Over the course of my religious life, during some spells I've had to cook and at other times not. For the most part, even though one always faces with the friars the challenge of a diverse group, I've enjoyed cooking for them. It was a bit of a shock when I first started cooking for friars; what little I know of cooking I had learned during the period between my two times in religious life, when I was either preparing things just for myself or cooking at work in the group home. The folks who lived there, apart from being predictable and somewhat easy to please, were also non-verbal and so delivered few comments.
Over the last few months of living in Italy I've come to notice certain items of wisdom in the culture of preparing and eating meals here, at least with reference to my own experience of cooking for friars. In Italy, of course, one eats well. It has to be admitted that they just have a healthier food culture than we do in the States; lots of fruit and vegetables, a better sense of portion control, etc. Lots of everyday things are just always very good. It also has to be said that they do lack a sense of when a little heat and flavor from some hot sauce or pepper would do wonders, but thanks be to God I live with Indians who feel the same way and usually have some remedy at hand.
First, this business here of having the main meal in the middle of the day. I think of all the afternoons I've spent preparing dinner in a friary. How would those hours and those meals had been different if, instead of the afternoon, I had been cooking in the morning when the mind is sharper and the spirit more optimistic? Perhaps the meals would have turned out better or healthier, more sensible. Just a thought.
Second, the meal structure they have here of the first and second plate. I've cooked pasta for the brothers many times. It's easy, it's a crowd-pleaser, and leftovers tend to get eaten. The only stressful thing is the timing. I can see myself outside the door of a friary chapel listening for just the right moment during vespers when I should run back into the kitchen and put the pasta in the water such that it might be done, sauced, and on the table right when the brothers arrive. In itself that's easy enough. But when you're trying to look after the timing of other stuff in the same moment, the resting and carving of some meat or other for instance, that's when it gets crazy. What happens if the 'just right' moment to carve the roast is the same as the 'just right' moment to take the pasta out of the water and put the sauce on it? There's nothing for it; an imperfection creeps in. And therein I see the wisdom of the Italian cook, who can time these things in different intervals, dealing tranquillamente with the roast or what have you after the pasta dish is already being enjoyed on the table.