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Sermo I: Sanctity of the unsavory

[ by Charles Cameron — my most original contribution to theology? — saints of negative virtue ]
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Anthony Bourdain, RIP.

Friend Callum Flack drew my attention to Don’t Eat Before Reading This: A New York chef spills some trade secrets in the New Yorker yessterday. It’s a piece Anthony Bourdain, chef raconteur extraordinaire, wrote in the waning months of th twentieth century, and in Callum’s note it is “The article that kicked off Anthony Bourdain’s writing career. Everything is there already: curiosity, no-bullshit, brotherhood, secrets. Hell of a rollick.”

I’ve occasionally dipped into one of Bourdain’s exotic foods shows on TV, but was frankly surprised and impressed by the outbreak of love and high respect that attended his recent passing. Naturally, I read the piece, and this sentence jumped out at me:

In fact, it was the unsavory side of professional cooking that attracted me to it in the first place.

Those words crystallized for me something i’ve been feeling my way into for years — the sense that there is a second sanctity, just as laudable as the well-recognized first. Bourdain, I saw very clearly in that moment, is a saint of the second category — no insult or diminishment in any way intended — and that remark of his offers exactly the right term to begin my consideration of the hitherto intuited, but to my knowledge seldom theologically recognized category of the sacred to which Bourdain belonged.

Anthony Bourdain was a saint of thee unsavory.

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Bourdain’s piece opens with a paean to unsavories to be savored and tasty cruelties of various forms:

Good food, good eating, is all about blood and organs, cruelty and decay. It’s about sodium-loaded pork fat, stinky triple-cream cheeses, the tender thymus glands and distended livers of young animals. It’s about danger—risking the dark, bacterial forces of beef, chicken, cheese, and shellfish. Your first two hundred and seven Wellfleet oysters may transport you to a state of rapture, but your two hundred and eighth may send you to bed with the sweats, chills, and vomits.

Shocking. Distinctly unsaintly.

Sanctity of the first category is liable to sound more like this account of the diet of FF Baptiste Vianney, the Curé d’Ars:

There was no housekeeper at the presbytery. Until 1827 the staple of his food was potatoes, an occasional boiled egg and a kind of tough, indigestible, flat cake made of flour, salt, and water which the people called .[2] Subsequent to the foundation of the orphan girls’ school, to which he gave the beautiful name of ” Providence,” he used to take his meals there. At one time he tried to live on grass, but he had to confess that such a diet proved impossible. He himself reveals his mind, as regards all this, in the words he addressed to a young priest: “The devil,” he said, “is not much afraid of the discipline and hair-shirts what he really fears is the curtailing of food, drink and sleep.”

This too is shocking — but Shakespeare would have recognized and, may we even say, delighted, in both. Indeed, in responding to Callum, I wrote:

Shakespeare knew all about this type of sanctity, theology misses, the blues know it.

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We frequently view the creator, religiously speaking, as “all good” — in which cae the category of the sacred will tend to be open to those whose lives demonstrate extreme “goodness ” — purity, love, self-sacrifice, call it what you will. But if we view the creator, religiously or in terms of evolutionarily biology and psychology, as an artist, then tension becomes a positive, the brilliant extreme of “evil” as significant as that of “good” — and Hannibal Lecter a paragon of negative virtue. Shakespeare must have relished writing Lady Macbeth.

Shakespeare, the great dramatist of our humanity, speaks to the unsavory as well as the savory virtues, while the blues, among the most piercing of our expressions of grief, fury, jealousy, and yes, sin, is also a fount of joy and exultation. In a later sermon in this series, I shall explore Eric Clapton‘s two songs, Have You Ever Loved a Woman, and Wonderful Tonight — one of which is an exploration of “a shame and a sin” — the other of the wonder of an evening in love..

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Let me note briefly here that Santa Muerte is an example of a folk outcropping from traditional Catholic piety in a morbid direction not sanctioned by the Church — an unsavory saint, and what is perhaps worse, visually an inversion of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Her typical offerings include whiskey and cigars.

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Getting back to our culinary theme, I ran across a fascinating account of JS Bach‘s eating habits recently, headed:

J.S. Bach’s wife recorded an epic meal that he enjoyed after dedicating the new organ in Halle on May 3, 1716. The meal had almost as many courses as he had children

That was quite a few. The courses:

Beef bourguignon, followed by sardines and pike, then smoked ham, a side plate of peas and a side plate of potatoes, spinach (that apparentttly counts as one course), belgian endive, and let’s get hearty, roast mutton, veal, squash, a head of lettuce, ooh, sweet, glazed donuts (plural), white radishes, sweet again and a touch sour, candied lemon peel, fresh butter, and cherry preserves

— surely those last two go with a large tranche of bread, no? — Mrs Bach didn’t tell us. In any case, stout JS Bach was obviously quite a trencherman.

