Food and drink figure heavily in many Biblical passages. Bread and wine, the wheat in the fields, grapes on the vine, figs on the tree, oils and spices, loaves and fishes for the hungry multitude. The Last Supper became the cosmic, universal sacrament of faith for Christian believers.
So it comes as no surprise that food and religion have become an easy mix for Filipino-American priest Father Leo Patalinghug, a theology professor, seminary formator, cookbook author and multi-media celebrity chef.
Fr. Leo believes that food can make people come closer together, and appreciate their faith better. The priest has several “food and faith” projects that use modern media for maximum reach. He prefers to call these a movement, rather than ministries. He hosts “Savoring Our Faith,” on the Catholic US-based Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) carried by cable providers in the Philippines and broadcasted worldwide.
Fr. Leo also hosts “Grace Before Meals” (GBM) which he describes as cooking segments on Catholic TV. GBM has been featured in many TV shows and newspapers in the US and its cooking videos can be viewed on YouTube as well. The priest recently started—also on YouTube—the “Miniflipping” series that seeks to relate to young people and answer questions about faith and life.
Books and e-books cannot be far behind. Fr. Leo’s “Grace Before Meals: Recipes and Inspiration for Family Life” is now on its third edition. In it he has included Filipino recipes adapted for non-Filipino cooks.
“A second book is coming out this year,” Fr. Leo happily announced. “It is called ’Spicing Up Married Life’ and will include essays and recipes that will encourage couples to eat and pray together, and in so doing, love one another.”
And do his religious superiors love his multi-media persona as well?
“They approve and are very happy with the opportunity to share this apostolate with families,” he told the Inquirer. “While I keep my superiors—my bishop and the rector of the seminary—apprised of my activities, they trust that my primary work within the diocese and the seminary is being fulfilled. The church needs to also evangelize in the field of media, and so I am grateful to have their support.”
Fr. Leo belongs to the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Maryland and works at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg.
And when exactly did this “food and faith” movement begin? The idea, he recalled, was hatched among friends sometime in 2001 after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US that killed thousands. The media appearances started in 2007 and have since steadily grown into regular shows on TV and the Internet. Read all about it on the website (www.gracebeforemeals.com), he added.
A typical GBM segment shows Fr. Leo introducing the show and the recipe he is about to cook. He wears the priestly attire with a Roman collar and the GBM logo. No toques or tall hats for him. But if you look closer you’d see that the black shirt he’s wearing is double-breasted like a chef’s jacket. A hand towel is slung on his shoulder. While he cuts, chops and slices the ingredients, he speaks about their biblical connection and provides the verses in the Bible where they are mentioned.
He quotes lines like these from the book of Numbers: “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic.” Olives and olive oil will naturally transport the viewer to the Garden of Olives where Jesus prayed in agony. The ingredients mentioned in the Bible are too many to enumerate.
While cooking, Fr. Leo does not make “chicken soup for the soul” homilies. He sticks mainly to the recipe but spices it up with spiritual nuggets. The food done, he invites the viewer to try his recipe and adds to it his down-home inspirational tidbits. Always, he reminds, give thanks to God for the gift of food, for the joy of togetherness.
The priest is amazing to watch especially when he segues from food for the body to food for the soul and back. But one wonders: being so distracted, does he ever get the food or his fingers burned while cooking? And how does he choose the recipe he would feature?
“I choose based on the inspiration that I get when I reflect on the theme of the show or the message. And yes, I do sometimes get some recipe ideas from prayer.”
Born in the Philippines in 1970, Fr. Leo’s family moved to the US when he was two years old. He grew up in the Baltimore area. “My dad was a physician and my mother a homemaker,” he said. “We learned about Filipino culture through food, folk dancing, martial arts like eskrima (fencing) and arnis, and through the transmission of faith. We learned the custom of respect, and in some ways, the language. We learned all these as a close-knit family.”
Ordained in 1999, Fr. Leo spent five years studying theology at the Gregorian University in Rome. He has a degree in sacred theology with concentration in Mariology. “While in Italy,” Fr. Leo said, “I attended some cooking courses in Peruggia at the Cordon Bleu. I enjoy learning different techniques and practicing them at home. I take private classes with intense instruction wherever I go and they are offered.”
Mediterranean dishes are among Fr. Leo’s specialties. But he is also into “fusion” cooking. He explained: “Fusion is a combination of different ingredients, regional styles and techniques to create something different from the traditional.”
He has done variations of the Chinese-Filipino pancit (noodles). “I used a different kind of noodle and added siracha hot sauce and oyster sauce. There will always be variations because of the unavailability of ingredients. Filipino flavors vary from region to region. There is always something unique in my cooking of Filipino food and my family enjoys the twists that I add.”
Fr. Leo was in the Philippines three months ago for a family holiday. His culinary experiences while he was here were too many to recount, he said. He did enjoy the mangoes and the good restaurants. “I don’t come regularly,” he said, “but the GBM movement continues to grow in the Philippines. There are requests for me to come for cooking shows, retreats and book signings. Perhaps next year.”
He is excited about the movement that is growing around the world. “I try to make it fun and inspiring. The movement and message have been received even by secular groups, in book, food and wine festivals, as well as agricultural, social science and medical events. People want to learn more about health and the importance of eating family meals together.”
The Washington Post said of him: “Patalinghug is using his role as a budding celebrity chef to preach the importance of the dinner table in family life.”
On the hunger and malnutrition in many parts of the world, the excesses among the affluent, and the poverty of farmers and fishermen who provide food to the world, Fr. Leo mused: “There is enough food in the world to share, but not enough generous people to work to feed the hungry. I believe part of my mission and this movement is to remind people who are fortunate to have food, family and faith to share these with those who go without food. Those who have lots of food but do not have family and faith are the most pitiable and hungry of all. I treat food as a means and not an end.”
And what is healthy eating for him?
“Moderation,” the Tae Kwon Do black belter answered. “Make sure you bless the food before you eat it so that God will remind us at the dinner table to eat with a sense of humility, gratitude, joy and togetherness while sharing the blessings with those who hunger.”
His reminder for the so-called “righteous eater”: “Many become righteous in their way of eating. They say this is the best or only way to eat. I know too many people who are healthy in body but hurting in their hearts, souls and minds.”
And what is Fr. Leo’s favorite food story in the Bible?
“It is John 21. Jesus asked Peter, ‘Do you love me?’ Jesus asked three times to forgive Peter’s threefold denial of him. After Peter’s every answer of yes, Jesus responded with, ‘Then feed my sheep.’ I used that quote on my ordination card. I didn’t know then that God would use that to encourage me to feed the flock with food that satisfies the body and mind and, most importantly, with the food that feeds the soul—the Eucharist.”
As a priest, Fr. Leo Patalinghung presides at a spiritual banquet every day: on the altar table, surrounded by those who come to partake of what he calls the “balanced meal,” the Eucharist. He brings to life a message that Jesus gave for all time, “Do this in remembrance of me.”