The enticing aroma of a pasta dish wafted through the convention
The cooking presentation under way at the recent Oklahoma Catholic Women's Conference included the usual smells and sounds of a fun and informative session, but the presenter was anything but typical.
The chef, wearing his priestly garments and wielding kitchen knives with ease, was the Rev. Leo Patalinghug, founder of the “Grace Before Meals” movement.
As keynote speaker at the Feb. 18 women's conference in Oklahoma City, Patalinghug cooked up both a timely message and meal for an appreciative crowd.
Patalinghug, a faculty member at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., said he took many of the culinary lessons he learned from his mother to the forefront of his movement to bring families to the dinner table for a fellowship that is both tangible and sacred.
As the priest rapidly chopped onions and shared humorous stories, it wasn't hard to imagine that he had won a steak fajita “throw down” with Food Network celebrity chef Bobby Flay in 2009, that his book “Grace Before Meals: Recipes for Family Life” remains popular or that he is a perennial seminar and conference guest speaker.
But Patalinghug said his “Grace Before Meals” journey was not begun intentionally. He said he was content being priest of a county parish of about 5,000 families in Westminster, Md.
“Jesus said ‘Feed My sheep,' and I had no idea it was going to be with penne antipasto,” he quipped.
He said he attended dinners at his parishioners' homes, but somehow, he often ended up cooking for the families instead of simply showing up to eat. When one of his fellow priests suggested that he do a cooking show, Patalinghug said he thought his colleague was joking. Patalinghug said he didn't know who told his bishop about the talk of a cooking show, so he was surprised when the clergy leader told him he liked the idea.
“Everyone knows there are three forms of communication: telephone, television and tell a priest,” Patalinghug said, shaking his head, causing the conference audience to erupt with laughter.
He said he eventually agreed to do a cooking show pilot with the aid of a parishioner who was a TV producer. The pilot video went viral.
Sharing grace, food and faith
The “Grace Before Meals” online show became a hit, and the priest born in the Philippines and raised in Baltimore quickly became known across the country.
“People were saying, ‘We want more of this show. Who is that crazy priest cooking?'
Patalinghug said he decided the show and his speaking engagements would be a great way to share a message about food and faith.
He said food brings people together in a special way, and he thinks there is a theological connection between food, family and faith. He said serving others is a form of love.
He shared several analogies likening food to faith and evangelism.
“When we cook and plate our faith well, people will eat. Stop serving leftovers in the churches — no one will eat it,” he said.
“I like what you are doing here in Oklahoma City because you are making faith more accessible. When you serve good food, it transforms every normal dinner into a sacramental experience.”
Patalinghug said he encourages families to serve delicious food and come together for meals, never forgetting to say grace. He includes on his website examples of dinner dialogue designed to promote fellowship, along with easy to remember mealtime prayers.
About his cook-off with Flay, Patalinghug said he was somewhat nervous, but his faith won the day.
“When I saw him, I prayed like I never did before, and it worked, because I beat him,” the priest said, grinning. “Don't laugh — I cheated. I put holy water in the marinade.”
Patalinghug served up two pasta dishes at the conclusion of his presentation. He invited women whose birthdays occurred that weekend to have a taste.
One woman who got to sample the priest's cooking was Cindy Robbins, 51, of Lindsay. She said the dish was wonderful.
“I've seen him on TV a lot. To see him here in real life helped put it all together,” she said. “I've been practicing everything he said, and he's right. We always cook at home, and my family comes home just to eat.”