Father Leo Patalinghug is well known from his EWTN Savoring Our Faith series and his Grace Before Meals Web series on YouTube. He grew in his knowledge and love for cooking while he was a seminarian at the North American College in Rome.
Combining faith with food eventually led the priest to win a popular cooking competition against chef Bobby Flay on the Food Network and write a bestselling cookbook, Grace Before Meals: Recipes and Inspiration for Family Meals and Family Life (Doubleday, 2010).
He also appears on The Catholic Channel on Sirius XM on a number of different programs, including his own, called Entertaining Truth. As a priest of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, he is currently assigned to Our Lady of the Fields in Millersville, Md.
People can register for free recipes, weekly newsletters and more at GraceBeforeMeals.com, where they can also get his latest book, Spicing Up Married Life (Leo McWatkins Films, 2012), with the aim to bring "a true blessing to your next dinner date as a couple married in God’s love."
In time for World Marriage Day, Feb. 10, and Valentine’s Day, the cooking priest spoke about his latest book.
How did you get the idea for this new cookbook?
Through prayer, God’s honest truth. It’s hard to write a book, especially to encapsulate lofty theology in a bite-size fashion. As I was praying for the Grace Before Meals movement, I sensed God was reminding me: If I really wanted to strengthen families, I have to focus on the origins of the families; and, that is, obviously, the parents.
If you really want to help families, do something to strengthen the source of family life on earth, which is the love between husband and wife, the mom and dad. These couples in love are the first link to the family unit.
How does this relate to your parish work?
I did a lot of marriage preparation on the parish level, and, through the website, I answered a lot of questions about marriages in general. I also did some marriage counseling to help couples get back into the groove. More often than not, I tried to refer them to take time to just talk to each other.
Too often, when couples talk about their relationship, they sometimes focus on it negatively, and I wanted to give them a little bit of a forum or atmosphere where they could talk, but also think of the good times and not just the bad times.
It’s obvious when a couple has a nice meal they’re just in a better mood. I just wanted to give them a fun way to talk about life, to have a concentrated moment of celebration and discussion, to have meaningful meals — and to do it more regularly than just once a year.
What directions did you give?
Following the Grace Before Meals approach, have a "month-iversary," a monthly dinner date. Go to dinner or make dinner. Begin with a prayer, end with a prayer, and realize there is nothing that can’t be solved if you invite God to the table, invite God to the dinner, invite God to the discussion.
So far, from (my) counseling experience, it’s worked.
Your cookbooks obviously use recipes to lead to an all-important spiritual banquet, too.
I treat the food as a means to an end. The food is important, and good food has a part in relationships, but it’s only a means to an end, the strengthening of relationships. That’s what the Eucharist is: communion with God. … Our objective is to eat that food so we can have communion with God, but that food is the divine presence of God, in the spiritual sense.
In the Eucharist, he became both the end and the means. With earthly food, it’s just the means.
There’s no question that your cooking differs from other methods.
In other food shows and movements, they love to show off the final plate, and we think that is the be-all and end-all. They teach us how to make this meal. I remind people why.
The obvious answer is: to bring people together to celebrate life, to celebrate your love, to provide a place at the table to share ideas and conversation to help bring out a conversion. "Conversation" and "conversion" share the same root word.
Your new cookbook continues your philosophy of "encouraging meaningful discussion around the dinner table." Is that obvious right away when people see and hear you’re a chef?
People think: "a priest who cooks — isn’t that nice." But then they read the substance, and they begin to understand.
The food is only a positive distraction, an attractor. People will buy the book because of the recipes; then they read the book and chew on the substance of the materials. (From) "what a nice idea" they read it and realize it’s more than nice — it’s a powerful idea. Many couples have already emailed me and told me that.
All of the recipes were tested by couples around the country. We were surprised that we had hundreds of people apply to be recipe testers. Every one of them wrote back … and they all said: "This was great; this was so much fun." This was exactly what they needed to do as a couple. There’s been a ton of affirmations.
Can you give a hint of the ideas you address?
There are really challenging teachings there, especially finances, sexuality, a challenging section on sickness and health and a section on in-laws.
And you present everything in such a joyful way, from the romantic dinners to the easy-to-understand theology of marriage.
(Here’s) the point of marriage — it’s the foretaste of what heaven is.
That’s why I begin with Chapter 1, "The Moment You First Met," and I end with "Until Death Do You Part." I’ve taken the whole expanse of a marriage experience and try to consolidate it to 12 months, giving a monthly dinner, discussion, questions and prayers.
Do I think couples will do it every month? Yes I do!
I know couples who did this. It will be fun, helpful, honest. And it will be a tangible sign that the two people who promised to love each other are working on it. It takes work. Let’s not kid ourselves. But we have to do it because, if we don’t, actual forces will pull us apart.
What will bring us together? Again, look at Mass food. Look at Thanksgiving. It brings America around a piece of turkey. It’s silly, but maybe not. Maybe God in his providential love always says: "I want to have supper with you." Look at the Book of Revelation: I stand and knock at your door; if you let me enter I will have supper with you.
Because we bought into the fast-food mentality, we don’t stop and think about this. We’re too busy for each other.
Why is this cookbook and message such a timely way to reach people today?
I’m offering an attractive reminder. Each chapter gives them something bite-sized, digestible. It doesn’t force-feed them because I respect the fact that many people are not well catechized.
That’s why the tone of the book is more happy and celebratory, but peppered into it are some really challenging topics.
You use food analogies so colorfully to make the points for cooking and marriage.
We use food analogies all the time, but we don’t think about it. We need time to "digest it." So, in a sense, I’m trying to help develop a precursor to the theology of the Eucharist by trying to create a theology of food. We always see the Eucharist as purely spiritual, which it is. But Jesus was also fully human. I think we have an unhealthy approach to God when we only spiritualize him. Christian theology is that God became incarnate in the flesh to be eaten. That’s why he was placed in a manger, born in Bethlehem, the "House of Bread." His first miracles? Food.
Any plans to turn this book into an EWTN series too?
I hope to do more of the content at some point for television. I don’t think people realize to do what we’re doing is hard work — to combine cooking and inspiration, meal and message; in a half hour, not only to prepare a meal, but to give bite-sized lessons. That’s why food shows only talk about the food.
I’m honored to do this, and EWTN and I are trying to show a Catholic lifestyle, not just Catholic catechesis.
Food is part of our lifestyle … because we have tons of feast days.
Only when the world begins to respect the Church for doing what she does best — feeding hungry people — will they begin to pay attention to the theology.
Please tell us about what turned out to be divine Providence in the release date of this book.
The book should have come out a year ago but didn’t. But it was released on Sept. 22, 2012 — the day my mom, Fe, and dad, Carlos, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.
These are lived lessons in the book. They were a big inspiration for the book.
Joseph Pronechen is the
Register’s staff writer.