Amateur Apostle: On Ninety-Five Years of Robert Farrar Capon

Capon is best-known for his food writing but all of his work is shot through with his Chestertonian view of God as a jovial Romantic.

Who hasn’t known the utter satisfaction of removing—or watching another’s studied thumb remove—the peel of an orange in one long, inviolate spiral? Whatever delight this springy curl of citrus inspires is short-lived, though, and at the end of the day, the thing is in the trash all the same. What at times seems fit only for the cosmic garbage heap, however, is often cherished in hand and given pride of place by a doting Father. Robert Farrar Capon imagines God himself rescuing the orange peel from the trash to hang it lovingly from his chandelier, and the picture has become my mind’s stock image for the often-inexplicable affection shown by the creator to his creation.

Fr. Capon is known by many for his food writing but all of his work is shot through with his Chestertonian view of God as a jovial Romantic. He would have been ninety-five last month and with more than twenty published books to his name much of his work has already begun to circle the drain of human memory. Capon’s point about the orange peel is that God’s judgment, made in the enthusiasm of love, is right and that such a recognition should move us to retrain our own attention and appreciation. While Capon has not asked for it any more than the orange peel could, anyone who surveys his body of known and lesser-known writings is sure to come away with an armful of ornaments destined for heavenly lighting fixtures.

There is no telling how history will judge Capon—which of his books will live on, which will die only to enjoy second-life decades from now—but a betting man would put his chips on The Supper of the Lamb as the most likely survivor. Published in 1969, it has remained in print longer and sold more copies than anything else Capon wrote. It established him early in his career as the bane of Gnostics and materialists alike; first to the fast and last at the feast; the consummate apostle of rich oil and extra wine. The book has been praised in this space more than once, and with good reason. Part cookbook, part aesthetic meditation, part theodicy: the sum is a jovial harmony that often becomes, for those who read it, the last word on culinary philosophy and gustatory theology.

Because I make a habit of giving the book as a gift, I have at times owned as many as three separate copies of The Supper of the Lamb and shelved them all in different sections of my library—never sure which placement was best. The book eludes genre classification, but among Capon’s body of work, this is not unique. Just as the man himself was difficult to classify—Episcopal priest and food writer, gourmand and shameless devourer of canned fruit cocktail (“even the kind that tastes like the can”), happily married and then happily remarried—his books tend to sprawl across several categories or fit into none. If anything, this is a byproduct of Capon’s view of the world, which is as broad and irreducible as life itself.

Across the genres he moved so blithely between, Capon repeatedly exhibited a foresight that is only now becoming entirely apparent. An index of his life’s work would turn up numerous topics and themes that only became trendy after he wrote on them. He was an early advocate for the recovery of a literary approach to holy scripture in his trilogy on the parables of Jesus (The Parables of the Kingdom being the first and best) and the unfortunately named Genesis: The Movie. In them, he contends in layman’s terms for reading the bible as an internally consistent literary whole and doing so in a way that enhances the literal meaning rather than dismissing it. The Supper of the Lamb is a more coherent formulation of what a later writer would misname “Christian hedonism.” And in his earliest publication, the invaluable marriage manual Bed and Board, we find Capon already eulogizing everyday cultural liturgy: “liturgy in the old sense that the word had before Christians picked it up…it is precisely the absence of visible liturgy that nowadays makes the common life less obvious to common men.” Eat your heart out, James K. A. Smith.

Most of the time Capon has set up shop (and table) in the heart of the essential Christian mysteries, and this disposition has a double edge. Capon’s gaze seldom wanders to the dangerous fringe issues of Christian doctrine, but wrestling with the big questions carries its own risks. Capon heel-toes the edges of orthodoxy with the alacrity—and the occasional gasp-inducing wobble—of a veteran tightrope walker. Many a time has he wheeled out a covered dish and spoken oddly and cryptically about it until I had every reason to expect a steaming bowl of heresy-lite underneath. But time and again I have exhaled my relief when he finally whisks the lid off to reveal a feast of orthodoxy that might have come from the mouths of the fathers themselves.

Nowhere has Capon pitched his tightrope higher than in Between Noon and Three, his theology-novel hybrid about adultery and “the outrage of Grace.” In it, he tells (and puckishly interrupts with commentary) the story of a “successful adultery,” that is, one that is never found out or thwarted the way illicit romances in novels usually are. The point, Capon explains, is not to tell one more story about a man who meets ruin and then accepts grace, but to tell the story of a grace that finds men who think themselves beyond saving—a parable “about the foolishness by which Grace raises the dead.”

Although The Supper of the Lamb may be the crowd favorite, Capon might prefer to be remembered for Between Noon and Three—“Quite simply . . . the most important piece of writing I have ever done.” The red thread running through Capon’s thought is that the cosmos is indeed nothing but orange peels. And it is in Between that Capon, with one eye on his neighbor and one on the mirror, most effusively dubs man the greatest orange peel of all. For all of his temptations toward pride, man prefers to live by Law rather than Grace (though, of course, this is just another, deadlier kind of pride). At the end of it all, such a man is forced to abide by the terms he chose and accept Law’s judgment of him: rubbish. But Capon would have us remember again that the rubbish bin is precisely where God makes his greatest saves.

As we read Robert Capon there is no missing the sense that he is for us—the normal folk. He writes with authority, but he never writes like a professional. Rather, he extols the office of the amateur. “Amateur and non-professional are not synonyms,” he reminds us. “The world may or may not need another cookbook, but it needs all the lovers—amateurs—it can get.” In the concerted unmooring of the sixties, he was already lamenting the loss of ageless cultural wisdom about things as basic as how to be men and women or raise children, and from his first book to his last, he has been commissioning the orange-peel amateurs of the world: “Nobody, right now, can imagine the right solution. Did you hear that? . . . Nobody . . . They have called our name, Billy . . . The world is waiting for the brilliant nonentities…standing out here in the wings, to pick the thing up in the dark . . . In such a situation, the amateur—the lover, the man who thinks heedlessness a sin and boredom a heresy—is just the man you need.” By God’s grace, we have had at least one for ninety-five years now.

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Sean Johnson is an associate editor of FORMA. He teaches literature at Veritas Academy in Richmond, VA.