And other wisdom from EWTN’ s ‘Theology Of The Table’ Host Daniel Rabourdin
By Teresa Limjoco
Where do you come from?
The Provence region in France, I call it the ‘French Tuscany'.
My family lived there for generations. I was able to know my grandparents and great-grandparents and the social fabric was very stable. It is important to have roots in a place.
Why do you think this?
Life was not perfect, but if the children had disagreements with their parents, they could find comfort with their grandparents or great-grandparents in the same house or town.
For me the importance of roots is in the transfer of the experience of thousands of people before you. From generation to generations… If you do not have that you have less intelligence.
Have you always been so devout?
I grew up a Catholic but between the ages of 24 and 32, when I came to the USA, I became agnostic.
But I think that going through this is almost necessary in order to pick up an “adult faith”, because it becomes a conscious decision. I came back to Christianity due to the fact that this Church was not just one more ideology; it had charitable love. That’s beyond all systems. So we better practice it. Religions should absolutely not be a “ritualistic” activity.
You are a graduate of the Sorbonne, right?
Public school in France was a good quality education with strong discipline – you could not talk in class. But there was already an ideology against Christianity. Later, I went to a Catholic college created by lay people. There were almost no good schools in the hands of the clergy. My school was specialized in Thomist philosophy [of St Thomas Aquinas] and I received my Masters in Philosophy from the Sorbonne at 21 in 1983.
How did you come to EWTN?
While studying TV in America and Europe, I was a freelance writer for the French press. When I went broke because most of those jobs do not pay well, Father Fessio of the Ignatius Press told me to “knock on the door” of EWTN, and I was hired almost on the spot. I was TV producer there for 17 years. [See ‘Joan of Arc: Maid for God' (2013).]
What did you eat growing up in France?
As my great grandfather used to say: “I ate of everything, a little”. My own father was into organic and fresh food. Each day we had homemade soup, or whole wheat pasta and sourdough bread without chemical leaveners. Chicken, fish or rabbit, on Sundays. Twice a year maybe red meat. We had lots of dairy products – yoghurt and cheese. Lots of butter, lots of olive oil. And always all fresh. Never ever processed food. For adults, a glass of red wine every day. Food had to taste good and be healthy at the same time.
What’s the link between Thomism and the table?.
Thomistic philosophy has a strong wisdom about the non-separation between the mind and body.
St Thomas Aquinas said that there are two major earthly and natural desires in man: one allows the species to survive (the sexual interest), the other allows the individual to survive (it is the interest for food).
But all natural desires need to be progressively shaped by good habits, by manners also called “virtues”. In order to have a good life, we must descend in conscience and with the Grace of God into the life our desires. It we do not do so we are but animals or worse. But this will never deny our body desires. It will only place them in harmony with the rest of ourselves and of the world.
What do you mean by ‘virtue’ with regard to eating?
I mean for example that the opposite of gluttony is temperance and that is a necessary virtue to have a good life. We need to know when to stop eating.
Doing so is like looking intelligently to the future ourselves. This means that if we are 20 years old, we care for the “ourselves when we will be 60 years old”. We take care of ourselves with proper food, exercise and lifestyle.
The wisdom of the generations should teach us that, for instance, purified sugar is not good. There is enough sweetness in figs or raspberries. And in figs or raspberries there are mineral and vitamins. Sweetness is a smart way in the universe of food to make us eat what is good for us. But if we eat quasi pure sugar such as in white flour cookies, we do not eat a sustaining food.
That “good habit” of eating fruits instead of pure sugar can be transferred to children in a traditional upbringing. Grandparents who have learned with time that pure sugar leaves them tired and depleted of nutrients can tell the children.
If children do not hear about this and thousands of other things about food, they start their lives deprived of thousands of years of knowledge. I will be a bit strong here but I think that this is a little bit like going back to the Stone Age. All knowledge is to be acquired again.
So a traditional upbringing teaches children how to eat properly?
So much… As children and if we have to good parenting, we prefer to eat the chicken and French fries instead of the spinach and Kefir yogurt. We eat the ‘easy' food even if it is going to hurt us in the future. Gluttony and greed is like that, to be a child without parents is like that, to be a twenty years old who did not hear his grandparents is like that.
Another good habit of eating is that food should both taste good and be good for you.
And all of those principles should be learned with fun.
Here is a ‘trick' that my father used with us children. He may serve us some sautéed garlic, carrots and parsley on our plates. (The goal is to teach the children to eat the most diverse and healthy foods. This is so that they keep eating that way in the future).
We children were appalled at those carrots.
