For Christmas, a friend gave me The Complete Robuchon, which is 800 recipes for “French home cooking for the way we live now.” My friend and I both love to cook, although she is much more serious about it than I am. She takes classes from important chefs, stocks her pantry with sea salts from around the world, and has more All-Clad pans than some women have shoes. Still, she gave me this very serious cookbook as “re-gift” because, she said, I’m more of an artist than she is in the kitchen. And this is a book about art.
The art of eating
You’ll have to come over for dinner some night to determine which of us is more the artist. I thought her comment was odd, though, because I’m what folks call a “recipe cook.” Because she is better trained than I am, my friend can whip up wonderful meals without a cookbook in sight. I’m constantly double-checking myself against the “experts” as I cook. Whether you wing it or cook by the book, however, Joel Robuchon says something important about “the art of eating”:
Proper nourishment calls for a certain balance, within each meal and from one to the next. To be healthy, then, as well as engaged by the singular pleasure of eating, we must all find ways of varying what we eat. We may think of meat or fish as the center of a meal, but fruit, vegetables, dairy products, and grains should find their way to the table whenever we sit down to eat. The proportions may vary according to individual tastes and nutritional requirements, but no single food alone makes a satisfying meal.
He then goes on to explain the intangibles that go into the art of, not eating, but feeding others:
- You must first of all avoid overwhelming them, especially with heavy dishes served from beginning to end.
- At the same time, try to find something that will tie the whole meal together such as a common flavor note struck in several courses.
- You must also take into consideration your guests’ tastes, inevitable allergies, and religious requirements.
- Don’t forget that you will want to spend some time with your friends or family, away from the kitchen.
- The finest meals are planned with the season in mind.
A recipe for formation
I know you won’t be shocked when I tell you I think this is very similar to how we should think of our formation efforts. If we think of formation as meal-sharing, we can learn a lot. You can be a “recipe cook” when it comes to formation and still be an artist. The key is balance—and keeping the needs of your guests at the forefront of your planning. There is no one form of catechesis that is going to be satisfying. You need to vary what you are feeding the catechumens. Specifically:
- You don’t want to overwhelm them with heavy doctrines from beginning to end.
- Inquirers need a lot of appetizers—small but enticing bites of the best of our faith.
- Along with the main doctrinal courses, catechumens need plenty of side dishes of customs and practices along with well-matched wines of sparkling community and enlivening friendships.
- The elect need to be taught how to harmonize their faith the way the French balance a chorus of cheeses between the main course and dessert.
- And the neophytes are to be indulged in the eternal sweetness of God’s saving grace—much like a kid in a candy store.
Cook for who is coming to dinner
The thing that moves this method of formation beyond recipe and into art is knowing when to put down the book and take up the relationship. An artist doesn’t put a meal on the table just because some French chef said this tastes good with that. An artist starts with the question—what would my friends like to eat? What would delight them? What would feed not just their stomachs, but their spirits as well? What would make them leave the table completely satisfied and at the same time longing for so much more?
If we can serve up that kind of dish for the catechumens, we’ll all be artists of faith.