Over the course of a long friendship that began at school, my old pal Jacob Rees-Mogg, member of parliament and Roman Catholic – though not necessarily in that order – has subtly urged me to do three things. His urging does not come as a campaign of persuasion, merely as hints dropped into conversations over some 35 years. The first is to support Brexit, the second to move to Somerset and the third to become a Catholic.
I teetered on the edge of the first, even working for some time in my early 20s as personal assistant and wine pourer for Bill Cash MP, noted Eurosceptic and, incidentally, also a Catholic. But the vote came in 2016 and I let him down. I ticked “Remain” and there’s no going back.
However, as to the second campaign of persuasion, he has won. We have moved to Somerset, albeit, apparently, to the wrong bit, the less fashionable North Somerset, which I prefer as, having lived once in Notting Hill, I have no ambition to hang out in Bruton, apparently the new Notting Hill.
Which leaves us with Catholicism. As someone brought up in the Church of England it would never occur to me to become a Catholic, not that they’d probably have me anyway. So on the face of it with no intention to convert, rather a feeling that post-lockdown we ought to go to church occasionally, I reckon the final score will be 2-1 to Sitwell.
But. Two things stir me in this regard. The first is that my great aunt became a Catholic. Edith Sitwell, a lion among 20th century poets, converted in 1955. Many of her poems are driven with religious spirit. Her poem “Still Falls The Rain” spell-bindingly links Christ’s death with the Blitz. The falling bombs are “Blind as the nineteen hundred/and forty nails/Upon the cross.”
Increasingly, she was drawn to the church – the Catholic church. So maybe it’s in the blood. And then, research- ing for a narrative history of eating out across four centuries, I come across a flurry – apologies, a communion – of Catholic saints, all of whom are patron saints of various aspects of food.
Are these Sirens, mystically dispatched to catch my attention and lure me to the dry but lush, enriched land of Rome? The US writer Jeff Young, who blogs as The Catholic Foodie out of New Orleans, writes that: “God created us to seek communion.” That experience is at two tables, “the table of the Eucharist at Mass and the family dinner table at home”.
As I wonder whether eating in restaurants counts, Young continues: “From Genesis to Revelation, food plays an important role in God’s relationship with his people and in our relationship with each other.” So I’ll take that as a yes.
And while I scout out the possibilities of a new and earnest treatise that I eat out, not for pecuniary reward, but to get closer to God, those saints are on hand to help me. For as a collective they help to prop up the hospitality industry.
There is Saint Martha, for example. The sister of Lazarus and Mary who died in AD 84, she is the patron saint of waiting staff. Martha is recorded (John, 12:2) as having served Jesus at her house. Which may or may not count as some crumb of comfort to a badly treated waitress wondering what happened to her tips.
Indeed, across a whole meal there are patron saints available to steady the ship of a critic braving stormy seas as he dines out.
These days, as chefs eagerly attempt to present a meal of numerous courses, bread is often brought to the table as an actual course. Michelin-starred chef James Knappett does it, for example, at his restaurant & Home in London’s Fitzrovia (and right now in lockdown as he dispatches gourmet food boxes across the country), serving Porterhouse buns with cep butter.
If there’s a patron saint of bread then that should quell the voices of those who don’t believe that bread should merit a title of an actual course. And that saint is Saint Honore. Honore died in 600 AD having been a French bishop of the sixth century. His (frankly tenuous) connec- tion with baking stems from the story that his childhood nurse, on learning that he had become a bishop, said that she would only believe it to be true if the paddle she was using at the time to stir a large vat of dough were planted in the ground and became a tree.
In due course the planted paddle sprouted roots and became a blackberry tree. Today, across France, bakeries and pastry shops are named after him and his 16 May feast day is now celebrated with a three-day bread festival. A scrumptious, creamy and flaky creation sometimes served to children as a first cake of communion is called a gâteau St Honoré, which of course is a horrible trick to play on a child because that’s as good as a wafer will get.
For a fish course there is Saint Neot, an English monk of Glastonbury who died in 877 and spent most of his time sitting in a well with the water up to his neck practicing his devotions and, possi- bly, having his toes nibbled by little fish. And for a main course of meat there are a couple of saints to bring power to your elbow. There’s Saint Lawrence, who should not really be considered while one is eating, but who is arguably patron saint of steak. He met a most unpleas- ant death being set over coals. But as he prepared to meet his maker he is said to have implored to his executioners: “Turn me over, I’m done on this side.” For this he wins our admiration and we can only blame those executioners if, having roasted him to death, he departed this earth well done.
Then, if you’ve chosen pork – or indeed need a patron saint for your breakfast bacon – Saint Anthony is considered patron saint of pork butchers. He was not a butcher – far from it, in fact, being something of a hermit – but portrayals of him often show a pig at his feet. This may because he suffered from itchy skin and it was thought that pig fat could be used to relieve the condition and, as he also helped to cure others with similar rashes, he is also patron saint of skin disease. Since he lived to 105, the pork fat either worked or he had admirable self-control so he didn’t itch himself to death.
As the meal ensues, wine can be sipped in the sure knowledge that Saint Urban is the relevant patron saint, on account of him once hiding in a vineyard in France to escape persecution and con- verting the grape pickers while he was at it. And as you gear up for the bill with a cup of coffee, there is reassur- ance from its patron saint, Saint Drogo of Flanders, who had so much energy people simply assumed he drank a lot of coffee.
Finally, displaying that religion is al- ways on-trend, there is the Italian Saint Nicholas of Tolentino, who vowed not to eat meat and once prayed over a plate of roasted chicken which suddenly sprouted wings and flew out the window. Naturally he is the patron saint of vegans.
I say finally, but there are two more I must mention. There’s the saint who must go where even a Bloody Mary fails to make an impact: Saint Bibiana, the patron saint of hangovers; and for those on that slippery slope, Saint Monica who, having prayed for 17 years for her drunken son Saint Augustine, is patron saint of alcoholics.
These saints are to me metaphysical assistants lifting my arms and taking the strain as I, in normal times, lurch from restaurant to restaurant.
My great aunt Edith had as godfather for her conversion the writer Evelyn Waugh. Where we now live is just a few miles from his old home and his grand- son recently invited us for dinner. Is this a sign? Will Jacob finally win 2-1?