And yet his name crops up in an Episcopalian church calendar as that of a saint, with his feast day on July 28:

Johann Sebastian Bach, 1750, George Frederick Handel, 1759, and Henry Purcell, 1695, Composers

followed a short while later on August 5th by:

Albrecht Dürer, 1528, Matthias Grünewald, 1529, and Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1553, Artists

— while the Orthodox Church in DC celebrates the life of “St. Andrei Rublev, iconographer” on July 4/17.. while Kenneth Randolph Taylor, an Episcopalian in Georgia, is compiling his own “ecumenical calendar of saints”, and includes “the poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkinsas a saint, and surely John Donne and perhaps even Jonathan Swift will soon follow..

My point being that artists seem to occupy a space that has plenty of room for culinary delight, wives and childen, asceticism, monasticism, Lutheranism, Catholicism, Anglicanism, you name it. My own birthday, November 27, occurs in older Catholic calendars as the feast of Sts Baarlam and Ioasaph, whose story is recounted by St. John Damascene and can be traced back to a tale of the Buddha (Ioasaph = Iodasaph = Bodasaph = Bodhisattva if I recall the various names as they can be traced back to their various sources) — so I have a truly ecumenical saint’s day for a birthday in Catholic tradition — and the Buddha as a patron saint!

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Anyway, how long till the church recognizes the uncanny lack of hypocrisy in Hannibal Lecter, ambling down a street in the Bahamas, intent on having “an old friend for dinner”…?

IMO, that’s the over-the-top case that brings my whole suggestion here into the status of an Open Question.

7 Responses to “Sermo I: Sanctity of the unsavory”

  1. Cobb Says:

    Ah. Cameron reminds me of something I wrote back many years ago. “On the Necessity of Knuckleheads”

    “Spence, whom I salute again, mentions the following:

    It was the knuckleheads that taught me the dozens–the value of using wordplay as a means of attack and defense. The knuckleheads taught me to stand up for what I believed in. The knuckleheads taught me what it meant to be confident in myself when all around me doubted. And it was the criminally minded knucklheads that taught me the value of having game even as they gave me strong anti-role models.

    There’s talk, now and again, about how many black middle class parents feel the necessity of sending their kids to live with their grandparents down South for the summer, or to stay with their ghetto cousins for a spell. Assuming these parents aren’t complete idiots there is a reason I could agree with although I’d probably try to accomplish it a different way. That reason is to toughen up their otherwise dainty suburban offspring.”

  2. Charles Cameron Says:

    My best to you both, Michael. Promise me it wouldn’t be Scientology Camp..

  3. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Charles,
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    Nice post! I read Bourdain’s book after learning of his death. The book had been in my library for several years only partially read and ignored in favor of other titles. In fact, I believe I purchased the book to read on a long airplane trip. Still kicking myself for waiting so long! A splendid read (that sort of sputters at the end), but I think you may be right about the man…

  4. Charles Cameron Says:

    In some ways, I think finding out about particularly fine and fascinating humans on their passing is not a bad way to make their acquaintance — Samuel Johnson famously said, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” — but if a man has just been hanged, that concentrates the minds of the spectators and bypassers wonderfully too.. a little less wonderfully, perhaps, but still enough to let our memories or readings have a greater depth, perhaps, than otherwise..

  5. David Ronfeldt Says:

    What I appreciated about Bourdain was his interest in both high culture and low culture. He was knowledgeable and articulate about both realms, and comfortable in both, whether regarding food, music, travel, people, whatever.
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    My view is that it takes excellence at developing both high and low cultures to make a great civilization. Both are important forms of cultural capital. America has lots of both. So do many other societies.
    .
    But it’s got me wondering about Russia. Great contributions to high culture in areas of music, painting, literature. But it seems lacking more than most in appealing popular low-culture contributions. Food? Music? Movies? Nothing much to my knowledge. Maybe something squelched its development, more than occured elsewhere.

  6. Charles Cameron Says:

    Mey I return the compliment, David? I appreciate your insight!

  7. Charles Cameron Says:

    Master P, Heaven forn a Gangsta
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