Any Good Books
The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection
Robert Farrar Capon (2002, Modern Library, with introductions by Ruth Reichl and Deborah Madison; originally published 1969)
The Supper of the Lambs has been back in print for a decade, which makes it a rarity among books from 1969; Ruth Reichl, editor of the Modern Library Food series, dubbed it a classic, and its continuing sales bear her out. I don’t think that information, however, will properly prepare you for just how rare and strange a book it is.
The ostensible structure is straightforward: on one leg of lamb, feed eight people four meals; but the diversions, divagations, wanderings and meanderings between first and last comprise a distinctive view of the world. Capon works small, inviting us to spend an hour with an onion, meeting its dryness and its pungent wetness, its very creatureliness. (“You must firmly resist the temptation to feel silly.”) And he works large, befitting his status as an Episcopal priest: “Food is the daily sacrament of unnecessary goodness, ordained for a continual remembrance that the world will always be more delicious than it is useful.”
Beyond recipes, of which there is a rich but idiosyncratic selection, there’s a solid foundation of technique. He knows the secrets of the wok; how to treat butter to make puff pastry come out right; how to make stock, and what to do with it. Beyond technique, in turn, lies philosophy: “The world may or may not need another cookbook, but it needs all the lovers–amateurs–it can get. It is a gorgeous old place, full of clownish graces and beautiful drolleries, and it has enough textures, tastes, and smells to keep us intrigued for more time than we have.”
Capon waxes prophetic about the proliferation of ‘tin fiddles’, by which he means things that take over the marketplace despite being markedly inferior versions of what they purport to be: electric knives, gravy from a jar, and margarine, to name a few. In this sense, the book has aged remarkably well. We may not skim cream from the top of our milk these days, or set out ashtrays at dinner, but we have more and more low-calorie fake foods all the time.
His advice, characteristically bracing and sensible, is to leave off worrying about calories, but occasionally to take a break from eating altogether. “Should a true man wish to lose weight, let him fast. Let him sit down to nothing but coffee and conversation, if religion or reason bid him do so; only let him not try to eat his cake without having it.” (That use of ‘man’ is something Capon caught himself at, and let stand on purpose: “We are all true men–or women–here.”)
Ranging as it does from roasts to broth, from formal dinner parties to cures for hangovers and heartburn, The Supper of the Lamb comes to a theological point: “Because, in fact, it was God who invented dirt, onions and turnip greens; God who invented human beings, with their strange compulsion to cook their food; God who, at the end of each day of creation, pronounced a resounding ‘Good!’ over his own concoctions.”
Amen, and hallelujah.
Email edition, June 2013