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Issue Date:  February 10, 2006

By Cristina Mazzoni
Continuum, 222 pages, $24.95
A delicious blend of cookery and spirituality


“The Lord walks among the pots and pans,” exclaimed St. Teresa of Avila in the 16th century, “Entre los pucheros anda el Señor.” And feast, fast, famine all “inform our journey of faith,” writes Cristina Mazzoni in the introduction to her new book, The Women in God’s Kitchen.

Dr. Mazzoni, professor of Romance Languages at the University of Vermont, approaches the world as a literary critic. But she also cooks the food of her native Italy. Her passion for the kitchen peppers her writing and analysis. In The Women in God’s Kitchen, she serves up a delicious fritto misto (mixed fry) in 12 chapters, each revolving around a theme related to different aspects of cooking and eating. Dr. Mazzoni re-examines the writings of over 14 saintly female authors: Catherine of Genoa, Angela of Foligno, Gemma Galgani, Hildegard of Bingen, Elisabeth of Schönau, Margaret Ebner, Margaret Mary Alacoque, Thérèse of Lisieux, Teresa of Avila, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Margery Kempe and Elizabeth Ann Seton. Positive food and cooking metaphors abound in the work of these women, according to Dr. Mazzoni. All of them strove for imitatio Christi by modeling Jesus’ feeding and nurturing actions, which began with the wedding at Cana. Dr. Mazzoni takes old wineskins, so to speak, and pours in new wine, a fresh way of tasting the writings of these holy and sage women.

The Women in God’s Kitchen is not another book on saintly anorexia in the vein of Rudolph Bell’s Holy Anorexia or Caroline Walker Bynum’s Holy Feast and Holy Fast, nor is it a hagiography along the lines of Robert Ellsberg’s recent offering, Blessed Among All Women: Women Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time. Instead, The Women in God’s Kitchen emphasizes the tendency of these female writers to “defy stereotypes of female self-effacement.” Only through their mystical experiences did their ideas and words land on fertile ground. Otherwise, no one took women’s words seriously unless it appeared that their messages stemmed from divine inspiration. Some people listened and learned, true. But many powerful men felt threatened, and so a few of the women faced the Inquisition, as did Teresa of Avila.

Of all the women Dr. Mazzoni writes of in her book, none knew better than Teresa of Avila that food and cooking generate powerful connections to the wider world. Teresa’s writings bubble with food metaphors, and Dr. Mazzoni proposes that Teresa, as well as other female mystics, deliberately chose to use feminine cooking metaphors in order to deflect undue interest in her more unorthodox ideas, especially in her autobiography, Life of Teresa of Jesus. One of Teresa’s food metaphors takes the shape of the palmito, or palmetto, a plant with many intertwined layers, representing her image of the spiritual path in The Interior Castle. The palmetto image leads the seeker to find “the presence of the other within one’s self.”

Fittingly, Dr. Mazzoni then quotes Michel de Certeau, author of The Mystic Fable, who suggested that the soul evolves into a place of the Other. This message is particularly pertinent in today’s world, where national boundaries, emotional walls and exclusionary laws give the lie to pious words of love for all. Dr. Mazzoni concludes, “Cookery, of which food washing is a preliminary step, reaches into the realm of theology, ideology, politics and economics.”

Scattered throughout the book, like the occasional raisin in a slice of panettone, various passages relate the words of these saintly women to present-day global situations. In her discussion of the metaphor of “sweetness” and divine grace, for example, Dr. Mazzoni stirs in comments about the power of sugar to drive colonialism, the slave trade and capitalism in the Caribbean, as well as the obesity crisis in the Western world.

Although not as comprehensive in terms of the number of writings dished up in Medieval Women’s Visionary Literature by Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff, The Women in God’s Kitchen opens the kitchen door wide and lets in the reader famished for something nectarous and new. Peering into the pots and pans, the oven and the larder, the reader savors morsels of spirituality hidden up to now. Dr. Mazzoni’s revisionist approach to holy women’s writings causes the reader to salivate for even more, hungrily asking the question: “What other interpretations might there be of other female spiritual writings, writings that have been dismissed or misinterpreted through the centuries?”

In The Women in God’s Kitchen, female voices tell us much about Otherness and community formation in our divided and divisive world, quietly insisting that women find ways to speak wisely while serving and working amid a patriarchal “dining room.”

Cynthia D. Bertelsen is an oblate of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie and edits the Virginia Culinary Thymes, the online newsletter of the Peacock-Harper Culinary History Committee through the Newman Library at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va.

National Catholic Reporter, February 10, 2006

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