Let me say clearly that despite allusions to saints: This blog is no pulpit. There’s no catechism here, unless it’s got something to do with eggs, butter, and olive oil (which thou shall use with abandon). The reference to saints is not meant to be limiting in any way; it was a jumping-off place for me, a reminder of my cultural and culinary heritage. The aim of “Feeding the Saints” is simply to create a space where you can be fed: in body, with tempting recipes, but also in mind and (dare I presume?) in soul. The hope is that you’ll come away feeling inspired—to bake, perhaps, or to read; to meditate in solitude or to congregate with others. The only commandments? Break bread, be generous, savor life.
I did not grow up with saints, unless we’re talking the secular kind—you know, that friend or family member with limitless patience, who bails you out of your hundredth jam or patiently withstands rounds of recipe testing. I was raised Presbyterian, and in the Protestant tradition, you do not venerate saints as do Catholics or Orthodox Christians. According to the church of my religious instruction, there are no canonized saints because all congregants are saints—no matter that our human behavior is generally less than holy. The only time I heard the word “saints” mentioned in church was when ministers talked about the “communion of saints,” which to me is shorthand for the belief that there’s an afterlife and that the living and the dead will someday sit around the same celestial table.
Nonetheless, I have a saint to thank for the creation of this blog—a Greek Orthodox saint, to be precise. Here he is, Saint Phanourios:
I found him (or he found me) through the pages of a cookbook published by a group of Greek church ladies in the 1960s. As you may have learned already, I am Greek-American on my mother’s side. Not being baptized in the Orthodox church, however, I know little about saints, and no one in my family knew anything about Saint Phanourios when I went around asking questions. My inquiry eventually led me to make connections with Orthodox clergy, bakery owners, and devout Greek yiayias in the outer reaches of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Through these and other connections, I found the encouragement needed to “go public” with my love of food—and to share my interest in the places where food intersects with faith (in all its guises). You can read more about Saint Phanourios by linking to the Phanourios Charity Project page, but I’ll tell you this much: there’s a cake made in his honor. When I found that out, I liked him right away.
Then there’s Saint Euphrsynus the Cook:
He’s a guy after my heart: humble, bearing a gift of apples; it is said they are apples of Paradise. Euphrosynus was the cook in a monastery kitchen, and I wonder what he would have done with that fragrant fruit in season. Certainly some simple but divine-tasting preparation. After manifesting as a citizen of Paradise in the vision of a priest, and after the miraculous appearance in the priest’s cell of the very apples offered by the cook in the dream, Euphrosynus decided to flee the monastery out of modesty, but his fellow monks kept the apples for blessing and for healing. Euphrosynus eventually became a patron saint to Orthodox cooks.
I don’t wonder that a cook would be the agent of healing. Food is healing, especially when shared with others. All you have to do is think of the “comfort foods” of childhood to be convinced. Who among us does not know the transformative power of food prepared with love?
Which brings me back to my own family’s food, and how, when I prepare it, I know I am engaging in an act both simple and complex. That holy banquet promised me since childhood? I have always imagined it literally. I see the spread, and it includes my family’s favorite dishes: Hoppin’ John, cornbread, collard greens, pecan pie. Buttermilk biscuits and grainy brown bread. Spanakopita. Baked Sunday chicken with oregano and lemony potatoes. Sticky strata of honey-soaked desserts. Garlic, yogurt, mint, olives, feta, figs, ice cream. The list goes on. To my mind, ancestry, food, honor, remembrance—all are linked in a reassuring permanence of spirit.
Since ancient times, Greeks have prepared food for the dead. Sometimes for the saints of the church, but also, frequently, for the “ordinary” dead. I don’t know much about saints, and I would call no one in my family saintly in any holy sense. But in my kitchen, I often feel a guiding hand. Call it memory or wishful thinking if you want. I imagine that my grandmothers are there with me, and all missing family, encouraging my use of Crisco or olive oil, flour and phyllo. When I put a family recipe down on the table, I do believe that somehow we are all together, despite generations of time or distances of space.
You, too, might be far away. But if you show up from time to time at my online “table”—however tainted it is with human vices—I’d be just as glad.