Some smells remind me of my childhood in a physical, particular way. Sausage rounds in the frying pan, gumbo broth on the spoon, shrimp and cheese grits on the plate, spoon burgers… these transport me to another place and bring back memories, voices, and people from my past. Some of those people are still alive, but many aren’t. Sometimes the aroma of food connects me to ancestors no longer present on this side of the veil. During the COVID-19 lockdown, I began to spend more time cooking and baking with my spouse and children, and have rediscovered what Kathleen Norris calls the “quotidian mysteries,” the ordinary grace we can experience in mundane tasks. Our family meals are not elaborate, but when I make sausage jambalaya for my family, it brings me joy to share a dish from my past with my children, connecting us to something more than ourselves. The Catholic tradition has long recognized the sacramentality of food—the special way that God is experienced when we break bread together around our kitchen tables and around the altar at Mass. The meals nourish us physically but also emotionally and spiritually, creating relationships of mutual love and trust. American film actor and director Stanley Tucci writes about this with wisdom and humor in his new memoir, Taste: My Life Through Food. Taste explores powerful connections between family and food, but also misses some opportunities to deepen the reader’s understanding of social justice. In this post I’ll draw from Tucci’s wisdom and blind spots to think about my own food-related resolutions for this new year.
Tucci praises his mother, for whom cooking was “at once a creative outlet and a way of feeding her family well” (13). Tucci passes this along to his readers and his own family through stories and recipes that continue his own Italian-American family’s tradition of savoring life through delicious food. I appreciate how Tucci recognizes the labor of his mother’s cooking, and also how his book pushes readers to adopt family cooking practices that push against gender expectations that would imply that food preparation is exclusively “women’s work.” As Tucci describes his own experiences cooking and parenting (including diaper changing!), he pushes against any gender essentialism. Tucci’s gratitude for his mother is conveyed as he explains that the most precious family heirlooms he possesses are family recipes: “Like a physical heirloom, they remind us from whom and where we came and give others, in a bite, the story of another people from another place and another time. Yet unlike a lost physical heirloom, recipes are a part of our history that can be re-created over and over again. The only way they can be lost is if we choose to lose them” (85).
He continues later in the book: “Watching my guests enjoy the meal I’d made filled me with great familial pride. In those moments it was clear to me that someday, when my parents are no longer alive, I will always be able to put their teachings and all the love they gave me into a bowl and present it to someone who sadly will never have had the good fortune of knowing them. But by eating that food, they will come to know them, if even just a little” (277). Deeply aware of the symbolic nature of food, Tucci goes on to explain how reflecting on the meaning of family meals helped him to make sense of the Eucharistic meal, which in his words “may be the only aspect of Catholicism that makes any sense to me at all” (278). “Do this in memory of me” (Luke 22:19) takes on new meaning.
Throughout the book, Tucci shares cocktail recipes and family dinner recipes, and in combination, these point to a vision of human flourishing that celebrates the pleasures of food and drink as good and holy. I’m reminded of the vision described in Ecclesiastes 3:13—“That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.” Work in a capitalist economy is such a daily soul-sucking grind, all of us need reminders to stop and smell the garlic and rosemary. Tucci’s film, Big Night, is an example of deep appreciation of joy in culinary creativity, a theme present also in Babette’s Feast, which shows the sacramentality of a special meal.
I hesitate to give away too many details, but in summary, Tucci uses food as a lens through which to describe and reflect on some of the highest high points in his life as well as his most challenging moments. I enjoyed this book and recommend it. But readers should be aware of Tucci’s blind spots as well. The celebrity name-dropping is irritating and distracting. But it points to a larger theme of the book, which is that readers see a glimpse of what economic inequality looks like, especially during the COVID-19 lockdown (he describes cooking lamb chops for the children before he makes an adult dinner later in the evening, pages 247-261). While he seems critical of an Upper West Side restaurant’s pricey $355 for a nine-course tasting menu without wine (page 86), the book is full of descriptions of meals around the world that most of us could never afford. The missing piece, it seems to me, is an appreciation of social justice in our discussion of food and food ethics. Almost a decade ago, I wrote about how food insecurity was on the rise while some authors were beginning to describe cooking shows as “food porn.” Inequality has only gotten worse in the wake of COVID-19.
The United States Department of Agriculture reports that more than 10% of U.S. households were food insecure in 2020, and that 14.8% of households with children were affected by food insecurity. Globally, statistics overwhelm the senses. According to the UN World Food Programme, across the world, 811 million people do not have enough food, and 45 million people in 43 countries are at risk of sliding into famine. These data show us that we have a long way to go before everyone around the world can experience the flourishing that Tucci describes in Taste. Justice demands that we work for a world in which all have enough to eat.
In the midst of this reality, my approach to family and food ethics this year will draw not only from the wisdom of Stanley Tucci but from the advocacy of Dorothy Day and from my grandparents and parents, my first teachers in the kitchen.
My New Year’s Food Resolutions
(1) Make something new at least once a week—something fun and adventurous, as a way to connect to the ordinary grace of shared joy and the pleasure of food. One daughter has requested lasagna and another found a recipe for cream cheese vanilla bean pound cake, so it looks like we’ve got a to-do list started for this month already.
(2) Eliminate waste as much as possible. Only buy what is needed, and use/eat leftovers before making something new.
(3) Share the joy. Cook with others and share the work and joy of the preparation. Share the fruits of our labors with friends and neighbors. Continue donations to our parish food pantry.
