In light of Father Capon’s passing, we decided to pull this piece out of the archives for you to read again.
While others may track the seasons by the changing color of foliage or the fluctuation of temperature and precipitation, I prefer a more culinary approach. Like the seersucker suits that suddenly appear on Easter Sunday, barbeque season is one of the surest signs that winter has passed, spring has arrived, and the dog days of summer are just around the corner. Winter feasts are epic, heavy affairs: the outsized poultry at Thanksgiving, the elaborately trussed roasts of Christmas, and of course the endless days of leftover ham sandwiches seemingly stretching the honey-baked goodness into February.
But summer brings lighter fare, consumed that same day with pleasant company – fajitas, hot dogs, and hamburgers, hand-held meals all. The crowd migrates from the warm winter kitchen to the sunshine around the grill, cold bottles in place of warm mugs. These are our feasts, our secular Eucharist, less holy but no less important, no less unifying.
As new-school urbanists, locavores, and aspiring foodies grow in number, we can sometimes fall into the age-old delusion that we came to this place on our own, when in fact we’re standing on the shoulders of those who went before us. In the late sixties, as America’s Baby Boomers were leaving homes that had raised them on the frozen, processed foods of the post-war era, Space Age wonders of food technology, there were voices in the wilderness, calling for a return to real food and real feasting. Just outside of New York City, Robert Farrar Capon became one of the most endearing proponents of real food.
Capon was ordained in the Episcopalian Church, and brought a wry, theological bent to the burgeoning movement. In 1967, he published The Supper of the Lamb; part cookbook, part meditation on the theology of food, The Supper of the Lamb is ostensibly about one long recipe: “Lamb For Eight Persons Four Times.” Starting with one leg of lamb, four sizable meals are prepared, but the digressions along the way are far more nourishing than even four dinners. Capon’s rabbit trails lead him variously to recommend spending an hour addressing an onion as a fellow object of Creation, with its own surprises and beauty, and to rant against false foods and kitchen shortcuts.
The crux of Capon’s argument in favor of real food that requires a real time investment is based on that same shared Creation. He believes – and argues – that the table is where we enjoy the richness of the Creator’s design, and share in His joy at having created things that are not simply nourishing, but good. In discussing the use of wine in braising the lamb, he goes on an extended poetic lark to prove that wine exists not simply as the result of grapes being expertly wielded by professionals, but because a divine vintner delights to have yeast growing upon the surface of the grape, the hint to earthly creators to take the next step. “God is an eccentric,” he concludes. “He has loves, not reasons.”
The sheer unnecessity of Creation is a recurring theme throughout The Supper of the Lamb. It is in this unnecessary joy that Capon – and we – see the Creator’s hand, as well as the uncommon fellowship that we share with each other and with Creation as a whole. As aspiring masters of our own corners of the world, we need the reminder that we are not the original, but the reflection. It is easy to make an idol out of our newfound loves, be they our careers or a good cut of grass-fed beef; by letting things be things, and God be God, our appreciation of both soars higher than they would have otherwise.
Once Capon’s digressions are through, a rather simple meal is complete. I’ve prepared his primary leg of lamb recipe, as well as the subsequent plan for lamb stock that follows; it is surprisingly free of extra adornment, no chimichurri or bourbon glaze, just well-seasoned, flavorful meat, standing on its own, a feast that celebrates the rancher and butcher more than the chef.
But the joy of the feast in its fullness comes not in the kitchen, but around the table. It’s there that we reach outside ourselves, our sheltered family units, and into the world at large, beckoning others in to share our joy and appreciation for Creation. Capon says that just as our work in the kitchen reflects God’s good work as Creator, so also our fellowship at the dinner table can stand as a reflection of his meeting us at his table. It is no accident that the sacraments are real things, a real meal with real people, where an equally real God shows real grace. Our dining tables, then, can serve a world hungry for more than just fine food and wine.
It’s here that we begin to see that communities of faith who reach outside their walls can be as much about the culinary and hospitable as the apologetic. According to Bill Boyd, Pastor of All Saints Presbyterian Church in Austin, these meals ought to be approached with the following winsome agenda: “God has brought me to this table, with these people, for some reason. And so I’m eager to learn, and I’m eager to speak the truth in love if He gives the opportunity.” To move from the realm of Jack Chick to Anthony Bourdain thus is not only admirable, but of the essence. May our feasts this summer run long into the night, seasoned with the flavors of grace and appreciation for the richness of creation. Prosit!
Yeah, but what about the recipes?
Capon was definitely a product of his time and culture, and as a result many of the recipes do come across as anachronistic to a modern palette. Rooted in traditional northern European cooking, with a reliance on anchovies and gelatin that calls to mind your grandmother’s favorite cafeteria, the recipes can be hit or miss from a “would I actually cook this” standpoint. There are more Swedish meatballs and Norwegian winter cocktails than you can shake a plate of lutefisk at, to the point where you wonder if suburban New York is closer to Minnesota than you previously thought.
But the core elements are fantastic: the leg of lamb recipe is flavorful and tender, and the recipes for stock (beef, chicken, and fish) have become my go-to’s. Also included are archaic (and thus devoid of Rachael Ray shortcuts and time-savers) recipes for fundamental sauces like hollandaise and Colbert butter. The recipes for stretching the leg of lamb into four meals are also simple, and are one of the surprisingly international sections of the cookbook: lamb fried rice may not appear on many traditional Chinese menus, but the savory lamb balances the salty rice nicely.
More than anything, Capon is a purist. He gives no quarter to kitchen tools designed to make life easier, and will not settle for water when wine or stock will do. The bread and pastry recipes are intimidating to a boy raised on Pepperidge Farm and La Madeline; a strudel is something I never imagined spending the better part of a day preparing.
Like any cookbook, you probably won’t cook every recipe in The Supper of the Lamb, but the ones worth trying, as noted above, will not disappoint or frustrate. In general, as a cookbook, it’s a pretty nice meditation on food, and it’s a pretty good cookbook for a practical theology.