The Church Still Has Standards

While Ross Douthat worries about changes in church teaching about marriage and divorce, the cardinals in Rome have not lost discernment when it comes to commerce and food. At issue is the opening of a McDonald’s close to St. Peter’s:

Cardinal Elio Sgreccia, a former president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, has publicly voiced his opposition to the move, telling the Italian daily La Repubblica it is “a controversial, perverse decision to say the least”. The Italian cardinal doesn’t live in the property, a former bank that borders Borgo Pio and Piazza Leonina, but spoke on behalf of the residents who wrote to the Pope. Cardinals Walter Kasper and George Pell also live in the block and Benedict XVI was resident there when he was a cardinal.

Opening a McDonald’s so close to the Vatican basilica is “not at all respectful of the architectural traditions of one of the most characteristic squares which look onto the colonnade of Saint Peter’s, visited everyday by thousands of pilgrims and tourists,” Cardinal Sgreccia said. He added that the “business decision” is a “disgrace” which “ignores the culinary traditions of the Roman restaurant”, is “not in line with the aesthetics of the place,” and would “inevitably penalize” other restaurateurs in the area.

He also criticized McDonald’s, saying its mix of burgers and French fries are “far from the traditions of Roman cuisine” and that “according to analyses and studies by not a few nutritionists and doctors, do not guarantee the health of consumers.”

Is that a vote for In-and-Out Burger?

Once upon a time, Vatican officials worried about Americanism as a form of government and freedom of religion. Not any more.

The World Just Got Bigger by A Third

Historians generally like the adage that the world is divided in two, between splitters and lumpers. The reason is that historians generally either stress continuity (lump) or discontinuity (split). Now comes a third category, a person who splits in order to lump:

In contrast to Trump’s strong law-and-order message, Hillary sought to split the difference between cops and Black Lives Matter. Blacks and Latinos are the victims of “systemic racism.” In a country where affirmative action, or in Nathan Glazer’s acute phrase “affirmative discrimination,” often governs hiring and college admissions, this is one of the more bizarre leftist codewords to adopt. But Hillary is now on record as believing in it. Yet she also spoke words of compassion to the cop who fears for his life, doing his “dangerous and necessary” job. The now widely pervasive anti-cop rhetoric and respect for police officers are fundamentally unreconcilable; Hillary’s acknowledgement of the fears of a cop saying goodbye to his wife and kids before going to work was an attempt to reconcile it, and a political necessity. She must hope dearly that the Black Lives Matter part of the Democratic coalition is not perceived as contributing to more urban violence in the weeks before November.

Ideas with stomachs have consequences. Get to the grocery store soon. Bread and milk may be gone.

The Problem with U.S.

H. L. Mencken explains:

. . . here in this great republic we have the materials for the most superb victualry the world has ever seen, and our people have the money to pay for it. Even the poorest Americano, indeed, eats relatively expensive food. His wife knows nothing of the hard pinching that entertains her French sister. He has meat in abundance and in considerable variety, and a great wealth of fruits and vegetables. Yet he eats badly, gets very little enjoyment out of his meals, and is constantly taking pills. The hot dog is the reductio ad absurdum of American eating. The Sicilian in the ditch, though he can never be President, knows better: he puts a slice of onion between his slabs of bread, not a cartridge filled with the sweepings of the abattoirs.

The national taste for bad food seems all the more remarkable when one recalls that the United States, more than any other country of the modern world, has been enriched by immigrant cuisines. Every fresh wave of newcomers has brought in new dishes, and many of them have been of the highest merit. But very few of them have been adopted by the natives, and the few have been mainly inferior. From the Italians, for example, we have got only spaghetti; it is now so American that it is to be had in cans. But spaghetti is to the Italian cuisine simply what eggs are to the Spanish: a raw material. We eat it as only those Italians eat it who are on the verge of ceasing to eat at all. Of the multitudinous ways in which it can be cooked and garnished we have learned but one, and that one is undoubtedly the worst.

So with the German sauerkraut — a superb victual when properly prepared for the table. But how often, in America, is it properly prepared? Perhaps once in 100,000 times. Even the Germans, coming here, lose the art of handling it as it deserves. It becomes in their hands, as in the hands of American cooks, simply a sort of stewed hay, with overtones of the dishpan. To encounter a decent dish of it in an American eating house would be as startling as to encounter a decent soup.


