A Continual Feast with Evelyn Birge Vitz
“I love to cook, to sanctify family life and to keep it focused on faith.”
A former professor at New York University, where she taught French and other subjects, including religious studies, Evelyn (“Timmie”) Birge Vitz is now retired. She lives in Reston, Virginia, with her husband, Paul C. Vitz, a psychologist who teaches at Divine Mercy University.
She may be renowned for many activities and intellectual pursuits, but her passion for cooking — and Catholicism — is illuminated in her popular cookbook, A Continual Feast.
The book underscores her profound understanding of Catholicism and of saints’ celebrations, but Vitz was not raised Catholic. “I grew up as a Presbyterian/Episcopalian sandwich. Then for family reasons I wobbled back and forth between Presbyterian and Episcopalian,” she said. “Then I was an atheist for a while. My husband (also an atheist at the time) and I wrote our own marriage vows.”
After the couple had their first child, they realized they really did not want to be atheists or to raise their children that way. “We went shopping around in traditional Protestantism,” she said, “and we ended up at the Episcopal church. But the more I read about the history of Catholicism — I am a medievalist — I realized that I needed to be Catholic. So did Paul.” She adds that neither she nor her husband had any Catholic relatives. “For us, Catholicism was an ‘exotic Eastern religion’ as Chesterton once termed it.”
Her passion for cooking really began while she was in graduate school at Yale. She noted that her mother was a wonderful woman and the family was close, but she cannot remember any specific dishes her mom cooked. “I have many happy memories of her, and of meals with her — but not of what she cooked,” she said.
Vitz, as a convert and a great believer in meals that bind family members together, turned to Julia Child and to other great cooks for culinary inspiration. Food traditions and family meals really create lasting memories! “When my eldest daughter was away at college, she would come home for the apple fritters I always served for Mardi Gras,” she said. “Another of our family favorite dishes is pascha, a delicious dessert made for Easter. (See recipe below.) And every Advent I bring out my beautiful springerle molds, and we bake those special Christmas cookies. One of my grandsons always starts with a particular cookie mold — it is his own personal tradition.”
As a convert, she discovered the beauty of the seasons of the Christian year and the symbolism in Catholicism. These were the great impetus for her to write her own cookbook. “I needed a book about food and Catholicism,” she said, “and not finding anything equivalent on the book market, decided to write one herself. “I am interested in the liturgical seasons, and I love to cook, to sanctify family life and to keep it focused on faith. It all came together!”
As she began to assemble the recipes for the cookbook, Vitz looked through a large number of cookbooks and brought together all she could find about food and Catholicism. “I would have liked to put in even more about saints’ traditions,” she said. “I put in all I could find.” In considering recipes, she said, “I was always interested in figuring out what was the principle behind each dish. I would try several recipes for that dish to see which one I thought was the best.”
It was a lot of work, but a lot of fun! Her children cooked and tested dishes along with her. And all her six children and her (at present) 22 grandchildren love food, family life, and their faith, which makes her feel very blessed.
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Recipe — Pascha
As Vitz noted about this Easter favorite, “This is an absolutely beautiful and delicious dish; versions are prepared in Poland, Russia, the Ukraine, and Latvia. It is made in a tall mold (or flowerpot), then turned out onto a large platter and decorated.”
Look for molds online or at liturgical stores.
Serves 14 to 16
- 1 whole egg
- 2 egg yolks
- 2 ½ cups sugar
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 2 pounds farmer cheese
- ½ pound sweet butter, at room temperature
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- 1 ½ cups mixed dried fruit, such as raisins and/or dried currants, or mixed candied fruit peel
- 1 cup blanched almonds, chopped
- 2 tablespoons freshly grated orange or lemon rind
- For decorating: candied fruit peel, maraschino cherries, or nuts
- Fresh strawberries to place around the base
Beat the egg and the egg yolks until thick and lemon colored. Gradually add the sugar and beat until the mixture is thick and creamy. Pour into a saucepan and add 1/2 cup cream.
Heat over medium-low heat, beating constantly, until the mixture begins to thicken. Do not boil. Remove the pan from the heat and continue to beat until the mixture cools to lukewarm
In a mixing bowl, combine the cheese, butter, the other ½ cup cream and the vanilla. Cream until the mixture is smooth. Add the egg mixture, then the fruits, almonds, and orange or lemon rind. Blend thoroughly.
Line a flowerpot or Pascha mold with two thicknesses of cheesecloth. Place the pot over a bowl to catch liquid and pour the Pascha mixture into the pot. Put a layer or two of cheesecloth over the top, set a plate on it, and something heavy on the plate. (The purpose is to press the extra liquid out of the Pascha and into the bowl below. Chill overnight or for a day or two
Remove the top cheesecloth. Unmold the Pascha onto a large platter, and remove the rest of the cheesecloth.
Decorate the Pascha with the candied fruit peel or maraschino cherries or nut to form the letters XB or CR (Christ is Risen) and on the other side form a cross. You may use the Western cross or the Orthodox cross. Around the base and on top of the Pascha, place fresh strawberries Serve chilled.