Although he stops short of claiming that cooking is a religious experience, cigar-chomping Capon (pronounced like the bird) insists that food is "an intellectual as well as sensual delight that sheds light on the total of human experience." To the recipes in his 1969 best-seller, The Supper of the Lamb, the 49-year-old father of six added more than a pinch of theology and a spicy dash of wit. Beginning with a recipe for "Lamb for Eight Persons Four Times," the book touches upon a wide range of culinary and other subjects, from women ("Older women are like aging strudels—the crust may not be so lovely, but the filling has come at last into its own") to wine. Capon calls it "water in excelsis," and adds, "Wine is definitely on the side of the angels."
Capon grew up in Queens, next door to his paternal grandparents—an English butler and a Swedish cook whose passion for good food was to influence Capon from childhood. His interest in religion bloomed considerably later. Aspiring to be a naval architect like his father, Capon nonetheless was attracted to the church while an undergraduate at Columbia University. Ordained in 1949, he was assigned to Christ Church in Port Jefferson, Long Island, a small harborside town where he and his wife of 30 years, Peg, still live. Since 1957 he has also doubled as dean of Long Island's George Mercer Jr. Memorial School of Theology. Though a self-described orthodox cleric, he is refreshingly impious and candid. "Basically," he shrugs, "I'm a nonreligious type."
A writer of short stories in college, Capon published his first book, Bed and Board, in 1965. "Having fits is more reasonable than having children," he observed in it. On marriage: "All one can say in defense of many marriages is, 'It seemed like a good idea at the time.' " Another lighthearted romp, An Offering of Uncles, was published in 1967, followed by The Supper of the Lamb.
In his recently published Exit 36, Capon tries his first major foray into fiction with a tale about a married Episcopal minister whose affair with a parishioner leads him to suicide. A bit steamy for a country vicar? "I expect some trouble," concedes Capon. "But the bedroom scenes are done not only with reasonable taste but with mirth." He has just put the finishing touches on his next book, which will deal with another scandalous liaison—this time between an English professor and a graduate student.
Although he bridles at the notion of a minister's marriage "always being thought of as warmy-toasty," Capon is an unabashed homebody. He rises at 5 a.m. to jog six miles up and down the streets of Port Jefferson, then returns to his 17-room Victorian rectory for an occasional practice session on the recorder. After a 6:30 a.m. service in the parish church, Capon retires to the family room for three hours of writing. The afternoon is spent making parish calls, and on Saturdays he lectures in theology at the seminary. But the main event of the day is dinner—a happening that usually includes no fewer than seven guests, often parishioners. Believing that no Amana from heaven could ever justify frozen foods, Capon serves only fresh vegetables and meats. And at the Capon table, calorie counting is a sin. "Dieting is sacrilege," intones Capon. "First you fast, then you feast," he winks. "It's good for the soul."
The epicurean prayer sounds as if it comes from the Gospel according to Julia Child: Give us this day our daily taste. Restore to us soups that spoons will not sink in, and sauces which are never the same twice. Raise up among us stews with more gravy than we have bread to blot it with...Give us pasta with a hundred fillings. The author of this caloric incantation is no blaspheming Bacchus, but an Episcopal priest and accomplished chef who writes fiction, dissertations on family life and best-selling cookbooks. His improbable name: Father Robert Farrar Capon.