I have the secret at last! Well, half the secret, at any rate.
When there’s a special family occasion, my brother sometimes asks an old Russian friend to bake one of her famous cakes. They are rich, scrumptious confections made of thin pancake–like layers, topped with bouquets of exquisite roses fashioned from icing. We’ve puzzled long and hard over that cake’s construction. She won’t even tell us its name, let alone how to make it.
However, bravo to Simon Carey Holt for not only revealing it’s Baumkuchen, a ‘tree cake’, but providing a recipe from Anna, an extraordinary German pastrycook he met during his professional stint in the kitchen. I wouldn’t want to give the impression EATING HEAVEN is a recipe book. Far from it. Every chapter however is followed by a recipe which in some way characterises the ‘food for thought’ in the chapter.
I love the unusual mix of heavenly–minded philosophy and practical down–to–earth recipes. I cheer for anyone trying to break down the walls between various subject specialties and integrate them. The world is far too fragmented already and to talk about food is a potential minefield, even if the topic is about something so commonplace. It risks the very thing Holt is keen to avoid in his encounters with fellow consumers of food: exclusion rather than inclusion.
Holt is a trained chef and minister of religion, amongst other talents. He has the advantage of working in the centre of Melbourne with its laneways where the choice of cafés is mind–tingling. To someone from suburban Brisbane who can still remember the first packet of an exotic beverage called ‘coffee’ entering our family home in the late 50s, this is another, almost alien, world.
From the outset, Holt recognises the challenge in writing a book about food and the soul: for many people, eating conjures up negative and even destructive thoughts. Those of a more religious mindset tend to see fasting as more ‘spiritual’ than feasting, though as Holt points out, fasting and feasting are not opposites—fasting and gluttony are. Moreover he also suggests that, in the ordered society of Jesus’ day—in many ways, so much like our own—where table companions define our position in the social scheme of things, he was a supreme iconoclast.
I remain bemused by the variety of cooking shows on television, the celebrity status of the contestant chefs and the viewers’ obsession with following their favourites. I can’t help but contrast the message of this book with that fake world where food is about everything except love and sacrifice.
As Holt moves through chapters on the backyard barbecue on to cafés and then to five–star dining, culminating in the communion table, he has immensely valuable things to say on the dining experience. ‘To share food at the same table is a covenantal act. It always has been. In the Ancient Near East, the incubator of food culture, the sharing of food carried lifelong bonds of obligation for host and guest.’
The older I get and the more I understand about covenant as oneness, the more I see that Holt is right that the ordinary things of life need to be redeemed.
EATING HEAVEN by Simon Carey Holt (Acorn Press, 2013)
ANNE HAMILTON is a multi–award winning author. Her most recent book is GOD’S PANOPLY: The Armour of God and the Kiss of Heaven. She is currently researching threshold covenants (also called cornerstone covenants) which, because they are partly about hospitality, may well account for how much she enjoyed EATING HEAVEN.