The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection

Robert Farrar Capon

Book cover

I believe this is the only time I will get to tag a book on both my “Christianity” and “cookbooks” shelves.

This book was recommended to me by my pastor when I told him I like cooking, and given to me by my dad and stepmom as an early Easter present.

The book is nominally framed by an extended recipe (“Lamb for Eight Persons Four Times”), but this recipe primarily serves as a jumping-off point for various digressions on food and, a bit less frequently, spirituality. Capon writes in a style that I strongly associate with Calvin Trillin–bonvivant and seeming to take a special pleasure in asserting one’s firmly held, idiosyncratic opinions (“I am also against margarine, ‘prepared’ foods, broiled grapefruit, marshmallow sweet potatoes, and whipped cream in pressurized cans.”). Although it’s very different from my own style of writing and the style that appeals to me most, I can and do appreciate and enjoy it in a shortish book or a longish magazine article.

For a book written in 1967, its perspective on food is quite modern. Capon begins with a disquisition on the simple virtues of the onion, and, in his emphasis on whole ingredients well-prepared, I see him as a precursor of the food attitude that started going big-time when Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in 1971.

One worthwhile idea that Capon returns to repeatedly is the “tin fiddle,” a term he uses for anything of low quality that has broadly displaced something of high quality. While he uses this term primarily in critiquing various modern cooking implements such as electric knives, I think it is clear that he means it as a broader critique of society. He sees in consumerist society a vicious cycle that deadens appreciation for quality: a majority of people don’t pay enough attention to care to discriminate between high and low quality; businesses understand this and produce lower quality items because they are much cheaper and sell almost as well; as generational replacement occurs, new generations have less chance to experience things of high quality, and thus are even more willing to accept things of low quality. Capon’s discussion of the topic suggests that he sees strong intergenerational relationships as the only effective force opposing this general trend, with the family and the church being the primary institutions in which they can occur. He does not draw a connection to virtue, but I think it is fairly screaming out from between the lines.

Capon’s interspersing of religion is generally low-key, and I think any mildly spiritual person, even if non-Christian, could appreciate what he has to say. The main thing I recall from the book that is specifically Christian is his emphasis on the inseparability and equal value of the physical and the spiritual (remember, Christians believe in the resurrection of the body). I also appreciated his discussion of fasting, a practice that has all but disappeared from American culture. (In brief, he takes regular practice of it as a much-preferred alternative to the practice of continually eating non-delicious “health food”.)

In terms of cooking itself, many of his broader affinities match with mine: “ferial” cooking (using leftovers, making something great of what you have rather than going to the store to buy all the ingredients you need for a recipe), making stock, having dinner parties rather than cocktail hours. The main thing I came away from this book wanting to change about my cooking is to try using wine more regularly, which he is really into and which I almost never do.

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars