_The Supper of the Lamb: A culinary entertainment_ by Father Robert Farrar Capon was first published in 1969. Craig Claiborne of The New York Times called it “One of the funniest, wisest and most unorthodox cookbooks ever written.”

My Pocket Books paperback dates back to 1970. Even in those pre-barcoded days, it might seem an odd choice for a young non-Christian woman struggling to become a good vegetarian. Not only is the book about dinners of “Lamb for Eight Persons Four Times” but permeated with the Protestant sensibility the title suggests.

Nonetheless, and despite the unthinking sexism and lack of nutritional sophistication of even the enlightened in those early days, it remains one of my favourites, to the point where my copy is decidedly tattered from re-reading, if not use.

On the practical side, I have never seen better, more intelligible explanations of the physics of baking. A lover of croissants or danish pastry could do far worse than follow his “chef patissier of gigantic proportions” through the process of making puff pastry. Few readers these days will have encountered home-made strudel dough, let alone want to make it, but his directions are exactly what I saw as a child when pre-WWI European-trained women made their own, to the extreme delight of their relatives. Meanwhile, most of his recipes are within anyone’s capacity, neither too fussy nor oversimplified to the point where the first-timer is likely to fail.

On the philosophical side, even for those who do not share his theological perspective, Father Capon’s enthusiasm for life and acceptance of its limitations are contagious. His position that the festal dining loses its meaning if not contrasted by the everyday, his castigation of the “tin fiddles” of bad kitchen equipment and industrialized pseudo-foods, and his deep appreciation of the natural processes by which water and simple things like flour, herbs and bones are sublimated into beautiful experiences are expressed with such good-natured humour that it would be hard not to come away with a sceptical view of present-day “foodie” culture and obsession with “miracle” nutrients.

The wisdom extends beyond the dietary, too, as in this passage:

“…They have a blind and unshakeable faith that logic will take the full measure of life under any and all circumstances, and they counsel you, with pitiless rectitude, that the best way to avoid difficulty is to keep away from the things that cause it. Accordingly, they will advise you to stop eating greatly, or to quit fasting, or to give up tobacco, whiskey and hot sausages. In other words, they tell you to abandon all those extremes and counterpoisings by which you have so far kept your balance on the high wire of existence, and sit down quietly on the ground where you won’t get hurt. They invite you to join them in a condition of philosophical indifference–in a state of ataraxia, where you will never again give an emphatic damn about anything, nor ever, under any circumstances, allow yourself to get worked up.
Such remedies are fanatical. They have about them the monomaniacal logic of schemes to eliminate inconvenient thoughts by chopping off the heads that think them. The world is a tissue of involvements inseparably interwoven with bothers. It is no solution to get rid of the second by abolishing the first. If the only way around distress is to stop loving, well, then, let us be men about it and settle for distress.”

That Father Capon goes on to recommend baking soda for heartburn in no way reduces the profundity of those thoughts.

If anything, our time is even more beleaguered by joyless fanatics preaching passive acceptance of impoverished lives. “Tin fiddles” of every kind–from “pasteurized process cheese food spread” in the grocery to the subjects of current late-night “infomercials” and political campaigns–are all around us, to a degree that makes the 1970s seem almost a golden age. _The Supper of the Lamb_ is a heartening reminder that the real and meaningful is all around us, too.

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