(4) Build bridges through food. Across generations, across cultures. Talk about the family recipes we make. Learn about the cultures behind the food we consume—curries, tacos, noodles, pastries. Even if we can’t travel the world, we can explore other cultures through spices and broaden our palette and our worldview.
(5) Slow down and savor each meal. Avoid multi-tasking work lunches in front of the computer. Make family time screen-free. Create opportunities for dialogue around the table and discussion of the day.
(6) Plan meals with climate solidarity in mind. Explore vegetarian and vegan alternatives to meat dishes. Go meatless more often. Pay more attention to where our food comes from and the systems that produce it.
What’s for dinner? Have what we’re having… with my sincere wishes for your nourishment in body and soul in this new year.
Reimer Family Jambalaya
My mom cooked this jambalaya for our family when I was growing up. It was adapted from other family recipes that called for shrimp because of my brother’s food allergies. You can read about the history of jambalaya and its connections to Spanish paella on the Wikipedia page, but the easy thing about this dish is that you can increase portions by adding more rice and broth (just make sure that you always have twice as much broth as rice, and it should work). You can eliminate the hot sauce if you don’t like the heat.
1 package (14 oz) smoked sausage cut into ½ in sliced rounds (substitute Beyond meat or tofu for vegetarians)
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 yellow onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup white rice
1 cup chicken broth (use vegetarian vegetable broth for vegetarians)
1 can (14.5 oz) diced tomatoes (undrained)
1/8 tsp Tabasco hot sauce
2 sprigs fresh Thyme (can used dried instead)
Optional: diced bell peppers, diced celery, Cajun seasoning, bay leaf, shredded chicken, shrimp, tofu, or ham
In large nonstick saute pan, saute sausage rounds until brown on both sides. Remove to plate. Add chopped onion and garlic to saute pan with olive oil. If pan needs deglazing, add some broth but do not discard liquid. If you are using celery and bell peppers, add them now and cook until softened.
When onion is soft, add rice, remaining broth, diced tomatoes (undrained), Tabasco, thyme and any other spices you wish to use for seasoning. Return sausage to the pan, stir gently until all rice is covered. Cover and simmer on medium low for 35 minutes, stirring halfway (assuming you use a nonstick pan). Rice will absorb liquid and should be soft; add more broth if rice is still firm after 30 minutes. Serve with your choice of salad, vegetables, and/or bread.
Carter, Christopher. “Rev. Christopher Carter, Ph.D.” https://www.drchristophercarter.com/ 2021.
Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness (New York: Harper & Row, 1952).
“Ending Hunger,” World Food Programme, 2022. https://www.wfp.org/ending-hunger
“Food Security and Nutrition Assistance,” Economic Research Program, U.S. Department of Agriculture, November 8, 2021. https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/ag-and-food-statistics-charting-the-essentials/food-security-and-nutrition-assistance/
“Jambalaya.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jambalaya
Kathleen Norris, Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and Women’s Work (New York: Paulist Press, 1998)
Emily Reimer-Barry, “Food Porn- Food For Thought.” Catholic Moral Theology blog (September 17, 2012). https://catholicmoraltheology.com/food-porn-food-for-thought/
Julie Hanlon Rubio, Family Ethics: Practices for Christians (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2010)
Stanley Tucci, Taste: My Life Through Food (New York: Gallery Books, 2021)
“Social Outreach,” St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church, 2018, https://www.strosecv.com/so-info.html.
 Kathleen Norris, Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and Women’s Work (New York: Paulist Press, 1998), 15.
 See chapter five of Julie Hanlon Rubio’s Family Ethics: Practices for Christians (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2010), 128-163.
 Stanley Tucci, Taste: My Life Through Food (New York: Gallery Books, 2021). His food-focused travel documentary series on CNN is called Searching for Italy: https://www.cnn.com/travel/article/stanley-tucci-searching-for-italy-restaurants/index.html. The documentary series offers more nuanced social critique (especially about immigration and politics) than the book.
 Emily Reimer-Barry, “Food Porn- Food for Thought.” Catholic Moral Theology blog (September 17, 2012). https://catholicmoraltheology.com/food-porn-food-for-thought/
 “Food Security and Nutrition Assistance,” Economic Research Program, U.S. Department of Agriculture, November 8, 2021. https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/ag-and-food-statistics-charting-the-essentials/food-security-and-nutrition-assistance/
 “Ending Hunger,” World Food Programme, 2022. https://www.wfp.org/ending-hunger
 For some reason one of the most memorable parts of Day’s autobiography The Long Loneliness, for me, is when she describes living in New Orleans with her friend Mary. They lived near Jackson Square and had a kitchenette with a gas meter than ran on quarters. She writes “The gas was apt to run out just when we had spent our last cent on a rabbit stew which took hours to boil. Rabbit stew, rice and shrimp seemed to be our staple dishes that winter.” In borrowing quarters to finish making the stew, Dorothy and Mary met their neighbors. In other words, the meal was impossible without a call for help and the solidarity that was created added to the true meaning of the meal. This story complements Tucci’s celebration of food but adds another layer. And of course, Day’s later achievements in co-creating the Catholic Worker movement and her direct assistance to the hungry mean that she has a lot to teach me about Christian discipleship in a world of persistent economic inequalities and food insecurity. Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness (New York: Harper & Row, 1952), 108.
 “Social Outreach,” St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church, 2018, https://www.strosecv.com/so-info.html
 My colleague Dr. Christopher Carter writes persuasively about these issues. See: https://www.drchristophercarter.com/.
 “Jambalaya.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jambalaya