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is an exercise of taste

· In the Christian tradition ·

Among all the senses, taste not only requires that we look at and feel something that is outside us, but also that we introduce it into our bodies to make it adhere as closely as possible to our oral cavity, to destroy it by chewing and finally to discern it. What we put into our mouth is first looked at and smelled, but is then tasted and judged by the palate is put in the mouth is first looked at and smelled, but is then tasted and judged by the palate.

The mouth is an orifice which is a place of communication more than all the others, but of a communication which is most frequently not consciously perceived.... With our mouths we speak, kiss, bite, eat, drink and breathe. Our mouths enable us to share in the process of the transformation of the cosmos in its mineral, vegetable and animal components, a process that is due to human work, production, the market, cooking, eating, chewing and digestion: “We are what we eat”, according to the well-known aphorism of Ludwig Feuerbach; we “eat the earth” and thus we live, think and love.

Maurice Sendak, illustration for “The Little Bear’s Friend” by Else Holmelund Minarik (Adelphi, Milan, 2018)

None of us can remember his or her own apprenticeship of taste, but it happened and was a long and complex process. We entered into a taste system through family cooking, especially that of our mother and our grandmother and we learned to identify tastes and to judge them to be good or bad (this is where moral judgement also came into being!). This is how we learned to compare home cooking with the cooking of others, to discern the amounts of food and to combat bulimia or anorexia, pathologies that lurk in our development and threaten the art of tasting: and in learning the elementary tastes, we also learned the taste for life, and the capacity for tasting the world.

Foods, with their savours, mould our sense of taste then life enables us to interpret them in a most personal way, history and the emotional bonds experienced charge them with infinite meanings. For example, it is not unimportant to have eaten a certain food in a certain person’s company instead of someone else’s: we may find we don’t like the taste of a food because we shared it with someone we prefer not to remember.... With its taste, food can reconcile or foster love, but it can also spark antipathy or even violence. Each one of us is aware of these different possibilities: we need only to compile a history of family or community meals to know of the happiness or misery of “tasting”!

Closely linked to the exercise of taste are words: a conversation exchanged at table, the place where we taste not only food but also other people, every other person who shares the meal with us. An entertaining meal is created not only by the culinary art but also by the quality of the guests, and thus becomes a common celebration, a participatory feast in which food reunites, enables sharing and creates company (from cum-panis, one who shares bread: (cf. Psalm 41:10). If there is no savour little by little unsavoury disgust ends up prevailing and dominating; if there is no savour, people eat out of necessity and do not even succeed in recognizing the freedom provided by a drink such as “wine, to gladden the human heart” (Ps 104:15).

To my mind insufficient attention is paid to an elementary truth: all our knowledge derives from the senses, from the most basic to the most refined. We “feel” through our senses, but an enormous symbolic charge is inherent in our use of them. Proof of this are the words we use: even when they are abstract, they let a glimpse shine through of an origin rooted in the realm of the senses. Does not [sapienza], the word for “wisdom”, in Italian – to mention only one of the most obvious cases appertaining to the sense that concerns us – perhaps derive from the verb to know, [sapere] that is, “to taste”? Yes, wisdom is an exercise of taste....

We may thus move on, without excessively schematic dichotomies, to considering taste understood as a “spiritual sense”. Reflection on this subject may be made from the viewpoint of human wisdom, in general. In this perspective how can we fail to remember the wisdom at table practised by Jesus the man? At table he spoke with ease, he made friends, he accepted the discussions that might arise. For Jesus being at table was a sign, a parable of the meaning of his own mission: to bring God’s presence into the world, to bring the Kingdom close to sinners, to those who felt excluded and distant from it.

However, in this brief article I would like to reflect on how this subject is developed in the Christian tradition which is familiar with an age-old meditation on the theme of the spiritual senses. It is enough to remember one of Origen’s texts “‘about the perfect who have their senses trained to discern good from evil’ (Heb 5:14), Christ is understood by every sense?? of the soul. He [Christ] is called the ‘true Light’ (Jn 1:9) therefore, so that the soul’s eyes may have something to enlighten them. He is the ‘Word’ (Jn 1:1) so that her ears may have something to hear. Again, he is the Bread of Life (Jn 6:35), so that the soul’s palate may have something to taste. And in the same way, he is called ‘oil’ (Song 1:2), and ‘spikenard’ [or ‘nard’], that the soul’s sense of smell may apprehend the fragrance of the Word. For the same reason he is said also to be able to be felt and handled, and is called the Word made flesh, so that the hand of the interior soul may touch something of the Word of Life’” (Commentary on the Song of Songs, ii, 9: 12-13).