But my father would not force us. He would just take that food back for himself and eat it all with exaggerated enjoyment. So us children reacted in saying, ‘We want of that too if you like it so much!' My father did not impose, he used fun. But he cared to transfer knowledge to us: eat as diverse as possible, as fresh as possible and keep extending your experimentation of food.
What do you think of the way Americans eat?
I have been in a state of shock for a few years (laughter). In my early years here, I would hear people say with guilt “this is such a rich food” or “this is such a decadent food”. And I was startled. Isn't food meant to ‘enrich' us?
Here is another story. A few years ago, I was seeing a nice American girl and discovered progressively that she had depression. She was also anorexic. So she ate very little. If she visited me and it was time for dinner, I would cook for her and me but I was basically the only one to eat. She just had one spoon of food.
But one night, when the food was better-tasting and better-looking, I put five spoonfuls in her plate. To my surprise, she ate them all! I was so happy. I asked her what had happened.
She said that I had cooked with love for her. Served with love, she had eaten. I had to understand; her parents had both been intellectuals who traveled and left her to nannies. Her mother had almost never cooked for her. Why would she eat?
But now I cared for her and she sort of came back to life by eating. Food was giving her love and food was giving her life.
It brought tears to my eyes.
Why do you think so many Americans have problems with food?
In America, we live in a rather Protestant culture. “By faith alone” tends to make the works of this earth count for nothing for Heaven.
It puts an abyss between faith and real life on earth. So people pray one way but work in other way. From this duality, we get the expressions of “business is business” or “war is nasty anyway”.
But a Catholic culture wants the grace to save this real body, this real life. It wants grace to fall like rain on earth and go deep into it. And it embraces the works of people to participate to the salvation of Christ.
That participation should be in business, in politics, in arts and in the way we eat too. And remember that this “eating act” is major: that is the way we survive as individual.
We need to make people conscious about applying love and soul to the way they eat too. “Food is not that important', many think. But why then do they run for the fridge when, lonely, they arrive at home in the evening?
This is a mirror of what Mother Theresa had told us: “the poverty of the West is that we are not wanted”. So not being loved, not being wanted, we resolve most of the time to over-eat bad food.
To many, food is like pornography. It is high in sweetness, high in salt, high in quantity. But it does not feed them.
What do you think people should do?
I think that one untold smart thing to do is that we should ‘talk' to our urges for food kindly — like a big brother talks to a young brother, not like a tyrant talk to a slave.
We may for example have at 3 pm, a craving for sugary food. The tyrannical way to address the problem would be to say absolutely “no” to the craving. But this does not ever work.
But the kind big brother method is always more effective. Instead of saying “no” we should prepare for the craving moment with alternative healthy foods that have a sweet side: baby carrots, apples that transport well, dried figs etc… We should have a lunch bag always full of those.
What I am saying is that we should not be a ‘tyrant' to our emotions. If we have a liquid chocolate diet for months (which is boring and tyrannical) our craving will come back with a vengeance and we will pack on the pounds even more than before!
What works is a progressive, patient and loving method. The “kind big brother” method. What does not work is the tyrannical method, the ‘master to slave’ method. It only brings pain, frustration and later on a revenge from the “younger brother in us”.
Why do so many people have trouble controlling their appetites in America?
This culture has a rather Puritan inclination: it condemns fun and pleasure all together. It cannot imagine that there is a civilized way to have fun or pleasure. That civilized way to have entertainment is walking hand in hand with virtue. Like Jesus at the wedding at Cana who accepted to have more water transformed into wine.
In the Puritan environment, pleasure only means gluttony or promiscuity. Between the over-tyrannical and the over-indulgent they do not see a balanced way to enjoy life.
But if we are loving ‘kind big brothers' to ourselves we are not destructive nor immoral.
You have spoken about the need to get back to the family or communal dinner.
All the time… We must bring back the communal dinner.
I think it can take the following path. First of all, women must let men take back their place in the home, in the education of the children. They complain there are not real man anymore but they keep reproaching the men to be men with their children.
We need to let men (just and balanced men) bring the just strength necessary to implement what is good in the home. Such as respecting a time to eat dinner together.
And it is time to rediscover what it is to be a nurturer. We have the deep meaning of the nursing of children by their mother. Why not continue with the way we cook?
And in this, real love asks us to give real food. Real love asks us to not give ‘Cheetos’ but to give mashed sweet potatoes. Real love asks to give real butter — not margarine. Real herbs that have antioxidants, not fibers in cereals…
It is about quality over quantity.
What is happening in terms of culture and religion in France?
The good news is that there are the New Communities, the Emmanuel Community or Taize movement or the Beatitudes. They are slightly charismatic.
