Christ in the kitchen: Catholic Rural Life’s classic cookbook gets a refresh

| November 20, 2019 | 0 Comments

“Of all the rooms in a house, the friendly, comforting kitchen is mother to us all.”

So begins “Cooking for Christ: Your Kitchen Prayerbook,” published by Catholic Rural Life. The 70-year-old book got a face-lift last year, when the St. Paul-based organization completed a multi-year project of updating the text and recipes. The organization made a new edition of “Cooking for Christ” available last fall.

The book includes recipes tied to the feasts and fasts that make up the Church’s liturgical year, which begins with the season of Advent. It also situates these recipes in the life of its author, a 1940s farmwife from Ohio, who shares vignettes about her family life among the calls for one cup of milk or six cups of flour.

“This book is a reflection of our Catholic faith lived out on a daily basis in the food we prepare,” said Peg Louiselle, CRL development director.

The idea to reissue “Cooking for Christ” was born of a practical need: CRL was running out of copies of

its last edition, published in 1996. Instead of simply reprinting it, CRL leaders decided to update the book for the contemporary cook and Catholic.

“In the original one, there were so many things that were (outdated), ingredients that you don’t even know of anymore,” Peg Louiselle said. “Who knows what ‘Oleo’ is anymore? It’s margarine, but who knows?”

The cover of “Cooking for Christ: Your Kitchen Prayerbook,” which Catholic Rural Life reissued last year.

The new version also updated aspects of the liturgical year that have changed since the book was written, with the help of Sister Esther Mary Nickel, a member of the Religious Sisters of Mercy and former CRL board member, who holds a doctorate in sacred liturgy.

Among those changes are new recipes for new feasts, such as tamales for Our Lady of Guadalupe, celebrated Dec. 12, and Polish angel wings, or “chrusciki,” for Divine Mercy Sunday, the Sunday following Easter.

The original version had 81 recipes; the new version has 112. Despite the changes, the editors of “Cooking for Christ” strove to stay true to the original and not significantly alter the prose of the author, Florence Berger, who outlines how her family lived out the Church’s liturgical year in their home. With the 2018 version, its editors strove to make clear which content was new and which was original by shading their additions in gray.

Well-educated with a love for rural living, Berger was active in what was then the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, and she befriended its president at the time, Msgr. Luigi Ligutti. Impressed with the Bergers’ family life, he asked Florence to write about how she celebrated the liturgical year in her kitchen.

With six children underfoot, the book took Berger four years, but it was published in 1949 with the original subtitle, “The Liturgical Year in the Kitchen.” After a life active in Catholic causes with her husband, she died at Hilton Head, South Carolina, in 1983.

“Florence’s original (book) was pretty much a reflection of her life. It wasn’t meant to be a cookbook; it really was a kitchen prayerbook that she created and wrote down stories of their family,” Louiselle said. “It’s enjoyable to read through as you would a book.”

That’s exactly how Kelsey Wanless reads her copy of “Cooking for Christ.” She keeps the 1949 version on her shelf, and it’s been a frequent source of inspiration. She admits that she doesn’t cook from it as often as she might, but it significantly shaped her 2014 thesis on Christian family life for her master’s degree in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, and it’s continuing to influence how she approaches food and family.

“I was so taken by the book,” said Wanless, 30, a parishioner of St. Agnes in St. Paul and mother of four, ages 5 and younger. “It’s not just a list of recipes for the liturgical year. It’s a single narrative in which recipes are woven. … It’s her (Berger) as if she were writing a diary from her kitchen table.”

The first line of Wanless’ thesis was from Msgr. Ligutti, who described the cookbook as “an extension of the Missal, Breviary and Ritual because the Christian home is an extension of the Mass, choir and sacramentals.”

Wanless said Berger’s prose addresses a question near her heart: How do Catholics live well in the material world?

“There’s so many principles embedded in her text that go beyond the kitchen table, but it begins at the kitchen table,” Wanless said.

Jim Ennis, CRL executive director, emphasized that as a kitchen prayerbook, “Cooking for Christ” could be considered a companion to the “Rural Life Prayer Book” that CRL also publishes.

“Catholic Rural Life is all about promoting Catholic life in rural America,” Ennis said. “What Florence does in her book beautifully is really speaks about the family culture in the home and how to promote tradition and the teachings of the Church in the home, bringing the saints alive by celebrating the saints’ feast days.”

“Cooking for Christ: Your Kitchen Prayerbook” is available for $18 from

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