Does the devil eat hot dogs?
talks to Massimo Salani
An Italian theology lecturer who
was catapulted overnight to international fame as a champion of
Roman Catholic gourmets against satanic, hamburger-devouring
Protestants, feels that it has all been one hellish
Massimo Salani says that his views
were seriously distorted by the press after he gave an interview
to L'Avvenire, the Vatican-backed daily newspaper, about his book
on the eating habits of different religions. The article bore a
provocative headline: "The hamburger? It's atheistic".
After its publication, Salani was
astonished to find himself widely credited with a series of
offensive remarks that he denies having made: that eating at
places such as McDonald's constituted a novel variety of deadly
sin to be added to gluttony; that hamburgers were fit for
consumption by Protestants and atheists but not by Catholics; that
slow, sensible and salubrious eating was typically Catholic and
fast, foolish and frivolous eating tellingly Protestant.
What Salani did say was that
fast-food eating habits arguably reflected the individualistic
relationship between man and God established by Luther and that
such habits did not represent an ideal Catholic model because they
lacked the sharing spirit of communitarianism.
Salani welcomes the opportunity to
set the record straight. "I would never dream of saying that
hamburgers are the food of Protestants or atheists. All food is a
gift from God. I think man must learn a special sacred
relationship with food. I myself ate hamburgers during my lengthy
stays in Texas and Virginia a few years ago and saw absolutely no
need to confess it.
"I cannot blame L'Avvenire,
but it is a pity that the media raised problems on the basis of an
article's headline without taking the trouble to read the article
properly, if at all, let alone my book, and above all without
checking the precise sense of the statements with the author
before drawing conclusions. My reference to Luther should be
understood as no more than a working hypothesis on how fast food
developed in the United States. It was certainly not my intention
to offend or criticise my Protestant brothers in any way, and I
apologise if I did so."
What Salani wants to stress is
that dining in a "convivial" atmosphere helps establish
"correct" relations among individuals and between
individuals and God. The Catholic sacraments of confession and
holy communion, he argues, do not fit well with an eat-and-run
culture that fails to see the connection between time, space, food
Why then did fast food develop in
the US? Salani thinks that it arose to meet specific practical
needs, but that its subsequent success and strong hold on people
may have been partly facilitated by a dominant Protestant ethic of
individualism. "Where fast-food habits are the exception,
there is no problem. When they become a way of life, they
contribute to directing our attention away from the idea that food
is a gift from God."
Salani says food is a positive
thing and can be a way of caring for and valuing others. "If
I prepare food for my family or for guests - and this is where the
value of festa emerges in religions and the various dishes for
Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, New Year and the end of Yom
Kippur or Ramadan - I add to food my desire to be in their
company, to have them participate in my life, to share the space
in my house and my time with them. Thus, through food, we can also
communicate with God, thanking Him for what He offers us."
Jesus, Salani notes, saw meals as
occasions for spiritual nourishment as well as for satisfying
hunger. The first to grasp this food-God relationship were the
early church fathers - Justin Martyr (c. AD105-165), Irenaeus (c.
125-202), Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215) and Origen (c.
185-254) - who taught about fasting and the need to thank God at
Salani feels that such principles
are far removed from the model underlying fast-food consumption.
He sees food-related illnesses such as bulimia and anorexia in
humans and BSE in animals as connected with the loss of a correct
moral relationship with food. But he rejects the hypothesis that
BSE might be a judgement from on high for contravening the divine
Salani believes that people need
to stop rushing around and to think about the great
"void" that they are making for themselves. He believes
religion can help them to recover the positive values of eating.
The past month of purgatory and
adverse publicity has given Salani much food for thought - and,
although he thinks the press furore may have helped people
reconsider their relationship with food, he says he has decided
that A Tavola con le religioni (At Table with Religions)
will be his "first and last book".
The book offers a tastefully
presented summary of the religious attitudes to food of Hindus,
Buddhists, Jainists, Muslims, Jews and Christians, complete with
representative recipes. It is peppered with quotes from specialist
texts designed to whet the appetite for further reading - from the
Bhagavadgita, the Bible and the Koran to works by Mahatma Gandhi,
the Dalai Lama and Claude Levi-Strauss.
Besides its obvious ecumenical
intent, the book aims to present religions to Salani's students in
an original and interesting way. He teaches patrology (the
writings of the early Christian apologists and church fathers) to
seminarians at Lucca's Interdiocesan Theological Institute, which
is sponsored by the Pontificia Universita Gregoriana in Rome, and
religion at Pisa's Matteotti State School of Hotel Management.
Matteotti students learn how to
cater for all religious culinary needs. Salani, who holds that
there is no such thing as a moral diet, favours the cuisine of his
native Mantua, which includes tortelli di zucca; pasta rolls
filled with a mixture of spinach, ricotta, egg and nutmeg;
mushroom escalopes; and sbrisolona, a traditional Mantuan cake
made with soft flour, eggs, butter, almonds and spices.
But Salani also extols the virtues
of fasting and abstinence, which he criticises Catholics,
Protestants and Anglicans alike for having neglected. "I
would like to invite people who are thinking of spending a fortune
at Christmas filling themselves with food and drink to consider
fasting instead and donating the money they have saved to those
who are starving. I am sure they would find it spiritually
gratifying," he says.
A Tavola con le Religioni
is published by Edizioni Dehoniane Bologna, 25 euros.
SALANI'S RECIPE FOR TORTELLI DI
Pasta: 600g white flour and 3
Filling: 1kg pumpkin, 200g
Parmesan cheese, 2tbs sugar and pinch of grated nutmeg.
Remove pumpkin's seeds, bake, then
puree the fruit. Mix puree with cheese, sugar and nutmeg. Mix the
flour and eggs to make pasta dough. Roll out the pasta and cut
into bite-sized squares. Fill with the pumpkin mixture.
Note: This article appeared in The Times Higher Education Supplement on December 21 2000.