May 24, 2007
The Feast of Pentecost is one of the most important to Christians, for a number of reasons. First, it marks the birthday of the Church, the day when the Holy Spirit came down on the Apostles and Mary, and gave everyone the nerve they needed to preach the risen Christ to a hostile mob.
Pentecost also reverses the story of the Tower of Babel—the Old Testament tale of a king so ambitious he wanted to reach heaven through technological means. God tweaked him by inventing that bane of American schoolchildren over the millennia: foreign languages. In what we might call multiculturalism’s founding moment, God scattered the king’s workforce into a squabble of hostile ethnic groups, who couldn’t communicate with each other. Then, at Pentecost, He reversed the process—giving the Apostles the gift enjoyed by Star Trek crewman ever since the very first episode: the ability to be understood by anyone, no matter his native language. The Holy Spirit provided this universal translator, which is called “the gift of tongues,” to kick start the Church into universality. For just a few hours on Pentecost morning, the Apostles came out speaking Aramaic; but they were heard in Greek, Latin, Esperanto—you name it. They were so jumped up with joy that people assumed they must be drunk; Peter quipped back at them that it was only nine in the morning—they couldn’t be drunk. (For later generations of Catholics, this wouldn’t prove a thing-but we digress.) This is what it means to “speak in tongues.” When Texas-based televangelists lapse from prayers into gibberish, mumbling “Hamana-shamana-freddigah-limina-bop-bop-a-doowop…” then ask you to send in a check…. Well, that’s something else.
But the very best thing about Pentecost, from this book’s point of view, is that it involves fire. Fire is cool. Setting fires is cool—except that it’s usually illegal. Well, Pentecost gives us a marvelous excuse to set lots of fires, all around the house, in the form of a flambé dinner party. To decorate the house in flaming red, and send out invitations replete with fiery puns. To stage a night-time party that none of your friends is liable to forget (especially the dimwits who come away with third-degree burns). Since the theme of the feast is universality, this is the party to which you should invite your international friends. Fill up the house with foreigners, and watch the Holy Spirit (and other spirits) break down those barriers of culture and conversation. Present a multi-ethnic menu with some incendiary treat to please everyone. But keep the boys away from the 151 rum….
Think red. Think flaming. (No that’s not what we mean—though we do want you to have what the Flintstones called “a gay old time.”) Hang bolts of scarlet silk in place of your curtains, and fill the house with glimmering red candles—you know, like in Rosemary’s Baby. Get hold of as many silver platters as you can—and this time remember to polish them. No, the tarnish isn’t quaint, no matter what your husband says. Dim the lights, maybe burn some incense to get the room fragrant and smoky. It’s that simple.
In the Old Testament, Pentecost made its first appearance as a harvest festival, marking 50 days after Passover, under the title the “Feast of First Fruits.” Carry on this part of the tradition by providing lots of tasty fresh edibles, from kiwis to kumquats, arrayed around the house in bowls. It will help the guests’ digestion—since the meal doesn’t include the ordinary quantities of greens. (They’d clash with the red; we’re not going for a Christmas theme.) The Israelites also hung the home with garlands and flowers—a custom that in the Christian East meant roses throughout the house. (The Greeks called Pentecost “the feast of roses.”) If you can afford the expense, collect a few dozen red roses or other flowers, and plant them all over the house.
Many curious activities arose to mark this feast—perhaps the strangest in Merrie Old England. Some villages in Gloucester still keep alive these customs—which include a cheese-rolling contest, that pits country folk against each other in a race with enormous cheeses down the nearest hill. The winner gets to keep, and presumably eat, the giant, dusty cheese. In St. Braivels, the villagers celebrate the day after Pentecost by hurling baskets full of bread and cheese from a castle wall, for the common folk to scramble and fight over on the ground. It’s said that this custom began as a way to pay the villagers’ wages, but it strikes us as a nasty bit of mischief perpetrated by aristocrats on famished peasants. So we encourage you to try it with your hungry guests. Make sure that no appetizers or snacks are laid out to precede dinner. When people start to grumble about being hungry—as they smell the sizzling meats in the kitchen—cast each one a fresh, crusty baguette from the bakery, and an individually wrapped cheese, such as a chevre or a wedge of Laughing Cow. Explain that “it’s an English tradition.” Then casually announce that tonight you’re serving all English food. This should provoke a wave of anxiety, as they visualize plates piled high with flaming Scotch Eggs, Spam sauté, Toads-in-the-Hole and Marmite-smeared dry toast. When your flambéed international delights come out of the kitchen, they’ll be greeted by sighs of relief.
