There comes a time when you yearn to live out your faith more deeply. This can mean different things for different believers, but it usually entails taking up a variety of personal disciplines, returning to tradition, and committing oneself to prayer and introspection. For harried souls making our way in a hectic, secularized world, an idealized spiritual life is both tempting and intimidating. All too frequently this causes most of us to put it off until we’re ready—which usually means when the kids have moved out, we’re retired, and there’s nothing good on television.
Fortunately, living a more spiritual life doesn’t need to feel like such a burden. As writer Michael P. Foley and professional chef Fr. Leo Patalinghug’s new book, Dining with the Saints: The Sinner’s Guide to a Righteous Feast, demonstrates, it can be surprisingly fun and stimulating. The trick is to take on daily routines like eating and drinking in a sacramental fashion. (For drink ideas, see Foley’s Drinking with the Saints.) Each dish we produce and consume comes with a story that can impart some saint-inspired wisdom that connects us to the transcendent. And if such a sacramental vision doesn’t come naturally, this book presents an opportunity to change that.
The great strength of Dining with the Saints is Foley’s own humility and humor, which comes out in the text sections of the book, for which he is principal writer. (Palinghug provides the recipes and directions, also a strength, particularly for beginners at cooking.) Considering Foley’s background and authority as a professor of patristics at Baylor University, he could have written yet another lofty exegesis on the sermons of St. Augustine of Hippo for his fellow patristic scholars. Instead, he writes what he calls a “Sinner’s Guide” for hungry laypeople who likely don’t know who St. Augustine of Hippo is or what patristics means. Rather than brandish his scholarship, his goal is to introduce the general public to the saints and to help his readers incorporate the best of their lives into their own daily life. And there’s no better way to do this than to create special dishes for the great feast days and liturgical seasons of the year.
Considering that each day of the year is some saint’s feast day and a sizable portion of the year consists of Lent, Eastertide, Advent, Christmastide, and the Ember Days, Foley has to be strategic about which days he highlights in order to keep his book at a reasonable length (around 330 pages including pictures). For those saints who make the cut, he tells their stories and thematically or geographically links them to an appetizing meal. In the case of St. Thomas Aquinas, he recommends “Straw and Hay Fish Pasta,” since the Angelic Doctor was apparently responsible for various fish miracles and once said his writing was like “straw” compared to the mystical vision he had at the end of his life. For St. Elizabeth of Portugal, Foley recommends a fish dish that’s native to Portugal and that also “combines the simplicity and refinement” of the saint.
As one might imagine, Foley can’t help injecting humor into his biographies. Most of this comes in the form of puns (e.g., St. Elizabeth’s dish is called “In Cod We Trust”) or making overtly strained arguments that link a saint to his or her chosen dish (e.g., St. Gertrude’s dish is Jamaican Jerk Chicken because “she definitely inspired the jerks around her with the spice and zest of her own life”). Although some of the humor can be a little corny, it generally succeeds in injecting an entertaining tone into the subject matter without trivializing it. Many of the saints lived hard lives and even suffered brutal martyrdoms, but they also had the grace and strength to be joyful. In a similar fashion, people today should be joyful in their remembrance of them.
It’s also important to recognize that Foley pairs the fun aspects with more serious reflections. True, the book celebrates feasting, but it is also encourages gratitude for each feast. After each biography and recipe, Foley includes a section entitled “Food for Thought” in which he derives a deeper moral lesson from the saint. For instance, in the case of St. Ambrose, he notes the saint’s commitment to helping the poor and asks readers to “reflect on how we can be more frugal in our lives, both for the sake of our families and for the sake of the less fortunate.” Thus, each saint becomes something more than an excuse to eat well and share amusing anecdotes, but also an opportunity to become a more reflective Christian.
An added benefit of this work is Foley’s gift for brevity. Without compromising on content or wit, Foley is still able to condense his biographies and overviews to less than a page each. This attests to his skill as a teacher and writer, as he can communicate clearly and concisely while encapsulating the pertinent subject matter in just a few sentences. Moreover, he avoids formulas and takes care that each entry is unique, demonstrating that he has indeed done some research on Church history and the multitude of cultures connected to the Church.
In this sense, the book puts the catholic in Roman Catholicism. Somewhat tragically, the universality and diversity of the Church has become somewhat neglected today as arguments over how to properly modernize the Church and how to cope with an increasingly anti-Christian society have taken precedence in discourse and debate. There are saints from all over the world, and, like a tiny shard of a great stained-glass window, each of them adds a little more color and light to the whole composition. The book tells of so many different lives from so many different eras and civilizations that it actually takes some time for the reader to digest (pun intended) and internalize, despite his gift for brevity. Foley might have a lighthearted tone, but his book is not exactly light reading.
Like most of the recipes it features, Dining with the Saints is very much a fusion of different types of books, and this could prove a drawback, depending on what readers are expecting. If you’re looking for a straightforward book about the saints, or a cookbook, or a year’s worth of daily reflections, you may take issue with Foley mashing all these genres—and doing so in the anachronistic form of a coffee-table book no less. All this might strike you as inconvenient and jarring when all these resources exist online and are easily accessed through your smartphone.
However, this book is an example of the whole being more than the sum of its parts. On one level, yes, it does what many apps and websites already do; but on a deeper level, it serves as a kind of focused introduction to the devout life. It features the lives of great saints and challenges readers not only to make and consume their corresponding dish but also to reflect on that saint’s example and follow it. The food and merriment will get the reader’s attention, but the saints, liturgical seasons, and what Foley says about them will guide readers toward a more spiritual frame of mind.
Thus, in a curious sense, the book achieves the direct opposite of what Upton Sinclair said of his own book The Jungle, which exposed the horrors of the meatpacking industry: “I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” In Dining with the Saints, Foley and Patalinghug aim at the public’s stomach and intentionally hits it in the heart.