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Do you eat too much or too little? Do you obsess about calories, worry about food labels, or find yourself wishing you didn’t have to worry about food at all? If so, there’s a new book you should add to your Christmas wish list. In The Catholic Table: Finding Joy Where Food and Faith Meet, award-winningauthor Emily Stimpson Chapman says that a Catholic approach to eating is the best way to live a full and satisfying life. The wisdom and experience she shares in the book — along with many of her delicious recipes — will make you feel a little bad that you’re not on her dinner guest list. But as a consolation, here’s my conversation with her about what it means to “eat like a Catholic” and why everyone should be doing it.
Emily, were you always interested in food? Where does your love for it come from?
My perspective on food as it is now, and my passion for cooking and feeding people, comes from the six years I spent struggling with an eating disorder. Growing up I suppose I liked food, and I had all sorts of pleasant memories associated with mom’s and grandma’s cooking, but when I was 19, I began struggling with anorexia. The years I spent trying to work my way out of that very dark and confining place forced me to think about food and to understand and appreciate it in a new way. From that came the desire to share what I learned and also to cook for others — to share the love that food represents.
So your healing from anorexia was a gradual process.
It was. No eating disorder is a simple recovery — they have complicated beginnings so working your way to an ending is usually pretty complicated as well. My healing began with an understanding of what was going on with the eating disorder and then realizing that I needed to find a way out of it if I wanted to honor God because He made me and loved me. But my healing wasn’t complete until I came back to the Catholic Church. I finally began to understand what the Eucharist was and the connection it had to food — as well as the understanding the beauty and dignity of the body. So, the Eucharist and the theology of the body were what ultimately healed me of my eating disorder.
How exactly did the Eucharist and the “theology of the body” change the way you approach food?
I had left the Catholic Church and was a Protestant for a number of years and I couldn’t appreciate what the Eucharist fully was, that God gives Himself to us as food, and that food is a natural symbol of all that the Eucharist supernaturally makes possible: love, healing, community, comfort, nourishment. All of those things happen on a supernatural level with the Eucharist. I couldn’t understand that until I understood what the Eucharist was, and that helped me appreciate what food was.
Same goes for the theology of the body. Depending on the denomination, Protestants can sometimes have a negative view of the body, seeing the body and the soul as separate things. As Catholics, we recognize the union of body and soul and that the body images God as well as the soul, and the body expresses the person. So when you see the body as a temple, as the living image of the eternal soul, that changes how you want to treat it.
I talk in the book about the difference between controlling the body and caring for the body. Some people emphasize controlling the body because it can be the source of sin — it’s what gives into temptation so you need to control it. But the body has to be cared for, it’s a great gift and we need to give the body what it needs to do what God made it to do, honoring it the way God meant it to be honored.
So is eating like a Catholic different than eating like a Protestant, a Muslim, or someone with no faith at all?
I would say that to be a Catholic is to live in reality and everybody is called to live in reality. Living a Catholic life is living the fullness of reality, as close as we can get in this broken fallen world to the way God made us to live. Everyone is called to this. I think the Catholic Church has a lot of wisdom to offer people of other faiths — as well as to Catholic themselves — about what it means to eat in accord with who we are, what the purpose of food is, and what the human family is all about. So, I would say Catholics have the corner on the market when it comes to how all humans should be eating.
What’s your short response to people who say: Why should I pay so much attention to food?
There are a few different reasons. One is because our culture has so many disordered attitudes towards food — there are people struggling with various kinds of eating disorders, people who are over-eating so much that their health is in jeopardy. So just on a natural level there are many problems related to food. But supernaturally, we’re called to see the world and everything in it as a sign of God. God created the world. He loves the world. He holds everything in existence because He loves it. So learning to see food as something that teaches us about God, and teaches us about His love, and about the Eucharist, is part of growing in Christian maturity and Christian understanding and to really see the world with Catholic eyes. Of course, food is not as important as other things such as human beings, marriage, family… but food is a part of that so when we see food for what it is, we see God more clearly.
I think there’s an ethical dimension to eating because of the chain of events and lives along the food chain. For example, when I buy industrially-raised meat, I’m often supporting the terrible treatment of animals and sometimes the exploitation of workers. Is there room to be conscientious about these kind of things?
