Eating is a Delight: Lessons from The Supper of the Lamb

Originally published on Upwrite Magazine.

I’ve always been the type of person who goes to bed thinking about what to have for breakfast. During college, my roommates and I referred to coffee as our “prize” for waking up in the morning. My sharpest memories are brought into focus by flavors and smells: salty cacio e pepe pasta on a trip to Rome, the street tacos we ate at our wedding, the layered lemon cake my mom baked for my birthday each year. It came as a surprise when I realized that not everyone lives to eat, or marks time by their meals.
It makes sense, then, that I feel somewhat rebellious toward diets. Anything that limits which foods I can enjoy is suspect. My favorite set of food rules comes from Michael Pollan: “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Diet plans that alienate entire food groups make me suspicious — isn’t there something to be said for everything in moderation? In recent years it seems like I’m the only person who hasn’t tried Whole30, gone gluten-free, or cut out dairy/sugar/meat from my diet. I’m all for eating well and changing habits to care for your body, but what if these changes come at the expense of seeing food as something inherently good?
Enter The Supper of the Lamb. Part cookbook and part theological reflection, The Supper of the Lamb is a celebration of food and the pleasures it offers. No wonder I found it so delicious. Written in the sixties by Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon, the book contains wonderfully retro recipes alongside poetic ruminations. Gravy and creams feature heavily, and Capon doesn’t show much interest in vegetables. Though now we know better than to live off meat and starches, the book is a refreshing reminder that food’s value lies in its flavor as well as its nutritional content.
Capon begins The Supper of the Lamb by introducing himself as an amateur cook and a food lover: someone deeply delighted by the world and its physical goodness. His genuine love for the world extends to his reader, expanding our own loves and inviting us to see common ingredients with wide eyes: the pearly symmetry of an onion or the miracle of Hollandaise sauce.
Reading this book in the thick of our food-conscious culture, I was reminded of two things. First, it’s a privilege to choose our diet, a luxury most of the world doesn’t enjoy. Our limitless food options require responsibility in our choices — we should think carefully about where our food comes from and how it impacts the environment and other people.
Second, eating is a delight. In our current climate of health trends, this fact can feel secondary, or even superfluous. (To which Capon would say, “Man invented cooking before he thought of nutrition.”) Food is a good thing unto itself, especially when enjoyed with other people. The Supper of the Lamb reminded me that food — its flavors, textures, and variations — is both functional and totally extravagant, in the same way literature is edifying but also beautiful. To quote Capon: “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.”
Like most things in life, my relationship with food can easily swing too far in either direction. I often err on one side or the other, first refusing a cupcake at a party and later binge-eating ice cream in front of the TV. As a solution to tame our appetites, Capon suggests the occasional fast. “If you take all your meals seriously,” he points out, “none of them get a chance to matter.” By punctuating our feasts with fasts — eating simply or not at all — we let the important meals matter.
Capon argues it is possible “to divide the human race into butter-eaters and non-butter-eaters.” He’s referring to the distinction between those who enjoy food for its physical pleasures and those who see it only as functional. In other words, those who live to eat and those who eat to live. I’m not in the habit of eating butter, but if he’s making this division, I stand shamelessly with the butter-eaters.
The Supper of the Lamb is nourishing on many levels, as all the best dinner parties are. It is a reminder that food is delightful, and that the material world is good and meant to be savored. Capon invites us to fast when we need to fast, and when we feast, enjoy that butter.