Arts & Books Books

How cakes can put us in touch with the saints

Old Woman in Prayer (c 1656), by Nicolaes Maes

Bonnie Lander Johnson on lessons from a parish kitchen

Cooking with the Saints
By Alexandra Greeley and Fernando Flores,
Sophia Institute Press, 352pp, £27/$35

 ‘When food is prepared as a gift by one who loves [and that food is received in love], the original plan of God for the communion of His people is restored.” Cooking with the Saints offers this kitchen table communion through a collection of international recipes arranged around saints from every global region.

The book began in the urban and international parish of St Veronica’s in Chantilly, Virginia, which boasts 5,000 active parishioners, a primary school of 400 and a homeschool community. On Sunday, there are six Masses; three on most weekdays. Parishioners form the usual litany of lay societies – KSC, LoM, RCIA, CYO – but there are also active prison ministries, adoption support, pro-life groups, a Divine Mercy Cenacle, and a “Garden Apostolate” that grows plants on parish land for use by the community and the local needy.

St Veronica’s crops are also used by the Food and Fellowship Apostolate, whose members take turns hosting in the parish kitchen, teaching the group about a saint from their home country and demonstrating three native dishes. Everyone cooks and eats together and goes home with a prayer card and a packet of recipes.

Cooking with the Saints is a record of the meals shared at St Veronica’s. The recipes have been edited and arranged around feast days and the liturgical year. There are plenty of familiar names (Augustine of Hippo, Catherine of Siena, Francis de Sales, Ignatius Loyola) and others more obscure (St Kateri Tekakwitha, St Lydia Purpuraria, St Isidore the Farmer). The book offers insight into the daily lives of the Church’s great men and women through the smells and tastes they may have experienced, in very human ways, at the table.

It is aimed especially at the pedagogical instincts of householders with small children, for whom so many of the Church’s traditions are handed down at the kitchen table. In addition, for parents, Cooking with the Saints contains a good supply of excitement with which to re-enchant humble vegetables. St Justin probably ate courgette fritters before the Romans chopped his head off. When the child saints Lucia and Francisco beheld a vision of Our Lady, they may have just finished a dish of caldo verde. And St Mary of Egypt was sure to have had a belly full of lentils when she set out on her 47 years of desert wandering.

The final section of the book offers a more conventional approach to cooking for saints’ days: Santa Clara Cookies, St Agnes Cookies and lavender biscuits for St Lydia Purpuraria. One of the oldest among these is St Catherine Cookies or Thorner Kathrinchen, a 700-year-old recipe for a brittle, spiced biscuit with a lemon glaze. One medieval version of this biscuit requires that the dough rest for up to two weeks to ensure the spices mature to full potency. I tried it – the scent was nothing less than liturgical.

Why should it be biscuits and cakes whose association with saints has persisted for so many centuries? These recipes call for simple foods common to all cultures: flour, water, spices. They are recipes that draw on the same materials that Christ touched and blessed, the same materials through which He gives himself to us. The Church is built from elements common to the most humble households: the spice and oils of devotion and gift, the bread of the Transubstantiated Lord. Our liturgies make divine the daily objects around which a simple life is built.
Our celebrations and our deepest mysteries raise folk knowledge to heavenly truth.

The conceptual difference between the two sections of Cooking with the Saints raises implicit questions about the nature of tradition and its relationship with history.

The more conventional baking section at the back of the book reminds us that we make rose-petal puddings for Padre Pio and Thérèse of Lisieux because their spirit is known to be borne on the scent of roses, not because they ate and loved rose biscuits.

The book’s numerous international recipes are a record of the food grown in the same ground walked on by the saints. But this approach to tradition is almost as reckless with the truth as Padre Pio’s rose biscuits. Fascinating as it is to read about the yucca plant in Cooking with the Saints, St Peter Claver is unlikely to have eaten food from modern Cartagena. He would have eaten with the African slaves he lived among.

And yet this historical fact is less significant than the human truth behind the book’s recipe for yucca cake. An unknown parishioner stood up one evening in Chantilly, showed her neighbours how to bake yucca, and talked about growing up praying for freedom to the Saint of the Slaves.

This is the new tradition emerging at St Veronica’s, one that celebrates the life of the Church in both the past and the present, and in every country on God’s earth.