They are like the villages growing around monasteries in the early middle age while chaos is all over the rest of the land. In these communities, there is a social loving life. People in there have different roles as leaders, priests, members. New chanting is created, new art, new housing and new crafts. And other people can see that from outside as a place of joy and acceptance.
There are also the Latin Mass parishes. They share a meal after Mass. People on the outside see how they love one another. All of those are like ‘bubbles of love', where the heart is visible to others.
Certainly, in France, they still know how to eat well. But in my opinion, people have often lost the memory of how to work well, which is still strong in the Protestant cultures.
In America, I enjoy so much the encouragement of initiative, the respect for success. There is so much more positive thinking here.
In some ways, I come to the conclusion that there is in France a sort of Puritanism towards success, toward prosperity. More often that here, people ‘pooh-pooh' winners. It is a leftover of Marxism I think.
But that is as hypocritical as the puritanism toward the flesh. Because at the end of the day, French people still enjoy their nice shoes, nice pastries, and nice vacations. Each of those need prosperity, need someone to be successful at those and to be rewarded for it.
Different countries and nations have their strengths….
What do you think is the link between Catholicism and the right use of nature and the food we draw from it?
Here again, I think that we should not have a divide between faith and real life. I think that we should believe that this earth can be brought back in the initial plan of God with Grace and the works of men.
And as we should love our body and elevate it with the works of virtues, we should love nature and care for it. There is for example a mishandling of animals. Packing chicken as we do is not right. Feeding cows grain instead of grass is not right. And at the end we end up suffering from it too: our food is of lower quality. Personally, I think that a lot of the meat I eat does not smell right.
I say we should give those animals a better life. I know that the food they will give will be more expensive, but we will just eat less often of it. It will healthier for us anyway. Again, this means more quality and less quantity. By this less with more quality, we will be healthier.
But I do not believe in forcing the industry to do so. If we, the customers, buy the higher quality, less often we influence naturally the economy.
Where did you get these ideas?
There was a dialogue that started in me, about my father and mother. My father was a ‘health nut'. My mother who was under hardship and had a big heart would too often go for the quick food. It hurt her, she died earlier and I kept thinking about it.
Once I dove in the American life, I had to articulate a response to the way of life I saw here. And here too I cared for people. Then friends told me I had to write those ideas. Some others said that I made them discover a whole new universe: the one of true and good food. And I must tell you that seeing the face of somebody who tastes your food that is tasty and healthy, is worth a million Christmas gifts. It is so beautiful.
Besides, I just articulate a way of life that was given to me. I do not invent anything. If the French way of eating (or Italian, or Spanish, or Lebanese after all) has been shaped by 16 centuries of Catholic faith, it cannot leave the people unformed by it. It gives time to develop a good tradition of food. But that is not only Christianity. It is the natural wisdom of people that is passed onto us. Only in modern times, did we cut ourselves from our past.
How did the show, “Theology of the Table,” come about?
I was sitting with an older couple at their table and we were speaking about the way we eat and the way we believe. My friends told me to write about it, to produce a TV show about it. It took about two years of brainstorming and campaigning at EWTN for the program to be finally produced. I had to start to write a book at the same time, still unfinished…
All Christians should see a clear link between their suppers, the Passover Supper, the Last Supper, Crucifixion and The Holly Mass. Jesus gave us the highest Sacrament there is in the form of a meal: the Eucharist. It is a re-enactment of the Crucifixion, but it is in the shape of a meal.
Why on earth and Heaven did God in His infinite wisdom choose a meal for the highest Sacrament? He could have chosen a different human act, carpentry, playing sport, walking … But instead he chose the common meal of man. There must be a lot of good things in the common meal, no?
Is there a link between the Mass and our meals?
We have forgotten about our faith even in the Mass. We say, “the bread of life” about Holy Communion, but we don't live it. When we get Communion, do we really go to receive the Bread of Life that is Jesus as food?
All of this is only understandable and lived if we rediscover the value of eating together true food.
What is your hope?
I just offer solutions. People can apply them or not. And I am only one voice among many.
When people say, ‘I do not have time to cook' I see a solution. For most of us, time is absorbed by watching TV, and driving children to sports activities.
TV can be replaced by speaking together at the table. Playing sports, every day with a professional goal can be replaced with playing sport three times a week just to enjoy it at hours that do not compete with the family meal.
How is your book on the ‘Theology of the Table’ going?
I hope it will be done by next summer. Right now, I am working 100% on the docudrama ‘The Hidden Rebellion‘.
Are you thinking of producing future TV shows for EWTN?
Yes, they are open to suggestions. But I can also venture in food channels. It takes first a lot of sponsors, lots of work, and about $200,000.
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