease with food to engage in the kind of shoot-from-the-hip cuisine Capon promotes with instructions
like, "Add all ingredients . . . correct seasoning . . . heat thoroughly in a moderate oven."
At heart, The Supper is concerned most of all about worship; the onion chapter serves, if you will, as a call to worship, and
the book itself follows a loosely liturgical pattern, climaxing in the fifteenth chapter, which describes the settings, manners,
and dress appropriate for a meal shared at a table. Another of
The Supper's beauties, indeed, is how much we may find in view
on every page, how understatedly cosmic its scope. A cookbook with such lofty ambitions ought to be much more overbearing,
but Capon's playful and elegant way with words brings his meditations across as truthful and simple, not self-impressed.
A plump and cheerful book, The Supper of the
Lamb is worthwhile because it imagines no peace between modernity and
the beauty of eating; it is brilliant because it imagines no other way to beautiful eating than peace with the God whom we will
see through the risen flesh of Jesus, who will bring foods and the belly back from the dead at the wedding feast of the Lamb.