Viewpoint: Homilies and restaurants

Father Russell Pollitt's excellent article about walking out of a Mass because he couldn't take any more awful homilies (See: ICN June 6 2016 Why I walked out - must have struck a chord with many ICN readers. And it got me thinking about restaurants.

My book Ole! Ole! Passion on a Plate: The Rise of Spanish Cuisine in London is soon to come out. It's both a celebration of Spanish food and wine and an exploration of why it has become so popular in the capital. Thirty years ago there was only a handful of Spanish restaurants in London. Now they seem to be everywhere. The West End alone has around 40.

What's fascinating is that at one time Spain was in the lower league in Europe when it came to food, just ahead of Britain. Now, many regard it at the champion of European gastronomy. Spanish chefs, restaurants and wines regularly scoop major awards around the world.

In London, for example, Ametsa with Arzak Instruction in Belgravia and Barrafina in Soho have both won Michelin stars. Baraffina also took top spot in the 2015 National Restaurant Awards. Elsewhere, Michelin bib gourmands, a kind of runners-up prize to the star, have been awarded to Barrica in Fitzrovia, Jose in Bermondsey, and Morito in Clerkenwell.

While Spanish gastronomy has been on the rise, Catholicism in Spain, like in the rest of Europe, has been in steep decline. Only around 15% of Spaniards now regularly attend Mass.

This disconnection of many people from the Church occurs in a country that has produced such big hitting saints as St Teresa of Avila, St John of the Cross, St Ignatius of Loyola, and St Francis Xavier. In more recent times it has given birth to influential movements such as Opus Dei, the Neocatechumenal Way and the Legionaries of Christ.

So what does all this have to do with Father Pollitt's lament over the standard of preaching at Mass? Well, people will go to places where they feel nourished and enriched. And that's what happens when you go to a good Spanish restaurant. The variety of food on a typical menu is as good as anywhere in the world. Ever had suckling pig, poor man's potatoes, crisp baby squid with alioli, or char grilled chorizo with sweet potato?

What's more, tapas, small plates of food that you share, has become hugely popular. The great thing about it is not just that you get to try different dishes during an evening instead of just having a main, but by sharing food with your fellow diner you strengthen those human bonds.

The Mass, we are told, is a meal, and where people come to be nourished by the Word of God and share in the Eucharist. But I wonder how many Catholics think of it as a meal. And how many Catholics feel nourished when they leave a church?

I've often thought that there are similarities in attending Mass and going to a restaurant. Both use the word "service" to describe what happens. Both have a table, candles, wine, water, and bread, with waiters hovering around tables like altar servers do around an altar. Just as religion has its rituals, so do restaurants. And both follow a script: a menu in a restaurant; a missalette in a church.

At Mass the priest turns bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ; in a restaurant a chef turns a bunch of ingredients into a meal. One is supposed to nourish the soul, the other the body. Going to a church is much cheaper, of course, than going to a restaurant, and you aren't expected to leave a tip on your way out.

But, of course, one of the great things about a restaurant, as I'm sure Father Russell would agree, is that the chef doesn't come out and and spend 10 minutes boring everyone stiff with patronizing clichés.

In fact, the word restaurant comes from the French verb meaning to restore. And it seems many people feel they need a lot of restoring in their daily lives. But few go to church in search of it. I think Father Russell has told us one of the reasons why.

Ole! Ole! Passion on a Plate: The Rise of Spanish Cuisine in London will be published in July, priced £9.99.

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