In Italy, rose petals were traditionally scattered from the church ceiling on this feast; in France, trumpets were blown to sound forth the Holy Spirit. Before the Reformation, English priests released a dove inside the church during Mass. Any variation on these customs would be most festive—until you have to clean up after the bird.
The most exotic Pentecost activity we found arose on the tropical island named for the feast, near the Pacific tax haven of Vanuatu—the home of the original “Cargo Cults,” where cannibalism, we must insist, is no longer legal. On the Catholic half of religiously divided Pentecost Island, the natives practice a perilous sport they call “Nagol,” or land-diving (on the Anglican half, they practice golf). As soon as the yam crop is ready, the island’s Catholics start to build enormous towers out of wood cut from the forest, tied together with liana branches, standing 40-50 feet high. Any male old enough to be circumcised (see Jan. 1) is expected to climb the tower, have his ankles tied with vines, and leap to the ground, bungee-style. If the vine is even a foot too long, he splats on the ground in an ex-Pentecostal heap, so divers pay close attention to the art of measurement. Missionaries say that this leap of faith is meant to evoke the descent of the Holy Spirit on His feast day. Locals know better: The diving is what ensures the next year’s yam harvest. We strongly advise that you make this a central part of your festivities.
If you don’t have the nerve for Nagol, there’s a simpler game you can play at the Pentecost party that doesn’t involve quite so many lianas or yams: Speaking in tongues. Not the real thing, which happened in Jerusalem, or even the charismatic variety which occurs in Sunbelt megachurches, but your own improvised “miraculous speech.” After everyone has adequately been washed in the spirits, as the hostess emerges with dessert, have the host lead everyone at the party in a chorus of polysyllabic flim-flam, waving their arms, rolling on the floor-even handling rubber snakes (which you’ll discreetly provide each guest upon arrival). Nothing brings a group of friends closer than a few minutes spent babbling and writhing before a platter of flaming pineapples.
Excerpted from The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Good Living.
Menus and Recipes by Denise Matychowiak
Kava “blong” Pentecost is a mudlike drink made from the root of a pepper plant, popular on Pentecost Island. Kava drinks are available online from www.kavaking.com. To keep in the fiery spirit, be sure to add some pepper vodka to the mix.
Whitsun (Pentecost) Ale, a light fruity traditional ale available from www.arcadiabrewingcompany.com.
Polish Fire Vodka (Krupnik). This hot, mulled vodka drink combines the tastes of honey, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves.
Flaming Spinach Salad. (See recipe.) The last thing your guests expect to see on fire.
Saganaki. A beloved appetizer of flaming Greek sheep milk cheese (see below).
Flambeed Mushrooms in Sherry. A sweet and satisfying Spanish tapa.
Flaming Chicken Brochettes. Easy to serve, delicious, decorative and light.
Sizzling Steak au Poivre. One of the richest, most satisfying concoctions we know about.
Catalonian Cornish Hen. Tender little birds roasted with sherry and Seville orange glaze.
Carmelized Pineapple. A simple, explosively enjoyable dessert.
Flaming Strawberry Shortcake. A spirited variation on the traditional summer favorite.
Flaming Spinach Salad
This is particularly fun flambé to serve—burning salad is always such a nice surprise! Serves 8.
4 bunches spinach, washed and dried
4 hard boiled eggs, sliced
1/4 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup bacon drippings
2 tablespoons grapeseed oil
2 tablespoons walnut oil
1/2 cup malt vinegar
1/4 cup lemon juice
4 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
11/2 ounces brandy
Toss spinach, eggs, salt and pepper.
Combine dressing ingredients in a sauce pan. Warm dressing and cook for a few minutes to balance flavors. Adjust seasoning. Heat brandy, add to dressing, and ignite.
Toss salad as it flames, before guests. Serve on warm plates.
Saganaki (Greek Flaming Cheese)
2 pounds Kasseri or Halloumi cheese
Flour, for dredging
3 lemons, cut in quarters
If the recommended cheese is not available ask your cheese monger for a recommendation or search out a Greek purveyor. He will be sure to have an opinion about the best cheese as well as how it should be cut. Of course, “the only way it should be done” will differ from vendor to vendor.
Slice cheese into 1/2 inch thick rectangles. Keep cold at all times when not working with it.
Heat a medium size sauté pan and melt 1 tablespoon butter.
Dust cheese with flour in a shallow plate, lightly tapping to remove excess.
Gently lay 2-3 slices at a time in pan and cook until golden on each side.
Remove to serving dish and cook remaining slices, adding butter as needed. As cheese comes out of pan, squeeze lemon over slices. (Work quickly as the cheese is best eaten hot.)
Heat a few tablespoon of cognac. This can be done by holding it in a large spoon over a flame. Pour over the cheese and ignite in front of your guests. Serve with lemon quarters.