Damned at the Table

In The Taste of America, John and Karen Hess refer to an article by Harriet Van Horne, “Edunt et Vomant” (“They have eaten and let them vomit.”), commenting on a 1975 fluff piece in the New York Times describing a dinner Craig Claiborne and his partner Pierre Franey had in Paris, a $4000 meal for two that featured 31 dishes and 9 wines. Meanwhile, as Claiborne and Franey were licking their decadent fingers, the rest of America was stewing in an economic recession.

Van Horne wrote, “No journalistic caprice has, in my memory, set off such a shudder of distaste. This calculated evening of high-class piggery offends an average American’s sense of decency. It seems wrong, morally, esthetically and in every other way.” The Hesses included Van Horne’s quote to further elaborate on the gourmet absurdities of the time which elevated overpriced, tasteless food, (canned foie gras, canned truffles, cottony chicken breasts in a floury velouté sauce) that were championed by those like Claiborne who lauded expense as a barometer of taste. The Vatican newspaper echoed, deploring the display while millions were starving. Paul VI “as a humble servant for a suffering humanity” demanded significant changes of the rich in America and Europe in favor of the poor, a plea the affluent either ignored or atoned with in pittances.

In the most general terms gluttony involves an over-indulgence and/or over-consumption of food, drink or intoxicants to the point of waste, particularly in terms of a misplaced desire of food or its withholding from the needy, an excess that’s damned by every spiritual path in the world in every quarter of the globe. European theologists from the Middle Ages took a more expansive view of gluttony, arguing that it also consists of an anticipation of meals, the eating of delicacies and costly foods, seeking after sauces and seasonings, and eating too eagerly. Gregory the Great described five ways by which one can commit the sin of gluttony, and corresponding biblical examples for each of them:

  1. Eating before the time of meals in order to satisfy the palate. Example: Jonathan eating a little honey when his father Saul commanded no food to be taken before the evening. [1Sa 14:29]
  2. Seeking delicacies and better quality of food to gratify the “vile sense of taste.” Example: When Israelites escaping from Egypt complained, “Who shall give us flesh to eat? We remember the fish which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers and the melons, and the leeks and the onions and the garlic,” God rained fowls for them to eat but punished them 500 years later. [Num 11:4]
  3. Seeking after sauces and seasonings for the enjoyment of the palate. Example: Two sons of Eli the high priest made the sacrificial meat to be cooked in one manner rather than another. They were met with death. [1Sa 4:11]
  4. Exceeding the necessary amount of food. Example: One of the sins of Sodom was “fullness of bread.” [Eze 16:49]
  5. Taking food with too much eagerness, even when eating the proper amount and even if the food is not luxurious. Example: Esau selling his birthright for ordinary food of bread and pottage of lentils. His punishment was that the “profane person . . . who, for a morsel of meat sold his birthright,” we learn that “he found no place for repentance, though he sought it carefully, with tears.” [Gen 25:30]

In his Summa Theologica (Part 2-2, Question 148, Article 4), Thomas Aquinas revised the list of five ways to commit gluttony:

* Laute – eating food that is too luxurious, exotic, or costly
* Nimis – eating food that is excessive in quantity
* Studiose – eating food that is too daintily or elaborately prepared
* Praepropere – eating too soon, or at an inappropriate time
* Ardenter – eating too eagerly.

Aquinas notes that the first three ways are related to the nature of the food itself, while the last two have to do with the time or manner in which it is consumed. Even to the exclusion of these examples, which are admittedly rather fastidious themselves, we are all guilty of gluttony in our complacency as citizens of one of the most affluent nations in the history of human civilization.  We quaff fine wines, stuff ourselves with costly foods, watch celebrity chefs preparing dishes in a gladiatorial setting and sinners of an advanced degree sneer at those who eat off-cut chops, misshapen homegrown vegetables or don’t use Zanzibar cinnamon. Hunger itself has come to be seen as a sin, almost as an illness that needs treatment, but perhaps hunger might be more of a cure, a discipline for we who have grown too indulgent with ourselves.