I think there is room for it. But I don’t think it’s the ultimate test of “virtuous eating.” I try to eat organic; I like to eat food that is locally grown. But I also recognize that’s a luxury of my class and economic status. So if someone is struggling to put food on the table and the best they can do is to get meat from a large manufacturer, or if there’s no way they can afford organic milk and there’s no local co-op in their area, they’re not committing a sin; they’re not eating less virtuously than someone else. So it’s about doing what you can within your means and circumstances. And if you’re spending all your money on locally grown food and not giving to the poor, that’s a problem.
I agree with what you say in the book — that it’s more important to have a clean soul than to eat clean food. But I don’t see why we shouldn’t strive for both. What we eat profoundly affects our health, how we function, our energy, our moods — and all of this can affect our spiritual life. What is our responsibility as Christians in this regard? How do we take seriously the command to treat our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit as it pertains to what we eat?
We have to think of it as a question of justice. I talk a lot in my book about “virtuous eating” — eating with justice, temperance, fortitude, and charity. In justice, we owe our body what it needs to function well; we want to make sure it’s healthy and strong. So most days it’s really important to pick the Brussels sprouts over the Twinkies — that’s an issue of justice. But if a Twinkie is your favorite dessert on the planet it’s okay to have it every once in a while. If you go to a friend’s house for dinner and she serves a casserole made with a processed soup that normally you’d never let cross your lips, charity trumps all — you should eat what you’re served.
So it’s really just approaching it with a balanced attitude. You do want to give your body what it’s due, and make sure you’re eating in moderation and making wise choices, but you also want to do everything with love and with an eye to recognizing that food is pleasurable. A good rule is the 80-20 rule. When you’re at home, eat what you think you should eat, but when you’re out, relax a little more because charity is always more important. Unless you’re going to die from something, of course… I would die if I ate peanuts so it’s more charitable for me not to eat peanuts if you serve them to me — you would feel terrible if you killed me.
What was the most important thing for you to convey in this book?
I really wanted to convey the joy of eating. It’s so easy in our culture to strip food of its joy and love and its communal significance. Instead, it can become about calories, nutrients, making your body look a certain way — we project all these different things onto food so it stops being what God made it to be: a sign of love, healing, nourishment, and joy. Food tastes good because God wanted us to enjoy eating. There is so much love from God in every bite of food and when you sit down to a delicious meal, recognizing how much God loves you through that meal is the most important thing you can do.
People like to throw the word “foodie” around to describe anyone who cares a lot about food. Do you consider yourself a “foodie?”
Lots of people would call me a “foodie.” It’s the short hand for saying I love food, and I’m interested in new types of food, and I want to go to restaurants that serve good food. If I lived in Europe, I would just be considered a normal human being. It’s a very American thing to say, oh you strange person, you care about this part of life… but it’s really just a human thing. It’s an inhuman thing to not love food.
What if your favorite meal to cook?
Risotto. It requires a lot of the cook, a lot of attention… you’re listening to the rice and hearing when it needs more broth; it brings the whole person into the act of cooking. I love cooking it and I love eating it so that works well.
You’re throwing a dinner party and you can invite anyone in the world. Who do you invite?
My husband. And my closest friends. At my wedding, all of my best friends were in town and they were staying with me for the week, helping me get ready. At the end of the [wedding] day, I had gone upstairs to take off my veil and I had to say goodbye to one of my bridesmaids and best friends and the last words I shouted to her were: “We’ll all eat together in heaven again some day!” That to me is what a dinner party is… a foretaste of heaven, a foretaste of the marriage supper of the Lamb. So I want the people who I love the most at a dinner party.
And what would you make, risotto?
They would probably insist on it! I would have cheese, and maybe some little fancy appetizers beforehand. I’d make risotto with bitter greens and roasted Brussels sprouts and we would have a few different types of wine and really good bread. And we’d have cheesecake — at this time of year it would be pumpkin and if it were summer it would be lemon with a gingersnap crust.
I want to be one of your friends.
If there’s a chef you could take a class from, who would it be?
The chef at the local Indian restaurant a few blocks away. There are certain things you can only learn from a person, and Indian cuisine is one that is passed from one generation to the next. I’d want to find out all his secrets.
You’re newly married. If your husband were to cook you a meal that you’d love, what would it be?
If he could could anything for me, there would be beef tartar and something with pork belly in it, and some sort of cooked greens — maybe spinach or Swiss chard. And maybe gnocchi. And for dessert, cheesecake! I’m not much of a sweet tooth — I’d rather have Brussels sprouts or salad than dessert — but I do like cheesecake, and cookies. Oh, and he’d make me a martini. A dirty gin martini.