Thursday, January 15, 2009

Robert Farrar Capon's Supper of the Lamb

NOTE: I'm working with Supper of the Lamb for my academic thesis work-- as well as MFK Fisher.

The world will always be more delicious than useful. p 40

Permit me now to wipe my hands and introduce myself. p 3

Supper of the Lamb is my definition of the “creative” in Creative Nonfiction. It’s not memoir but the writing is personal in tone, and paints the narrator as a character, certainly. The whole book is a stack of riffs and distractions that work beautifully together in a way Capon claims “outwits the Muse.” In other words, he planned this book to be eight chapters of the distractions involved in cooking a leg of lamb for The Great Feast, or the feast at the end of time.

A pair of pale blue pages falls out when I open The Sacred Kitchen Copy of The Supper of the Lamb, a set of notes from a devotional talk 20 years ago. Three sets of notes in three different pens color the battered title page, and a bookmark in a child’s handwriting announces “buy butter for Spritz” at page 264. The original price was $3.95. It looks plain enough for a book. The yellowed book with the food stains does not look ferocious or magnificent, but it is both.

How a book changes a life—how it happens is a mystery and how to put that on paper is even more of a mystery. I’ve written the same story several times over and I never come close to telling the heart of it. A substitute professor showed up when the regular professor canceled, and he crowned the first lecture by reading a passage from The Supper of the Lamb, and tears streamed down his reddened face for joy of what he was reading. The whole course was later described as a wash, a terrible mistake because for heaven’s sake I did not receive the required lectures on the Foundations of Reformational Thought, alas! I’ve asked several classmates who scratch their heads over my description. The professor himself forgets the whole incident. “And I alone lived to tell the tale,” I suppose. The reading exists only in my memory.

But I plowed into the book in 1984 with a pencil in hand and launched from subsistence meals to life as I know it—life as I know it involves cooking and gardening and tangible pursuits of beauty. “One real thing matters more to God than all the diagrams in the world.” p 21 (Or theologies, I might add.) Real Things—God created and loves real things, real scents, real textures, real food, not ideal followers or fantasies. Prior to that reading, the world was a utilitarian place, and afterwards my eyes were opened to the seeds Paradise right here in the created order. In the pages of this book, I learned to make gravy and white sauce by reading the directions every single time I made a new attempt, until flour and butter became easy. I learned about stock, food made from scraps and the basis of all good soups.

At my spring residency, a professor invited each member of our CNF group to bring copies of a favorite passage of writing, to discuss why that piece was powerful. Alissa chose Norman MacLean, Emily chose a piece from Adam’s Task, and Alison chose Maxine Hong. I chose the exact passage from Supper of the Lamb (p 188-90) the professor had chosen so long ago. Doug’s first suggestion: when the writing process bogs down, look to see the balance of Anglo-Saxon words to Latinate words. Before I could spit “Latin?” Doug patiently added, “let’s circle the words directly taken from the liturgy—those are Latinate. Capon uses Latinate to lift and Anglo-Saxon to bring the reader back to earth. It’s a simple linguistic technique and Capon is the master of it.” Though Latin may escape me, we discussed vowel sounds enough for me to understand why some writing “sounds” Midwestern to me, why Capon “sounds” so high-church.

pulls together many of my loves: I adore well-written instruction. (As a knitter, I similarly love Elizabeth Zimmerman, known affectionately as EZ in knitting circles.) I love humorous writing. I love sensual description and dizzying swoons over goodness. I love writing that flirts. And the liturgy—I didn’t know it when I first heard this passage, but the liturgy was already calling me to a form of worship deeper, older, and when I arrived in an Episcopal church five years later, I knew it already as “home.” I heard it with my own ears, calling. In that very passage of Capon, I circle “solace,” “sustenance,” “astonished,” “inconsolable,” followed by “love is strong as death” (Song of Solomon).

