Recently, I was putting together a list of good food writers for a group of students. I didn’t have Robert Farrar Capon on the list, then I added him, then I removed him again. He seemed not just too religious, but too—specific, somehow.
Capon, who died last year, was an Episcopal priest, and he wrote a lot about his high-church beliefs, but you don’t need to be devout to read him. Believe me: the sum total of my theological training took place ten years ago, when I attended the introductory session for a Christian education class at a large Manhattan church. It was held by the parish theologian in a halogen-lit room that bore very little resemblance to the Gothic house of worship. It contained a circle of music-class folding chairs, an industrial coffee urn, a handful of engaged couples, and at least one mentally-ill person. I was doing a little half-assed spiritual seeking at the time, trying to redress what I then saw as my parents’ joint educational neglect. (It was the same impulse that had led me, several months prior, to become the class dunce in Introduction to Yiddish at the 92nd Street Y.)
I don’t know what I expected, although I’m sure my fantasy involved no actual religion; I was probably hoping for Barbara Pym–like busybodies, homemade cake, and very possibly a secret religious awakening that didn’t actually infringe on my life or challenge anything I already thought. I’m sure I wore some kind of demure costume. In actual fact, a man wandered in, took a large handful of animal crackers, and left. Another woman in a faux fur rested her chin on her bosom and promptly fell asleep. One guy asked a lot of really stupid questions. The teacher did a good job fielding them, actually, and I told myself I’d come back and knew perfectly well that I wouldn’t. I still get e-mails announcing lectures on Ecclesiastes or C. S. Lewis, and I can’t bring myself to get off the mailing list. I mean, no one made me go there.
But this is beside the point. Back to Robert Farrar Capon. At the end of the day, he was an amazing food writer—he had a column in the New York Times and his white fruitcake is excellent—and his prose is beautiful. I didn’t end up leaving him off the syllabus because he was religious—and a Thomist, to boot—but because it can’t be denied that even his most secular writing has the whiff of the sermon about it. I don’t just mean that he’s habitually didactic—although he is—but that he is both questioning and reassuring in the way of someone used to taking a larger view. He is also given to aphorism. This lends itself curiously well to recipe writing, but at other times, Capon is not afraid to use his authority to rebuke:
We live in an age in which saving is subterfuge for spending. No doubt you sincerely believe that there is margarine in your refrigerator because it is more economical than butter. But you are wrong. Look in your bread drawer. How many boxes of cute snack crackers are there? How many packages of commercial cookies reeking of imitation vanilla badly masked with oil of coconut? How many presweetened breakfast cereals? Tell me now that you bought the margarine because you couldn’t afford butter. You see—you can’t. You bought the bread drawer of goodies because you were conned into them; and you omitted the butter because you were conned out of it. The world has slipped you culinary diagrams instead of food. It counts on your palate being not only wooden, but buried under ten coats of synthetic varnish as well. Therefore, the next time you go to check out of the supermarket, simply put back one box of crackers, circle round the dairy case again, swap your margarine for a pound of butter and walk up to the checker with your head held high, like the last of the big spenders. This is no time for cost-counters: It is time to be very rich or very poor—or both at once.
As one might imagine, he has strong feelings about the generally poor caliber of American Communion wines, saying, “Unless I am mistaken, it was Mr. Welch himself (an adamant total abstainer) who persuaded American Protestantism to abandon what the Lord obviously thought rather kindly of.”
One of his oddest books (well, I guess not by the standards of his catalog) is the 1978 rarity Party Spirit: Some Entertaining Principles. I’d call this a gateway text, but no one is claiming RFC is going to appeal to everyone. And I will confess, I have read from him much more than I have cooked from him. Many of his processes sound involved, and he never pretended the results were easily obtained. To place him in any other “food-writing” tradition feels artificial: he requires a completely different level of concentration. As he wrote in The Supper of the Lamb, “What is good is difficult, and what is difficult is rare.”