Robrt Pela's Heartwarming Valentine Tale: "If It's Friday, This Must Be the Body of Christ"
Chow Bella has a valentine for you. For the rest of February, we're handing out Candy Hearts -- stories of food and love from some of our favorite writers. Enjoy.
I know a 12-year-old who eats nothing but peanut butter and chicken fingers. Three meals a day. No kidding. She has, as that old poem about eating peas with honey goes, done so all her life. My little friend is one of those poor, early-21st-century kids who are allergic to pretty much everything: potatoes, red meat, oxygen. She can't be in the same room with a lettuce leaf, but it's okay. She's lucky enough to have parents who allow her to eat Peter Pan Extra Crunchy straight from the jar and call it "lunch."
If this pisses me off, it's because I was one of those now impossible-to-fathom kids who ate anything. Sauerkraut, sushi, okra--I loved it all. This was in the Sixties before it became fashionable for children to be terrified of contact with white flour; long before any of us had ever even heard of gluten. And so I devoured plantains and mutton stew and beef liver. I asked for seconds of cioppino and broccoli and veal-stuffed cabbage. I ate everything. But I drew the line at one foodstuff: I refused the body of Christ.
I was too young to spell transubstantiation, but old enough to know that one should never eat some dead guy, no matter how famous he was. But I was a little Catholic boy, in the second grade, and this meant that the time for my First Holy Communion was drawing near. I was now old enough, my parents explained, to once a week eat the little round communion wafers that were served at the end of Sunday mass. These disks, my father explained to me, were magically turned into the flesh of God's son, and eating them somehow made everything right with the world.
My subconscious was the first to protest. I began having nightmares in which I was forced to attend a Jesus-hosted progressive dinner party that ended with a dessert made up of the Virgin Mary's lady parts.
My parents remained unconvinced that eating Jesus was a bad idea. I held my ground. I didn't care, I insisted, that Jesus's dad was a vengeful god who could see everything I did and punish me for not wanting to taste his son. I was not swayed by reports that Christ had plans to return to earth one day soon to scoop up all the people he liked best, and that refusing to swallow pieces of him would land me on his Divine shit-list for all eternity. I was not going to eat the son of God.
My parents, both staunch Catholics, tried to reason with me.
"After you make your First Holy Communion, you'll really have a relationship with the Holy Spirit," my father explained, hopefully.
"Not to mention indigestion!" I replied. "Can't Jesus and I just be pen-pals?"
"You're a Catholic," Dad tried. "You have to complete all your sacraments, and Holy Communion is one of them."
"Marriage is a sacrament," I squeaked. "Instead of doing Communion, couldn't I just get married twice, like my sister did?"
My 8-year-old sarcasm was no match for my father's impatience, and so, every Thursday afternoon, I joined the kids from St. Jerome's Catholic School to learn about the joys of drinking the Blood of Christ and how to eat a Communion wafer without chewing it, which was a sin that would cause the floor to open up and send me straight into the fiery depths of Hell.
I nearly ended in Hell anyhow, after our priest, Father Pat, turned up at our final First Communion class for a dress rehearsal of that Sunday's big event, when we'd receive "the body and blood" for the first time during mass.
"Very well, kiddies," Father lisped to all of us cannibals-in-training. "Everybody form a line. I'll be the priest, and you be the parishioners. Remember: this is a joyous occasion, but joy is no excuse for forgetting your lines."
Our "lines" amounted to one word, spoken in response to a simple question posed by Father. As we approached him, he held up the pretend communion wafer--in this case a quarter stood in for the round, white "host" we'd be gobbling on Sunday--and earnestly asked, "Body of Christ?" To which we were expected to respond, "Amen," then stick out our tongues so that Father could place the wafer there.
I couldn't do it. There was something in the way Father Pat read his line that had me in hysterics every time. "Body of Christ?" he'd say, holding up the quarter to little redheaded Robin Walden, as if he were offering her a pleasant snack instead of a metaphorical hunk of some dead guy's flesh, and I'd be on the floor, gasping for air while the other kids stared in horror. Just the fact that he was offering the host, as if one had the option of saying, "Oh, no, that's okay, Father, I had sort of a big breakfast this morning," set me off, every time. Sometimes his query sounded more like he was unsure of the identity of the little circle he held in front of our face. "Body of Christ?" he'd ask, and I'd pray someone would reply, "Uh, gosh, Padre, it looks more like a poker chip to me!"
It didn't help that each of my classmates, perhaps in an attempt to please Father, had chosen an inflection--"A-men!"--that sounded to me like they were saying, "Boy howdy, a little circle of two-thousand-year-old skin sure would hit the spot right about now!" And the fact that they followed this response by sticking out their tongues at Father caused me to scream with laughter.
"You!" Father hollered, pointing to where I stood at the back of the fake Communion line, shaking with glee and trying not to wet in my pants. "See me after class!"
I wish I could say I was banished forever from the Catholic Church on that day, but I'm afraid my only punishment was being made to write "I will not laugh at the sacred covenant of receiving Communion" a hundred times on unlined paper. But, for the next decade, after which I finally left the Church altogether, I flat our refused to take communion at the end of Mass each Sunday.
Forty years later, not long after I began taking care of my elderly parents, I spoke to Father Pat again. I phoned him to arrange for a Eucharistic Minister to visit my folks, who are no longer able to attend Sunday mass. He sent Betty, a jolly, seventyish spinster who has been sanctioned by God (or someone) to deliver communion to shut-ins. She arrives each Friday at 10 a.m. to pray with my parents and to give them little white discs of unleavened bread to eat.
Usually my mother, who has dementia, just goes along with the chanting and metaphoric cannibalism that Betty offers, while I roll my eyes and try not to make gagging sounds from the next room. But on a recent Friday, Mom apparently balked. They'd just finished reciting the Profession of Faith and had moved on to the pretend-flesh-eating part when, apparently, my mother decided she didn't like the taste of her Holy snack.
"Oh, Mary, no!" I heard Betty gasp. "You can't put the host down on the table like that. It's a sin for it to touch anything. It's the body of Christ! You have to swallow it!" My mother sounded sad and more than a little angry. I peeked around the corner just in time to see her pick up the communion wafer and stare at it mistrustfully.
"What is this thing, anyway?" she asked.
"Why, honey, it's the Body of Christ!" Betty replied
Maybe it's because she's just been called "honey" by someone she didn't recognize. Or maybe the dementia that's clouded my mother's mind these past six years has afforded her a new perspective on eating other people.
Whatever the reason, my mother let out a long, indignant breath and said, "Somebody's body? Well, I'm not eating that!"
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.