Thursday, February 26, 2009

Let us pause and drink to that...

The Supper of the Lamb (Modern Library)
Thinking of wine with dinner (see Willie, Dick & co, para 2) recalls a great book. Witty, eccentric, tender and wise, The Supper of the Lamb by Robert Farrar Capon is the oddest, most satisfying, most hilarious cookbook I have come across. It has made me burst into loud snorts of laughter in a theological library, on a crowded tram, and at home of a quiet evening. Many of the comments grow funnier the second or third time I read them, so I no longer have the excuse of being startled. Anyway...

I grew up fairly Baptist. By this I mean that my gracious parents, who grew up in no drinking, no smoking, no dancing* kind of households, gradually softened so that they perhaps consumed one or two glasses of wine a year. Me, I'm the big rebel. I began drinking wine at university, and have never looked back. I've been known to have wine with dinner several nights a week, even en famille. I have found it softens my end of day frazzle, and reduces the pitch of my two year old's constant chatter to a point that I can maintain a cheerful conversation with her even at hour eleven of her day. Or, at least, I don't yell at her. And yet, Baptist as I am, I feel qualms. Drinking anything was such a taboo when I was a child that I still perceive a single glass wine as that dreaded 'alcohol', even although I know it will turn a simple family meal into a more generous, more gracious, more loving occasion.

So it was with great joy that I read the chapter, Water in Excelsis. Father Capon, an Episcopalian priest, is a fervent believer in the importance of the real: real food, real bread, real drink, for it is in the real that we encounter the goodness of creation. In this chapter, which he frequently interrupts to call for a toast, Capon describes wine as that which has the "sovereign power to turn evenings into occasions, to lift eating beyond nourishment to conviviality, and to bring the race, for a few hours at least, to that happy state where men are wise and women beautiful, and even one's children begin to look promising". Finally, I have an ordained Protestant on my side.

Overall, the book is one long slow discusson of dinner. Each stage of the cooking brings him to new points, new tangents, new joyful declamations. Whether it's several pages devoted to the humble onion, how it is shaped, how it is filled with water, how it pulses with life force, how its pungency will impregnate your hands; or a chapter on knives ("a woman with cleaver in mid-swing is no mere woman. She breaks upon the eye of the beholder as an epiphany of power..."); or thickening stews (he uses an image of balls floating in an otherwise empty room); or how to make a dinner party glorious ("May your men wear their weight with pride, secure in the knowledge that they have at last become considerable... May we all sit long enough for reserve to make way for ribaldry and for gallantry to grow upon us" - immediately after he compares a woman to a cheese strudel ("in age, the crust may not be so lovely, but the filling comes at last into its own")), Capon has much to say. The final chapter is on heartburn.

It's a lovely book, full of asides and diversions and joyful jokes. And the 'Hollandaise Sauce, Fast' is a winner.

*Why can't Baptists have sex standing up?
Because it might lead to dancing...

> Robert Farrar Capon The Supper of the Lamb (Modern Library) (New York: Modern Library, 2002; original publication Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1969). Recommended wine partner: Pedro Ximenez.

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