What ails our victualry, principally, is the depressing standardization that ails everything else American. There was a time when every American eating house had its specialties, and many of them were excellent. One did not expect to find the same things everywhere. One went to one place for roast goose, and to another for broiled soft crabs, and to another for oysters, and to yet another for mutton chops. Rolls made the old Parker House in Boston famous, and terrapin a la Maryland did the same for Barnum’s and Guy’s hotels in Baltimore. . . .

in America the public cooks have all abandoned specialization and everyone of them seems bent upon cooking as nearly as possible like all the rest. The American hotel meal is as rigidly standardized as the parts of a flivver, and so is the American restaurant meal. The local dishes, in all eating houses pretending to any tone, are banned as low. So one hunts in vain in Boston for a decent plate of beans, and in Baltimore for a decent mess of steamed hard crabs, and in St. Louis for a decent rasher of catfish. They are obtainable, perhaps, but only along the wharves. One must take a squad of police along to enjoy them in safety. (“Victualry as Fine Art,” 1926)

The Problem with England

H. L. Mencken explains:

The badness of English cooking is proverbial all over the world, but no one seems to have investigated its causes. I suggest that it may be due, at least in part, to two things, the first being that the English have a Puritan distrust of whatever is bodily pleasant, and the second that it is practically impossible to grow good food in their country. The first point needs no laboring. Every American who has been in England in winter knows who the whole population shivers and freezes. The simple device of putting in adequate stoves has apparently never occurred to anyone — or, if it has, it has been rejected as unmanly. The English prefer to be uncomfortable, and think of their preferences as heroic.

So at the table. Most Englishmen have been abroad, and know very well what good victuals taste like. But when they are at home they take a gloomy, stubborn, idiotic delight in eating badly. To say that they have a diseased taste and actually enjoy their flabby flavorless, badly cooked dishes, — this is to go beyond plain facts. It takes only a glance to see that they suffer almost as much as visitors to their country. But they can’t get rid of the feeling that it is virtuous to suffer — that eating better stuff would be frenchified, wicked, and against God. So they remain faithful to a cuisine which Nietzsche long ago described as next door to cannibalism.

I have hinted that the native victuals of the English are all bad. An exception, of course should be made of their incomparable mutton, and another, perhaps, of their sole, but beyond that the judgment holds. Their beef, for all their touching veneration of it, is distinctly inferior to ours, as anyone may discover by eating in the form of steaks. Their pork, at best, is only so-so, and their veal is not better. They seldom eat lamb at all. Of the stuff they get out of the sea, not much is really good. Their oysters are vile, and their turbot is flabby and almost tasteless. Their salmon is better, but it is surely not to be mentioned in the same breath with our mackerel, blue-fish and shad. That leaves their excellent sole — usually ruined in the cooking. . . .

What saves England from complete culinary darkness is the mutton. At its best, it is probably the most magnificent red meat to be had in the world. . . . I believe it is one of the great glories of the English people — a greater glory, indeed, than their poetry, their policemen, their hearty complexions, or their gift for moral indignation. It is the product of English grass — unquestionably the best grass on this piebald ball. Ah, that the English nobility and gentry could dine as well as their sheep. (“Note on Victuals,” 1930)

The Calories that Bind

Rod Dreher quotes a piece from Jonathan Haidt about the polarization of the United States:

If you were on a selection committee tasked with choosing someone to hire (or to admit to your university, or to receive a prize in your field), and it came down to two candidates who were equally qualified on objective measures, which candidate would you be most likely to choose?

__A) The one who shared your race
__B) The one who shared your gender
__C) The one who shared your religion
__D) The one who shared your political party or ideology

The correct answer, for most Americans, is now D. It is surely good news that prejudice based on race, gender, and religion are way down in recent decades. But it is very bad news—for America, for the world, and for science—that cross-partisan hostility is way up.

The correct answer should be:

__ E) The one who likes to prepare and eat food

It means a better chance of good snacks at the office, more possibilities for fraternizing after the work day and on weekends. Chances are it also means that someone who likes to look at recipes is not going to be self-righteous about microaggressions.