Potato Candy

“And now for something completely different!” This confection isn’t Irish, but comes from those clever people in Philadelphia (Pennsylvania) where the traditional appearance of this candy on St. Patrick’s Day is considered a sign that spring is coming to the city, and given the latitude, I’m sure everyone there welcomes their appearance. These sweets do not contain potatoes, no cooking is involved, and they’re simple and fun to make. Get the kids to help. I added pecans to the mixture and used chopped almonds for the eyes, though slivered is better and pine nuts are perfect.

Soften three tablespoons of butter and four ounces of cream cheese (I found it politic to use Philadelphia brand, and don’t use the low-fat), mix with a teaspoon pure vanilla extract, four cups confectioner’s sugar, two and a half cups of grated coconut and a cup of chopped pecans. You don’t really have to mix this very well; it won’t matter if they’re lumpy, since they’re potatoes, for Pete’s sake.

Chill mixture for about an hour or until very firm and form into irregularly-shaped balls. Trust me, dust your hands with powdered sugar to make it easier. Place these on a plate or a sheet pan in the refrigerator to firm up again, and roll in cinnamon (or cocoa if you want darker spuds). Stud the surface with the nuts and store in a cool, dry place until serving or freeze them for later.

Leather Britches

Home canning has become a popular enterprise for many people these days, and it is indeed a great alternative to the metallically-tinged flavor of the canned vegetables you find in the supermarket. Most home canning is in glass jars, and though the cost of those jars might seem minimal to many people, in former times in the rural South they were comparatively  even more pricey than they are now. One of the most popular vegetables for home canning is green beans, which have been grown in this country for over 200 years.

Appalachian leather britches via Foxfire

But before home canning became widespread, green beans were dried. These were called “shuck beans” or “leather britches”. What with dried beans being such a cheap commodity in the markets now, few people dry shelled beans and peas at home unless they’re heirloom varieties for next year’s planting, and drying green beans nowadays is practically unknown, but dried green beans can be stewed as you might any other vegetable, and they’re nothing like canned green beans. Depending on how they were dried (some people recommend smoking them) and how they were cooked, the taste can vary, but the texture is unique.

“String” the beans as you would any green beans for canning, then either spread them on a clean surface to dry or thread them (use a #8 embroidery or crochet thread) and hang in a dry place until they rattle . Leather britches must be cooked for a long, long time, up to four hours, and some people recommend bringing them to a quick boil for half an hour and draining before stewing to remove the “dried” taste. They can be stewed with meat or as is.

Photo via Restoring the Hearth


Bara Brith

This simple Welsh quick bread resembles fruitcake, but is lighter and much easier to make. The name means “speckled bread”; dried fruit soaked in strong tea is an essential ingredient. Substitutions for ingredients typically found in Britain (dried currants and demerara sugar, for instance) have been made. Serve as you might a coffeecake, with whipped sweetened butter, cream cheese, jam or marmalade.

14 oz. mixed raisins, currants if you can find them, dried cherries or chopped dried apricots
2 cups strong hot tea
4 oz. butter
2 eggs, beaten
3 cups self-rising flour
1 c. light brown sugar
1 tsp. each ground cinnamon and ground ginger
1 ½ cups milk

Preheat oven to 350. Mix fruit, cover with hot tea and soak for at least two hours. Butter and line the bottom of a loaf pan with parchment paper. Melt butter, cool and beat in the eggs. Drain any excess tea from the fruit. Mix the flour, sugar and spices together, stir in the fruit, butter mix and milk until evenly combined into a smooth batter, the consistency you would want for drop biscuits. Add more milk if needed. Pour into the pan and shake to level the top, sprinkle with brown sugar and bake for about an hour, until a toothpick comes clean. Cool completely before slicing and serving.