You may have missed the news – as did I – that while he was in New York, Pope Francis’ meals were prepared by celebrity chef Lidia Bastianich, famous to TV watchers from her many series on PBS over the past two decades. Lidia is a refugee immigrant to America who was born in Pola, a seaport which was once part of Italy; the city was given to Yugoslavia after the war, and is now a part of Croatia. She is what we non-Italians would imagine our Italian “nonna” (grandmother) to be, if we had one: a robust, cheerful, colorful lady, with a gusto for preparing you mountains of good food. If you have never watched one of her programs, I dare you not to grow hungry as you watch how she prepares and then REALLY enjoys tasting that plate of gnocchi or ossobuco that she’s just thrown together, in her beautiful kitchen full of copper pots and majolica platters.
“What an extraordinary honor this is,” she observed, about being asked to cook for Pope Francis. “For me, cooking for the Pope is special because, not only am I Catholic, but I came to this country in 1958 as a refugee from communist Yugoslavia and was cared for by Catholic Relief Services. They did so much to give me a start in America, so I am very proud to give back through what is most dear to me on this Earth: food and my family.”
As it happens, this is not the first time that Lidia has cooked for a pontiff. When Pope Benedict was in New York several years ago, she was asked to cook for him, as well. While Pope Francis has certain dietary restrictions based on his doctor’s advice, Pope Benedict’s own mother was a hotel chef, and so the pressure was on. After the final dinner she prepared for him, Pope Benedict praised the goulash Lidia had made that evening, saying that it was so close to that of his childhood, that “these are my mother’s flavors.” Naturally Lidia got a little teary-eyed at the compliment.
There is an interesting and bizarre history of Papal chefs down the centuries, and as one might expect some of it is quite unseemly to read. The Church hasn’t survived for 2,000 years because of uniformly good Papal behavior, but oftentimes in spite of it. If you’ve ever looked at a list of all the popes, you will see a noticeable gap of several centuries where there were hardly any saintly popes at all.
However one of my favorite tales comes from the reign of a very holy pope, Pope St. Pius V (1504-1572). The third pope to come from the Dominican Order, Pius V was an ascetic, in deliberate contrast to the excesses of many of the Renaissance popes. He fasted and prayed so much that he would forget to eat, and when he did eat it was often nothing more than a bowl of broth and some bread.
Apparently on one occasion, someone suggested to Pope Pius that his daily soup should be fortified with more ingredients. There were concerns that he was doing too much, and that he ought to be eating more to keep up his strength. In response, the Pontiff threatened to excommunicate anyone who altered his meals from exactly how he wanted them prepared.
Now while I may not want that’s the sort of thing I can raise a glass to, and I suspect Lidia would, too.