To remain with taste, numerous images in the Bible enable us to connect taste with the Word. God gives Ezekiel a scroll to eat and it tastes sweet in his mouth and on his palate; (cf. Ezek 3:3); John, the contemplative of Revelation, was to have the same experience, but for him the Word was to prove bitter to his stomach (cf. Rev 10:9-10). And the psalmist sang: “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Ps 119:103). “Eating words” is more than listening to and accepting them: it is actually – according to the early monks – “ruminating” them, taking the Word that has been eaten and chewed over in order to become one with it. Thus in a marvellous metabolism, the Word shapes us, forms us, giving us food to sustain our search for meaning. Indeed it is written that: “Man does not live by bread alone, but that man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord” (Deut 8:3; cf. Mt 4:4). And the believer is asked to learn “[to taste] the good word of God” (cf. Heb 6:5).

However with regard to “spiritual taste” there is a central experience of Christian faith which should absolutely be mentioned: the Eucharistic experience. At the end of the Eucharistic liturgy bread is eaten and wine is drunk. This is what our orality perceives, but in faith we are tasting the body of Christ, what inebriates us is his blood. With the spiritual senses we have an experience of the divine life which invades us and makes us the body and blood of the Lord Jesus: an extraordinary spiritual metabolism! William of Auxerre, an early 13th-century theologian, attempted to express this experience in these words: “Of this bread it is truthfully affirmed that it bears within itself every delight: it delights the spiritual gaze with its beauty (cf. Ps 45:3); it delights the spiritual hearing with its melody (cf. Song 2:14), it delights the spiritual sense of smell with its fragrance (cf. Song 1:3), it delights the spiritual sense of taste with its sweetness (cf. Song 1:2; 2:3; 5:16); it delights the spiritual touch with its smoothness (Summa Aurea iv, tr. 5, c. 1, f. 16/bc). And in the Missal we may read a splendid prayer after Communion: “May the working of this heavenly gift, O Lord, we pray, take possession of our minds and bodies, so that its effects, and not our own desires, may always prevail in us” (24th Sunday in OrdinaryTime). These are all variations on the theme of the interpretation in a Eucharistic key of a verse of the Psalms, within the great Christian tradition: “O taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 34:8). Just as the Eucharist is the sacramental synthesis of Jesus’ entire life, so with spiritual taste rendered vigilant and trained by meditation on their own lives, Christian believers can taste and see the Lord’s goodness, seeing to draw inspiration from it for their own existence.

Enzo Bianchi

A recipe for ravioli with three kinds of meat

Monferrato is an area of southern Piedmont which borders the Langhe Hills and in part is located in them. It is the land of the vine and of good cooking. It is my land but also that of my father, whose grandparents lived in a village about 20 kilometers from mine. The festive meal par excellence, thus Christmas lunch which his grandmother Rosa would prepare, always included the “royal dish”, following the numerous hors d’oeuvres, which consisted of the ravioli or agnolotti known in the Langhe district since the 16th century. I have been asked for the recipe and I gladly provide it, with my best wishes for a Christmas full of epiphanies of affection and meetings.

Three kinds of meat are used for the filling of the ravioli, first of all veal: possibly a cut such as a roast of shoulder, in other words a part that is neither fatty nor too dry. Rump is also suitable but it must not be dry. Roast the veal in a pan, possibly with garlic, together with oil, rosemary and a couple of bay leaves. In another pan prepare stewed rabbit: make a mixture of chopped unsmoked bacon with a little onion, a very small amount of carrots and a piece of celery. Chop everything and let it cook without colouring for otherwise it is hard to digest. Then add the rabbit joints, brown them well and add some good Barbera wine and a few spoonfuls of tomato sauce and let it simmer for an hour and a quarter if the rabbit is tender, or an hour and 40 minutes if it is tougher. When it is ready, strip all the meat from the bones and put it in a terrine. Lastly, take the pork roast, dice it as if for a stew and cook it with a little oil, a touch of white wine and seasoning.

Mix all three meats together, put them through the mincer, then add 25 per cent of their weight in borage, an aromatic plant very widespread in Piedmont and Liguria and frequently used in cooking; it is a sort of spinach-like vegetable, tasting a little like sage. Boil the borage then chop this too. If you have no borage use Savoy cabbage, always in the same proportions but use only the outer, greener leaves. Mix everything together, add a sufficient number of eggs and of good quality grated Parmesan cheese. The final touch is given by marjoram, which in my opinion is the aromatic herb par excellence. Then prepare the pasta dough, without adding water but only eggs; you should only add a little water if you want the pasta to be a bit thinner. Lastly cut it into the shapes for ravioli or agnolotti, filling each one with the prepared filling. Then combine all the juices of the roasts left from their cooking, sieve them – leaving all the herbs behind – and season the ravioli with this sauce.

May you who prepare it have a good Christmas meal and may your guests share it in brotherhood and joy!




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 27, 2020