The Importance of a Good Dinner

We are reading chapter 35 of the Rule of St Benedict, On the Kitchen Servers for the Week. Both Quietnun and I have served as monastic cooks, and I’m sure Bro Duncan PBGV would if he could (he’d certainly volunteer to be taster-in-chief), but I have sometimes wondered about St Benedict’s intentions. For instance, what did he mean by verse 2, ‘such service secures a richer recompense and greater love’? To whom were those words addressed, the community in general or the cooks in particular?

If my experience is anything to go by, liturgy and food can both be fraught subjects in the monastery. Tantrums in choir never occur, of course, but an acid little comment or a mildly huffy fit are perfectly permissible because, you see, it is zeal for the Divine Office that motivates us. Similarly, it would be quite wrong to express anger or indignation at what X or Y is doing (or not doing), but complaining about the food is all right because that is justifiable grumbling, isn’t it? Was Benedict trying to reassure the cooks that it was all worthwhile, this being in the hot seat? Or was he an idealist, who had never himself prepared a meal for anyone, let alone a hungry community? (If abbatial practice at early Cluny is any guide, that is unlikely.)

I suspect Benedict had been confronted by too many red-faced cooks saying the sixth century equivalent of ‘This is the last straw!’ Hence, I think, the insistence throughout the chapter on serving with love, and the ritualisation of mealtimes and kitchen service with prayer and blessing. A good dinner isn’t just one made up of good ingredients, well-cooked and nicely presented, helpful though those things are. A good dinner is one that is Eucharistic, offered and accepted graciously,* that builds up spiritually as well as physically. The best dinner I have ever eaten wasn’t served at a famous restaurant nor did it feature any expensive ingredients. In fact, it was rather a spare meal, but it was suffused with love and kindness — the kind of meal I think St Benedict had in mind for his monks.

*the roots of our word Eucharist, meaning Thanksgiving, are to be found in the Greek ‘eu’ = well and ‘kharizesthai’ = offer graciously.