Robert Farrar Capon was an Episocopal priest who, like me, had an abiding if entirely amateur interest in food and cooking, and he combined both of those passions with his love of writing in the seminal “culinary reflection” The Supper of the Lamb, a peculiar tome that isn’t quite a cookbook, isn’t exactly a book on faith, but weaves them together with some truly superb High-English prose. Capon passed away in September at 88, but this book is now back in print thanks to Modern Library.
While The Supper of the Lamb is more about food than religion, at least superficially, you’re going to get a heavy dose of one if you want to get to the other. Capon’s faith is traditional and unapologetic, and he’ll jump from comments on biodiversity and evolution to marveling over the depth and breadth of God’s creation. In that sense, it’s a narrowly themed book – Capon expounds upon God’s infinite grace, and he’s not going to stop to ask if you’re completely along for the ride.
It’s a ride worth taking even if you’re only interested in the other half, however. Looking at our world and the bounty of edible items within it with a greater sense of wonder will, or should, improve our appreciation of the plate before us, and help us reorient our thinking away from processed and packaged foods and more toward cooking with the foods available in nature. Capon’s approach is no-nonsense – while conceding a few guilty pleasures from the supermarket, he rails against the trend, already evident in the 1960s when he wrote the book, toward outsourcing home-cooking to big corporations and toward a disconnection between us and the things we eat.
The book revolves around the lamb supper of the title, an allusion to the marriage supper of the Lamb found in Revelations 19, and to the central dish of the work, “Lamb for eight persons four times,” a dish that pays homage to the meat (a whole leg of lamb) by using every last bit of flavor it has to offer, including soup made from the bones and trimmings. Capon uses this series of recipes as a departure point for his meditations on faith, grace, and useless kitchen tools.
It’s not, for me at least, a book from which to learn about cooking; if you learn anything from Capon about food, it will be about the philosophy of the kitchen and less about practical tips or techniques. I enjoyed his writing more than any other aspect of the work, though, as Capon was erudite and witty, such as in his praise of the cleaver (even now a scarcely-seen knife in home kitchens_:
A woman with cleaver in mid-swing is no mere woman. She breaks upon the eye of the beholder as an epiphany of power, as mistress of a house in which only trifles may be trifled with – and in which she defines the trifles. A man who has seen women only as gentle arrangers of flowers has not seen all that women have to offer. Unsuspected majesties await him.
Capon despises the double boiler, as does Alton Brown today, and he praises wooden utensils, as does Michael Ruhlman, although the two disagree on the utility of the wooden spoon. (Ruhlman prefers wooden spatulas for scraping, and I concur, using silicone spatulas – unavailable at the time of Supper‘s publications – in applications where a spoon might be more functional, such as scraping the bottom of a saucier.) He talks about white and brown stock, how to make them and why you need to do so if you want to cook real food and to not throw away all that flavor in the bones. (One shudders to think at what he’d say about the modern proliferation of boneless, skinless, flavorless chicken breasts.) He speaks in praise of wine and discusses the ideal corkscrew. He goes on – and on – about the making of puff pastry and its highest form of expression, the strudel dough, which seems like an inordinate amount of work even to me, who thinks nothing of curing my own bacon or making my own preserves.
Capon’s techniques were quite modern for his era, with a sound understanding of the science of the kitchen underpinning most of his suggestions, but his dishes read as very dated today. So does the chapter on hosting a proper dinner party, where Capon even argues for asking guests to come in black tie. It was a different era, I suppose, and for that I give thanks.
Next up: I just finished Jasper Fforde’s wonderful young adult novel The Last Dragonslayer, which is pretty much a regular Fforde book without all the swearing, and have moved on to George Eliot’s Adam Bede.