Five years ago if you asked me what I learned from Robert Farrar Capon, I’d have said first I learned how to shop for knives. Then I learned to cook. Then I learned to garden. Then I learned the form of worship that is my home. But all along Capon has been teaching me to look carefully at mysteries, beginning by spending an hour with an onion (page 10), moving on to how flour and butter make a roux for sauces and puddings. I learned to look, smell, create textures. I learned that a priest can make a living writing a cooking column for The New York Times, and it’s not a waste of effort that could better be spent in ministry. I learned some good clues to sexuality and those old old roles which were common before Political Correctness tried to erase them. (A woman with cleaver in mid-swing is no mere woman….A man who has seen women only as gentle arrangers of flowers has not seen all that women have to offer. Unexpected majesties await him. p. 61)

Now I will tell you Supper of the Lamb was THE toppling challenge to my lifestyle and my parents,’ which shifted me from life-as-utilitarian to life-as-celebration. I allowed myself to fall in love with the world, something I’d been wanting to do all along. Now I will tell you I learned the basics of paying attention, which is the raw stuff of writing. I learned to love extremes. (Should a true man want to lose weight, let him fast.) I learned writing does not have to be merely one thing (how-to) or another (theology). And I learned a book can change EVERYTHING in less than two hundred pages, if it arrives at the right moment of open-heartedness.

I might learn with some close attention, how Latinate words interplay with Anglo-Saxon, how some sets of sounds call to be read aloud, how a writer weaves majestic and authoritative words with plain talk, humor with high-mindedness, and every kind of riff and scrap a writer can weave into his text. Mostly, with each rereading, while I notice words and phrasing, what I read in Capon is joy. I never tire of him. I tuck back into the book my notes from 1989, which was my third re-reading of the book. What reading am I on, now? Tenth or twentieth, I’m not sure. I know I’ve managed to keep this kitchen copy when my 25th anniversary hard cover and my husband’s copy disappeared. I know the latest edition costs $14.95 and I paid considerably more for the missing anniversary hardcover. Whatever reading this pass represents, it’s not the last, and even if it was, Capon stays with me, always, like the brown stains of butter on yellowed pages.

When I find the way of writing this story that truly captures the transformation instigated by this humble-looking worn paperback, I will let you know.


Ed said...

Good grief, Denise! Are we cousins? You have so captured my own thoughts and affections for this magnificent book that we must share the same blood. Wonderful.

I was so moved after reading the thing that I tracked Mr. Capon down. Actually got him on the phone and had a delightful conversation.

That was 3 years ago and I've kept his phone number. I would love to go visit him.

Thank you so much. My website -- -- also carries a review. Would love to hear from you. I'm

gregory said...

so, I'm browsing my little independent used/new bookstore and pick out this book from the cooking section. which is where I beeline, every couple weeks or so, to check out the constant flow of incoming. seems interesting and pay 6 bucks for an untouched ORIGINAL, guessing there is a reason it didn't sell. 42 years ago.

after one chapter it was quite clear. this a gift from GOD to me! to all true men and women.

My GOD richly bless as you put pen to paper.

all the best, gregory

Denise said...

Hello Gregory! Welcome! So glad you found the book, and I'm even more glad that you love it already.

A friend brought me an autographed hardcover for my graduation present-- I still need to see if I can find the dear Capon, the man. Soon.


melissa said...

I'm about to pick up this book at the library (and after reading your post, feel as if I'll be ordering my own used copy at Amazon later on this afternoon!) and am so delighted by this post of yours. :)

Your writing is wonderous. Thank so much.

Btw, found you through a search on reviews of the book. Well-done.

Laura said...

I. Need. This. Book.

You have opened a world to me through your description of how it transformed you. I'm still in a tailspin but will come up for air soon.

Thanks, Denise. said...

i was doing a search for my girlfriend.. to show her what my father in law as done. and i came across your blog. you reminded me of the wonderful times i had with my father in law.. and when he was writen books. he is up there in age. and doesn't have the spark that once was him. thank you for writing a beatuful post.
the super of the lamb is the book my husband always goes too.

Denise said...

Dear friends, I realize many people stumble onto this post fresh: I wrote the story of learning to cook with RFC. It's included in the Wipf&Stock collection titled The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God. Go buy it from your favorite independent bookstore.

The book includes writing by Wendell Berry, Andre Dubus Jr., and yet another chapter on Supper of the Lamb, by Lauren Winner.