fr Vincent McNabb OP said to young men ‘When you think of getting married, choose a girl who can cook a good meal for you; better a plain girl who can cook than a pretty one who cannot’.
This was part of his dislike of tinned food : he used to say that ‘the tin opener has taken the place of the oven’, and query whether one could be healthy on such a diet . . . although given his ‘Protestant stomach’ it is just possible that his opposition was at least partly based on the trouble which tinned food used to give to his digestive tract !
At the same time, it has led me to consider something about modern life which, on examination, I don’t think I like.
We hear a lot nowadays about the ‘Culture of Death’; and I think it’s well accepted that this is something which Catholics should be very concerned about for all sorts of reasons; and it seems to me that the issue which fr Vincent raises – and which I imagine we can all recognize as a common experience in today’s world – is a manifestation of that.
Essentially, nowadays people seem increasingly reluctant to do things for themselves : to ‘make do and mend’. They would rather replace than repair; they seem to accept the ‘death’ of their possessions rather than wishing to cherish them, maintain them, and get as much benefit out of them as possible; and they can always find something better to do than to cook a proper meal, and sit down and eat it and talk with those with whom they share it.
Let me give you an example : the other day I could not find a long-arm stapler with which to fasten together a small booklet of information; and I happened to comment that if I’d had a needle and thread to hand, I would just have stitched it : that would have been just as effective, if a little slower.
One of my young female colleagues looked at me and said ‘what do you mean, “sew it”; you can’t do that !’ When I asked why not, she suggested that I couldn’t sew . . . because, apparently, nobody sews anything nowadays. When I asked what happened when a button came off one of her blouses, she said ‘I throw it away and buy a new one’ (a suggestion which reminded me of the famous Arab in the 1960s who bought a new Rolls-Royce because the first one had stopped in Piccadilly . . . having run out of petrol !).
I accept that I don’t always try and darn socks when a hole appears; but the idea of throwing a blouse or shirt away because a button came off seems to me to give a good indication of why people seem to be moving towards accepting euthanasia . . . ‘don’t worry about it; just get another one’, sort of thing.
Similarly, it seems that a meal is no longer viewed as a social function, a time to relate to people, but rather a matter of practicality : one refuels, and then continues with one’s other – and so much more valuable – activities.
I may not seem to be the best person to comment on this. Like many other single people, I have a bad habit of making use of ‘convenience food’ : but at least I can say, quite truthfully, that I dislike doing so, and pine to be allowed to cook proper meals, and then sit down and enjoy them with others, and converse and appreciate the food, hopefully the wine, and in any event the company. (Fortunately, I have more than a few friends who are kind enough to appreciate my cooking, so I do at least get the opportunities to do this !)
What concerns me, though, is that – as with the ‘disposable culture’ evidenced by my young colleague – the modern viewpoint is ultimately a triumph of style over substance. The impression of food is more important than its reality : the pretty girl who can’t cook is a better option than the plain one who can . . . but this is, surely, the wrong way round.
I don’t know how well cooked the lamb is at most Passover seders : I imagine that, like many ‘standard’ meals (such as Christmas Goose, or Thanksgiving Turkey) the quality varies from cook to cook; but I strongly suspect that the meal itself is always an enjoyable and a memorable one, regardless of the quality of the cooking, because the whole experience combines to make it so. We don’t know who cooked the Last Supper; but if it was the Apostles, then it may well have been pretty unexciting; they were, after all, fishermen, not women who had been taught to cook (as in those days it was always women who did the cooking) : but we know that the meal was utterly memorable, because it was a special meal, for a group of special people.
I think that clinging to things which make our lives – not just our meals, but every part of our day-to-day lives – special is a positive step towards bringing the love of God into the world; because I am sure that it is through Him, and His love, that we perceive the joy in being together . . . but it’s pretty hard to get excited, even interested, in grabbing a hamburger. It may fill you up, but it doesn’t have any spiritual significance.
I often suggest that we should do things in small doses; and I do so again now. Can we all try to increase the number of times – even if only slightly – when we can raise a glass to fr Vincent with an honest conscience, sitting at a meal which has been properly cooked out of ingredients rather than just prepared from packets, and which has – as a result – justified its existence by being a meal shared by friends or family, rather than just a way to ‘fill up’ ?
If we can do that, however rarely, I believe we are making a very small step towards the Supper of the Lamb which, God willing, we may hope to share one day in His kingdom.