To celebrate this Mardi Gras I thought it appropriate to post something about food. Good food and good eating are not things to be taken for granted. I am a proud Italian-American—my grandfather was a baker—and, for Italians, a good meal is an art.
Unfortunately, as many have noted, even in Italy, the art of gastronomy is increasingly becoming lost. Demographic decline, the pressures of work, an increasingly utilitarian attitude toward just about everything, the encroachment of fast food—these and other factors have taken their toll on the quality of the Italian meal.
There are, of course, unwritten rules to the traditional Italian meal—rules about the order of the courses and their content, about the way food should be served, about which foods are appropriate in which seasons, about who does what at the table. These rules are practical only up to a point and they don’t always make for the most efficient eating, but they tend to facilitate instead savoring, conversation, and—to drop a weighty theological concept—communion.
I can remember a friendly altercation with a great-aunt on my first trip to Italy when, at one of those delightful two-hour Italian lunches, she insisted on changing my silverware between courses. Doing so was silly, I insisted: my silverware was barely dirty; I could wipe it off with my napkin; and besides it would mean more dishes for her to wash. (I had already learned that visiting American nephews doing dishes is strictly vietato). The argument was not an even one: there is a certain hierarchy in Italian kitchens, and in that hierarchy great-aunts are near infallible, so Zia carried the day and I surrendered my dirty silverware.
More was at stake, I realized as I began to appreciate the art of eating, than whether the pasta had left any residue on my fork. There was a certain ceremony to the meal itself, an order, a dignity. The extra minute it took my aunt to rinse the silverware was a way of showing respect for her guests and a way of preserving the dignity of the meal itself.
I will admit (somewhat reluctantly) that Italians don’t have a monopoly on the art of the meal. Living for two years in Kazakhstan, I came to appreciate other ceremonies and customs that come with breaking bread. At the Kazakh table there is an order to offering toasts—who speaks when and who says what—an order to what is served, and other unspoken rules it just feels weird to transgress—men pour the vodka, women pour the tea, and you get funny looks if you mix those two up. Everyone has a distinct part to play in serving and being served.
Looked at in isolation, separated from the whole of the meal, any of these customs might seem insignificant or silly or cumbersome, but together they add up to something quite beautiful, the art of the table.
Though the art of the table is deeply human, it can no longer be taken for granted, and I am not the first to notice its erosion. On my meandering trip home after two years in Kazakhstan, I had dinner at a restaurant on the Adriatic coast associated with the Slow Food Movement. I still smile warmly thinking of that meal—the fresh seafood, the risotto, the local wine, the four different desserts, the after-dinner drink on the house. I stayed at the table with a friend for three hours; the meal and our conversation were all the entertainment we needed for the evening.
The Slow Food Movement began in Italy in the 1980s after McDonald’s opened a restaurant next to the Spanish Steps. It includes restaurants, farms, markets, and individuals. The movement is international now and dedicated to preserving local gastronomical traditions—traditional recipes, locally grown products, an emphasis on environmental sustainability. As you can imagine, I’m rather sympathetic to its ideals. Man was not meant to subsist on fast food alone! When the art of eating is reduced to mere nourishment, something deeply human is lost.
The Slow Food Liturgy
So, what does the Slow Food Movement have to do with the liturgy? Well, I think right now the Church is experiencing something of a Liturgical Slow Food Movement. This movement has been described in many ways, not all of them helpful. The tired political paradigms of left and right, liberal and conservative, progressive and reactionary are bandied around. Some say we are in the midst of a “reform of the reform,” others that we are (cue sinister music) “turning back the clock.” The old divisions and old categories are not particularly enlightening, which is why I offer “the Liturgical Slow Food Movement” as a new—I admit, somewhat fanciful—descriptor.
The Liturgical Slow Food Movement has been influenced strongly by the writings of Benedict XVI, but it has a grassroots element too. Younger priests seem to be paying more attention to the rubrics; the Pope is giving communion only on the tongue; new translations of the Roman Missal are on the way; college students are asking for things like Eucharistic adoration from their campus ministries. I know that some of these developments might seem downright bizarre to some, especially those who went through the changes to the liturgy immediately after Vatican II, and I’m not going to debate the merits of any of the above mentioned practices right now in this post.
What I am offering instead—especially to those who see these movements as bizarre, irritating, or even harmful—is a way of understanding what’s behind them: the same sort of yearnings that are behind the Slow Food Movement, the desire for a meal which is not just nutrition, but something to be savored for its own sake. More so than any other meal, there is a richness to the liturgy, a beauty, an order, a dignity—something wonderful and opulent, slow and subtle, something perhaps a tad inefficient which rubs up against our contemporary utilitarian ideals, but something which precisely because it conflicts with our mechanical and efficient age is worth preserving.
The Liturgical Slow Food Movement says we should cherish our tradition and savor the details of the banquet. It’s an invitation to take seriously what our fast food culture would tell us to forget or dismiss—even down to the materials of the “tableware,” how they’re washed, who “does the dishes.” It challenges us to spend a bit more time with prayers that might not, at first, roll naturally off the tongue. And it suggests that perhaps all those little ceremonies sometimes omitted for efficiency’s sake—washing the hands, pouring the wine and water into the chalice—add up to something beautiful and are worth an extra minute or two each day.
So this Mardi Gras, skip the fast food and cook at home; spend a few more minutes around the dinner table; offer an extra toast; wish everyone a Buon appetito! And if you’re feeling liturgical, offer a hearty “And with your spirit!” in reply.