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Does the devil eat hot dogs?

Domenico Pacitti 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 misunderstanding.

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 and God.

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 mealtimes.

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 plan.

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 ZUCCA

Pasta: 600g white flour and 3 eggs.

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.

Boil the tortelli. Served topped with sauce made of peeled tomatoes fried in butter and sage.

Note: This article appeared in The Times Higher Education Supplement on December 21 2000.