The Collar and the Kitchen

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.

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.”

Talking Talent

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 filmmaking company.

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 thumbs up.

“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 family.”

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.