Casting about for a new observance for November, the month of saints, I am now very glad to have consulted Saints at the Dinner Table by Amy Heyd, an accomplished Cincinnati cook and mother of three. Actually, a chance encounter with the author herself (our daughters attend St. Ursula Academy together) prompted my search for the book, which is a collection of dinner menus and recipes along with historical information and personal reflection about 12 saints. Serendipitously, the book includes St. Margaret of Scotland, my name saint whose feast day is Nov. 16, so last night on the vigil of the feast, I prepared some of the dishes. I appreciate that Amy chose foods that spoke to her of the saint’s life and example, rather than illustrating historical facts. This approach invited my own connection with the saint, and I felt free to adapt as needed.
The delicious and filling St. Margaret’s Charity Meatball and Tortellini Soup, the main dish, evokes the Scottish queen’s life of charitable works and was enjoyed by all five of us. An Anglo-Saxon by birth, she and her family took refuge in Scotland in 1070 due to violent political turmoil in their own country, and she married the king, Malcolm III. As queen, with his consent she built schools, established abbeys, and personally cared for pilgrims and the poor by distributing money for food with her own hands. It is said that every day she would serve the poor before eating herself, and she and Malcolm were known to host large feasts for as many as three hundred villagers. Regular prayer times also formed the basis of her daily regimen. The menu includes a green salad with a mustard seed dressing; the recipe specifically calls for whole grain mustard, which is made with whole mustard seeds, as a reminder of the parable teaching small deeds can have a large impact. I’d forgotten an ingredient for the salad dressing and ran out of time to do anything about it, so I had to simplify a bit. But the seeds in the mustard as I spooned it into the cruet made an impression. I’m still thinking about that parable this morning.
Amy’s menu calls for a rich chocolate cake “decadent and worthy of a king – or three hundred of the neediest people in his kingdom,” but I decided to go with the spirit of that dish instead. A variety of winter squashes have been accumulating on the counter from our CSA membership, and this gave me the nudge I needed to experiment with making a pie using fresh squash rather than canned pumpkin. Even though I used frozen crust, the trials and tribulations of waiting for it to thaw in the late afternoon and following Joy of Cooking’s recommendation to bake it first for a bit to avoid sogginess (lined with foil and weighted with uncooked rice) plus making sure the cooked squash drained sufficiently, made me appreciate Amy’s sidebar on St. Christine, who in the 12th century suffered a seizure and was taken for dead. She awoke at her funeral and ever after was so highly sensitive to smells that she spent the rest of her life hiding in ovens and other places to escape, thus becoming a patron of sorts for “anyone going nuts in the kitchen.”! Even so, the pie turned out great.
Queen Margaret died on this date in 1093 and was canonized in 1250. It’s worth noting that her life of prayer and service to community and church was carried out as the happily married mother of eight children, a rarity among the capital “S” saints. Perhaps it’s not so surprising that cooking dinner provides a meaningful way to connect with a saint.
“Dear Saint Margaret, your actions of love, compassion and charity were indeed like the tiny mustard seed. They were the seemingly small and insignificant actions of one person, yet these acts of kindness grew in the hearts of many. May all our actions, small and not so small, be carried forward and spread throughout all of humankind.” (by Amy Heyd)
Photo: Stained glass window in St. Margaret’s Chapel in Edinburgh Castle. By A. Currell via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.