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Lost & Found: Sara Roahen on Robert Farrar Capon

From our 2009 Appetites issue, here’s food writer Sara Roahen on The Supper of the Lamb, a cookbook that’s equal parts ambling philosophy and culinary devotional.

“To call The Supper of the Lamb a cookbook would be like calling Moby-Dick­ a whaling manual.” So wrote Frederich Buechner in a New York Times book review in 1969, the year Doubleday published my jaundiced copy of the Episcopalian priest Robert Farrar Capon’s book. (Modern Library rereleased it, in paperback, in 2002.) I agree with the Times critic—after first reading Capon’s “culinary reflection” two years ago, I’ve thought back on it many times, though more for its humor, its joyfulness, and its kitchen-based piety than for its recipes. And yet when Wall Street began to crumble brick by brick last fall, The Supper was the one book on my shelf I knew could teach me not only how to maintain a healthy spirit through a recession but also how to cook during one.

My husband, Matt, and I fancy ourselves skilled homestead cooks, capable of whipping up deliciousness from whatever is on hand at a moment’s notice. Leftover black rice with edamame and toasted walnuts was a recent victory; a professionally executed lobster bisque couldn’t have pleased us more. As Capon explains it, “The mind is intrigued by the triumph of ingenuity over scarcity.” One of The Supper’s main themes is the difference between festal and ferial dining—between chops, roasts, and steaks and “the dishes which take a little, cut it up small, and make it go a long way.” Capon recognizes, and in my enlightened moments as a cook I agree, that while festal dining has its place, true virtue lies in the ferial. Matt and I, both born in 1970, have lived our entire adult lives in a time of plenty. Our homesteaders’ pride arises from just that, pride. Too often, when we probably should go ferial and would be more satisfied for it, we follow our whims and head out from sushi or mediocre pizza instead. Especially since Whole Foods Market moved into the neighborhood, our grocery bills for two could feed a frugal family of eight. Not that we have much waste. “Appetite rises to meet food supply,” Capon writes, and we regularly prove him prophetic.

This is not a formulaic cookbook, the common kind that, as Capon phrases it, is “content to sit in the kitchen and sing songs.” It does, however, include around a hundred recipes, and the narrative thread—what Capon calls the book’s “fixed star”—is Lamb for Eight Persons Four Times, a recipes that Capon turns into an entire book. With Lamb for eight Persons Four Times, the directions of which span 191 pages, Capon explains how to create thirty-two servings from a single leg of lamb, a lot of onions, quite a bit of wine, and really not much else. No wonder, then, when the stock market crashed, endangering my father’s retirement settlement from General Motors, my mother-in-law’s brave real estate investments, and my own freelance writing career, I dusted off my aged book and put Capon to work.

The Supper begins with immediacy. At the top, Capon lays out the ingredient list for all four lamb preparations: lamb stew, lamb and spinach casserole, limb fried rice, and lamb and barley soup. But he soon makes good on a promise stated in the preface that this will be “a leisurely and unhurried book.” He doesn’t, for example, thicken the lamb stew—recipe #1—until Chapter 9. St. Augustine, he justifies, started a commentary on the Bible and never got past Genesis; Capon fills his intervening chapters with philosophy and theology, humor and poetry, advice for the kitchen and advice for the soul. He describes himself as an “Anglican, or moderately high-church, cook.” Fortunately his is a playful God, allowing room for funny rules and petty prejudices.

Avoid mild hams, thin bacon, vodka, and diets. Also, broiled grapefruit, marshmallow sweet potatoes, and whipped cream in pressurized cans. The author prefers sit-down dinners to cocktail parties, he finds cologne a nuisance, and he rates taste above nutrition. A sharp knife, he posits, is as great as any virtue—without one, he asks, how can you peel an orange to prove the goodness of creation? To him, grappa is “redolent of earth and stems and the resurrected soul of a grape, all combined with an overpowering suggestion of freshly painted radiators in a shoe store.” Stock is “living water.” Sherry is essential to ferial cooking, but you must always save some for the cook.

I imagine that the high-churchliness of Capon’s writing doesn’t speak to every reader. Even I admit to skimming the chapter-poem-psalm about slaughtering the Lamb. But as he writes about his cooking preferences and habits, I smell my own home at its homiest: simmering stock, sweating onions, browning meat, a humid perfume of wine and thyme permeating even my underwear drawer. And though I’m not a particularly pious person, I understand why Capon draws no distinction between his devotion to God and his admiration for an onion, which he calls “a thing, a being, just as you are.” By Chapter 9, as I finally add a little roux to my lamb stew, my reading of The Supper has become a silent call and response: If you’ve gotten this far, he writes, it must be “because you are a serious drinker of being”—I am!—“…a woman who loves to rap sound turnips with her knuckles”—I do!

Two nights after serving the stew to Matt and some guests, I braised the remainder of the leg and used the trimmings and the bones to make Capon’s recipe for lamb and barley soup. The weather had turned wintry, and so I bulked it up with tomato and garbanzo beans at his suggestion. It congealed when cooled, fulfilling what Capon says is a proper soup’s destiny. The rest of the cooked lamb, separated into two small bags, waits in the freezer for a ferial-spirited moment of hunger—not craving—which is sure to occur at the end of some month this winter once the credit cards are weary and the bank account anemic. I’ll bust out the Greek-like lamb casserole recipe, or maybe the one for lamb fired rice, and I won’t worry.

“Lamb for Eight Persons Four Times is not simply a recipe. It is a way of life,” Capon writes, convincing me again and again that as long as we remember to cook with economy and a full spirit, we’re going to be okay.

Sara Roahen is a critically acclaimed food writer whose work includes Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table.

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