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The Gospel of Good Food and Family Meal Time

Father Leo Patalinghug discusses faith, family and his mom’s famous pancit recipe.

The Gospel of Good Food and Family Meal Time

Food was a big deal in our little house south of Baltimore. My parents, brother, sister and I crowded around the kitchen table. I remember Mom dishing hot pancit onto our plates, a simple Filipino meal of noodles, vegetables and chicken she loved making for our immigrant family. I dug in with my fork, hungry and wanting to rush back to my G.I. Joes.

“Slow down, Leo!” Mom would say. “Taste the different flavors.” I learned to chew…slowly…and there was the sweetness of the carrots, the pungent garlic. Mom was right. Food was meant to be savored, like a blessing. Mmmm!

“What did you learn at school today?” Dad would ask at dinner.

It seemed remarkable to me, his fascination with both photosynthesis and James and the Giant Peach. We would all talk. Even after my plate was clean I lingered, wanting seconds of the conversation. It slowly dawned on me that mealtimes were for more than just eating. It was when my family connected. It helped that Mom was a great cook. Before long she began teaching me. My first meal was Eggs in a Nest. I made it for Dad for breakfast. One look at the love in his eyes and I knew how Mom felt cooking for us.

Eventually I answered a call to the priesthood, which made my parents happy. I still loved to cook though. My studies took me to Rome, where I learned to make pasta and discovered the wonder of sauces. Then, back in the States, assigned to my first parish, a realization: For many of my parishioners the dinner hour was no longer sacred. Rush here, rush there, take-out, mom and dad working late, no one sitting at the table anymore. I was troubled. I prayed about it.

Soon I felt a calling, to show how easy it is to make great food, to share my own story, and bring parents and children back to the Lord’s table—the one collecting dust in their homes. I was teaching at seminary by now but I had weekends free. I would spread the gospel of family mealtime and good food.

Five years later I’ve taken the message of our growing movement Grace Before Meals to nearly every state and countries around the globe. You may have even seen my face-off and win against master chef Bobby Flay on the Food Network last year. That was huge. But my crusade can be lonely at times. I wonder if I’m making any difference at all.

Last November a parish in Tiverton, Rhode Island, invited me up. It was a Friday evening and I was tired after a long week of teaching. But I perked up when the event coordinator told me she expected 200 people, half of them teens.

“Wow! Your kids must be into cooking.”

“Not exactly,” she said sheepishly. “I made them come…as part of their confirmation classes.”

My heart sank. As the crowd streamed in I searched their faces for some sign of recognition. Surely someone had come eager to see me. Why did every presentation feel like I was starting anew? I hopped onstage, behind the stove that serves as my pulpit. “Good evening,” I said. “My name is Father Leo. Tonight I’m making Penne alla Vodka, enough to feed your body, mind and soul.”

The adults chuckled appreciatively, but the kids looked at me blankly. I hoped I could hold their interest until I burned off the alcohol in the vodka. I grabbed my big bottle of olive oil, poured it into a pan and turned up the heat. I tossed a handful of garlic into the oil and paused to hear the sizzle.

“That’s my favorite sound,” I said. “Or maybe it’s ‘Go in peace and serve the Lord.’” More laughter. They were getting into it.

I stirred in some onion, letting it caramelize, while sharing the importance of a family meal. Next some tomato paste. And a few more stories. At last it was time for the vodka. I took the bottle by the neck and tipped it into the pan. “Now I’m gonna set this bad boy on fire.” I struck a match and with a whoosh flames leapt from the pan. “Whoa!” the crowd roared. Kids were on the edge of their seats. For an instant I felt that familiar rush of adrenaline. I mixed in tomatoes, heavy cream and the penne. Finito! “Who wants a bite?” I said.

I dished out samples and the crowd filed past. Most everyone said they loved it, though a few said it was too spicy. But as they headed out the doors I felt drained. I’d done so many presentations like this and what did I have to show for it? Was I bringing families together or just putting on a show? On the flight back to Baltimore I wondered whether it wasn’t time to hang up my apron.

I brooded about it for the next week. Then one day, in my office, I clicked open an e-mail from an unfamiliar name:

“Father Leo, So here’s the deal. My grandson Nathan eats nothing but PBJ and hot dogs. But on my birthday he announced he wanted to make me Penne alla Vodka. He attended your presentation in Tiverton. I laughed, but he knew every step of the recipe. I watched in disbelief as he cooked his very first meal to perfection. You obviously made quite an impression on him and I just wanted to say thanks for a birthday present I’ll never forget.”

I reread the e-mail, marveling at every word, like an answer to prayer. What difference could food make to a hectic world? Suddenly, through God’s grace, the possibilities seemed limitless.

Try Father Leo’s version of his mom’s pancit or try his fajita recipe that beat out Bobby Flay’s on Throwdown!

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