Dining in the Chesapeake

Class preparations this morning made (all about) me unusually hungry:

The gentry at their tables have commonly 5 dishes or plates of which Pigg meat and greens is generally one, and Tame fowl another. Beef mutton, veal, and lamb make another. Pudding, often in the middle, makes the 5th. Venison, Wild fowl, or fish a 4th. Small beer made of molasses with Madera Wine and English Beer is their Liquor . . They have good Cyder but will not keep it but drink it by pailfulls never workt. (Hugh Grove’s observations about colonial Virginia from Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia, 44)

Sounds like the sort of fare that H. L. Mencken, another resident of the region, grew up with:

Our favorite Winter Lunch was typical of the time. Its main dishes were a huge platter of Norfolk spots or other pan-fish, and a Himalaya of corncakes. Along with this combination went succotash, buttered beets, baked potatoes, string beans, and other such hearty vegetables. When oranges and bananas were obtainable, they followed for dessert — sliced, and with a heavy dressing of grated cocoanut. The calorie content of two or three helpings of such powerful aliments probably ran to 3,000. (from “Baltimore of the 1880s” in Happy Days)

Yum yum.

Of Secular Novels, Governments, and Drinks

Amy Julia Becker recommends secular novels to Christians. Among the reasons she gives are these:

The earnest and bleak atheist world-view provided by Camus in The Plague challenges any trite answers we might want to offer to the problem of suffering. The searing portrait of pain and loss that makes up much of the southern and African-American literary canon challenges the role the church has played in passively supporting the evils of slavery and segregation. (Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, William Faulkner’s Absalom Absalom all come to mind as books I have read and reread in my struggle to understand the persistent divide between black and white within this nation.)

It’s hard to know which contemporary novels will rise to the top of the literary landscape. Who are the Steinbecks and Fitzgeralds among us? The Chopins and Whartons and Cathers? Whoever they are, many of them are not Christians, and yet these are the perspectives that can teach us about who we are as a culture and how we as Christians can engage our culture through a lens of love.

Good novels—whatever world-view they profess—challenge us to love others better. They disrupt comfortable assumptions about reality. And, to the degree that these books state something true about the world around us, even if that truth is about God’s apparent absence, they also invite us to know God better by loving our neighbor all the more.

If secular novels help us to be human (at least in this period between the advents of Christ, since being a glorified human being will truly be transformational), can’t we say the same thing about secular governments? Don’t secular magistrates, even un-Christian ones, also make us ask big questions about what we share in common with unbelievers, what is government for, and the nature of community in a fallen setting? If governments were only Christian, wouldn’t we wind up with the Puritan’s Massachusetts Bay? The exclusion of non-Puritans from Puritan Boston may foreshadow the sort of separation between the wheat and tares coming at the last day. But it hardly does justice to life in a post-ascension era when the Holy Land is no longer holy and God’s people are strangers and aliens.

And then there are the humanizing effects of secular (read alcoholic) beverages. Of course, in excess they can dehumanize. But in the right proportion they make the heart “glad,” right? And yet, D. L. Mayfield thinks that some Christians may need to give up alcohol out of respect for their neighbors:

We have neighbors who eat raw chicken when they are drunk and get terribly sick; others who suffer from alcohol-related psychosis and bang symphonies on the trees outside our window at all hours of the night. People knock on our door with candy for my daughter, waving and talking to her even though she is asleep in the other room. People break windows, or almost fall out of them. Empty vodka growlers line the living room of one; another almost sets our building on fire when he forgets about the chicken-fried steak smoked to smithereens on his stove. There are people in our building who die because of alcohol—cirrhosis of the liver, asphyxiation from their vomit, slow-sinking suicides everywhere we turn.

And suddenly, alcohol is no longer fun. Instead it is a substance that changes my friends and neighbors, making them unpredictable and unsafe; it leaves me feeling helpless and afraid and vulnerable. It makes me question my faith in God, struggling to find hope for those who are addicted. There are other neighbors here too, people who are in various stages of recovery, and they help me. They drink their coffee black and smoke in the parking lots. They shake their heads and tell me they don’t touch the stuff anymore. They find that every sober day is a gift.

I certainly respect and admire Mayfield’s determination to live among the urban poor. But I would also say that by giving up alcohol — even for social as opposed to moral reasons — she has chosen a less human way to live, like not reading secular novels because the members of your congregation can’t handle them. Reading books by non-Christians, paying honor to secular rulers, and drinking and eating in moderation are activities that Christians share with non-Christians. In other words, being spiritual (as some Christians understand it) is as noted before not a way to be fully human but one that reduces our creatureliness to cardboard cutout proportions. I still don’t see how the transformationalists of whatever variety are comfortable with the goodness of creation if culture (literature, politics, and food) needs to be redeemed before Christians can properly appreciate or engage it.