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Cooking never looked as Catholic, or as family-friendly, as it does in PBS’ forthcoming “Grace Before Meals” starring Father Leo Patalinghug. By Monta Hernon.
BY MONTA HERNON
He has been called a cross between talk-show host Rachael
Ray and Food Network’s “Ace of Cakes,” but at the heart of the matter Father
Leo Patalinghug is looking to bring families closer together and closer to God
using the simplest of recipes: Stir things up and have dinner together.
Father Patalinghug’s day job is director of pastoral field
education at Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., but in an effort
to bring people back to the table, he has helped develop a cooking show, “Grace
Before Meals.” PBS Plus plans to distribute it to member stations once a full
production schedule can be completed.
In each episode, Father Patalinghug will help a family or
individual facing a mealtime challenge or celebrating a special event prepare a
meal in their own home. Story lines in the “reality TV” series could include
welcoming new neighbors, adjusting to an empty nest or making dinner for Mom.
“We are concerning ourselves not just with the food we are
putting on the table but why we are coming together as family,” Father
Patalinghug says, reminding that Jesus fed people as he taught them. [We] want
to strengthen people’s understanding of how food and culture, and food and
faith, go hand in hand.”
And then there are the multiple studies that have come out
in recent years showing a strong correlation between a daily family meal and
all sorts of developmental, emotional and moral benefits in children.
“[Americans] have bought into the fast-food mentality,” says
the priest, who holds theological degrees from the Pontifical Gregorian
University and the Pontifical Marianum Institute in Rome — and a black belt in
tae kwon do. “This mentality says we are too busy to spend time with the
family. We are too busy to concern ourselves with what we are feeding our
children. We are too busy to say a little grace.”
The concept for the show was born from a practice Father
Patalinghug began as a parish priest. When invited by a family for dinner, he
would arrive early to help with the preparation of the food, believing that
conversation flows more easily in the relaxed setting of the kitchen.
It didn’t take long before Father Patalinghug’s colleagues
began egging him on, so to speak, and encouraging him to bring his talents both
as a chef and a counselor to a wider audience. It just so happened that Tim
Watkins, a parishioner of St. John Catholic Church in Westminster, Md., is the
president and CEO of Renegade Productions, an accomplished advertising and
When “Grace Before Meals” was pitched to Watkins informally
after Mass one day, it hit home, reminding him of his own childhood when dinner
was kept warm while the family said the Angelus together. “We have complicated life
with needs, demands and wants,” Watkins says. “We all chase after these things
nonstop. Sometimes we forget the simplest and the most important things.”
Watkins’ interest eventually led him to bring Father
Patalinghug and a camera crew home for dinner to film a marketing reel.
“There were no cue cards or blocking,” recalls Watkins. “It
was just Father, raw, to see what kind of talent he was.”
The producer was impressed with what he saw: a priest who
can “cover the gamut and talk to people in the way they need,” says Watkins.
“He has a gift for talking and presenting, for straightening you out and
setting you in the right direction. We need to get this talent out there.”
Networks, while interested, were wary of a having a priest
as host because of the negative press the Catholic Church was receiving at the
time, Watkins says. “We languished through the next couple of years.”
Nor is Father Patalinghug a shrinking violet when it comes
to discussing the particulars of his faith. He told of his conversion experience,
growing from a going-through-the-motions Catholic into a priest in love with
the Church, in a recent interview with the Arlington Catholic Herald.
“I saw the presence of God and it reduced me to tears of
sorrow and joy,” he said of the consecration at a conference Mass that followed
a talk on the Real Presence. “Even though Christ was always present to me I was
not always present to him. His blood is pumping through our veins.”
Members of the Greene family, also of Westminster, Md., have
experienced Father Patalinghug’s prowess in the kitchen firsthand as
parishioners — and served as a test family for the recipes in the priest’s
companion cookbook, Grace Before Meals, judging them on both ease and taste.
Cola Pork Skewers received a particularly enthusiastic
“It was so easy and, when I bit into that pork, I thought,
‘This tastes like a restaurant-quality meal,” Theresa Greene says. Even more
impressive: “I have found that we have learned from Father Patalinghug to value
not so much what is on the table, but the time around the table with our kids.
Even if you are opening a frozen bag of ravioli, the goal is to share it as a
As for the show, while PBS Plus has agreed to distribute
“Grace Before Meals,” it doesn’t cover production costs. Watkins and Father
Patalinghug estimate that they will need approximately $500,000 through
corporate sponsorship and possibly private donations. They are in the process
of applying for nonprofit status.
Although they have received interest from other networks,
Watkins and Father Patalinghug favor PBS, which would allow them to maintain
creative rights — ensuring that, among other things, they will be able to keep
Father Patalinghug in a collar.
It’s unlikely the secular network would allow an emphasis on
evangelization or catechesis, but Father Patalinghug clearly sees the potential
for changing the way viewers think about Christ and the Catholic faith.
There are many times in Scripture when food is present, the
priest points out. Jesus, he notes, showed an affinity for reaching the heart
by way of the stomach — “from his first miracle of wine to his last moments on
earth saying he is thirsting.”
Monta Hernon writes from
La Grange Park, Illinois.
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