Sharing BBQ, Smoked Meats and ‘the Richness of Catholic Moral Tradition’

The spokesman for Notre Dame’s de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture explains the power of a shared meal — and offers a recipe for Pasta alla Norcina.

Ken Hallenius and his wife Julie
Ken Hallenius and his wife Julie (photo: Photo Provided)

Communications director for the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, Ken Hallenius is a lifelong Catholic with a passion for his faith. A resident of South Bend and a parishioner at St. Joseph Catholic Church, he outlined how his Catholic faith has directed his life choices. He has a syndicated radio show called “Living Stones,” and two podcasts — “EncounterPoints” and “What Movie Is That From?”

Raised in a devout family, he attended the local St. Philomena Parish school in Des Moines, Washington, and then after high school run by the Irish Christian Brothers, attended Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in Indiana.

“I was thinking about joining the priesthood to be a diocesan priest,” he said. After several years in Indiana, he moved back to the Seattle area and volunteered in youth ministry at St. Vincent de Paul Parish, still occasionally contemplating priesthood. Eventually he entered the Western Dominican Province in Oakland, California, spending two years as a clerical brother.

But “discernment is a two-way process,” he said. “And the call to the priesthood? I just realized that was not what God had called me to do. I loved my time with the Dominicans, and I gained a great appreciation for the liturgy and the Liturgy of the Hours. And this deepened my love for the Rosary.” He realized that God was calling him elsewhere, and as he has moved on, he still has a great relationship with his Dominican brothers. 

Besides his love of Catholicism and of his job as communications director at Notre Dame — “I get to tell the story of what we do and to share the richness of Catholic moral tradition,” he noted — God also seemingly called him to pursue another passion: cooking, or more succinctly, barbecuing and smoking meats.

Hallenius said that he remembers gatherings around the family table for mealtimes.

“I appreciated meal gathering from college on,” he said, “where the midday meal after Sunday Mass was usually a great conversation with other guys who enjoyed home-cooked meals.”

He had the same experience as a Dominican, when dinners offered a time for great conversation and a time to build community. “That is when I appreciated the power of a meal,” he said. “It is connected to the Eucharist when we gather around the altar to share that meal."

When he worked as a residence hall director at the University of Portland, he said some of his best friends on campus were the staff at the Bon Appetit food services. He would wander through the kitchen and chat with the chefs who were feeding him every day — and that is when he learned how to appreciate cooking as an art.

Today, he and his wife enjoy throwing parties at their own home, especially an annual celebration on the first Friday after Easter, which he calls “Meating Friday.” “I will smoke an entire brisket,” he said. “I have done ribs in a cooking competition,” but his array of food includes much, much more. He loves to celebrate Catholic holidays with special meals, as well as the Kentucky Derby, when he has served fried chicken and mint juleps. “These are opportunities to gather around food and to build community,”  he said.

He has cooked plenty during the pandemic lockdown, he said. “We have eaten better at home during this time. I have done a lot of barbecuing, and I get to cook outside. I do almost all the cooking on the smoker grill, because it doesn’t heat up the house.”

He recalled one of his most memorable dishes, a smoked turkey that he flattened to help cook faster. He had to remove the backbone using a big electric saw. “My wife filmed me doing that.”


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Pasta alla Norcina

Ken Hallenius first had this delicious pasta dish during his first trip to Rome, when seminarian friends took him to then-Cardinal Ratzinger's favorite pasta place, “da Roberto” on the Borgo Pio just south of the Vatican’s Santa Anna gate. It’s a hearty dish from the hometown of Saint Benedict, Norcia.

  • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed (but not broken apart)
  • 1 pound ground fresh pork, crumbled
  • ⅓ to 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • ½ cup heavy cream
  • 1 pound short pasta, such as rigatoni, mostaccioli, or penne
  • 1 to 2 ounces grated Pecorino Romano
  • Fine sea salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a rolling boil. Meanwhile, heat the oil and the garlic in a large frying pan over medium heat — do not break up the garlic. Once the oil is hot and the garlic is fragrant, add the crumbled pork.

Brown the pork, stirring and scraping constantly with a wooden spatula to prevent it from sticking and burning. Remove the garlic and pour in the wine. Allow it to evaporate while carrying on scraping (deglazing) the bottom of the pan. Reduce the heat, cover, and finish cooking the sausage for 10 minutes.

Uncover, taste and season with salt and pepper. Pour in the cream and bring the sauce to a gentle simmer. Reduce it for 3 to 4 minutes, then turn off the heat, cover, and set aside.

Cook the pasta in salted boiling water until al dente. Drain and add to the pan with the pork and cream sauce. Place the pan over a low flame and toss the pasta to evenly coat it with sauce — you can let the sauce down with a little pasta water if it gets too thick. Top the plated pasta with a generous dusting of grated Pecorino and freshly ground black pepper before serving.