Emily Stimpson Chapman is well known to many Catholic women: whether you've read her book on the single life, perused the recipes on her blog for dinner inspiration, or heard her speak about how she learned to enjoy eating after six years of anorexia, we think you'll agree that Emily speaks powerfully (and often hilariously) to the experience of life as a Catholic woman, whether you're married, engaged, or single.
We recently had the opportunity to ask Emily some questions about her newest book, The Catholic Table, how she incorporated fasting and feasting into her engagement, and how she managed to avoid getting sucked into the darker side of the wedding industry. Regardless of your state in life, we think you'll find plenty to chew on in this interview.
Where did your inspiration for The Catholic Table come from?
Years ago, when I was still in college, I began struggling with anorexia. That struggle lasted for six years, until I came home to the Catholic Church. As I grew in my understanding of the Eucharist and the Theology of the Body, how I saw food and my own body was radically transformed. Ever since then, I’ve been putting that understanding into practice and sharing it with others. It just made sense to finally get it all down into a book.
How did you incorporate a spirit of fasting and feasting into your engagement and wedding planning?
Interesting question. On the most basic level, in terms of fasting, we had to curtail a lot of our spending in the months leading up to the wedding so we could prepare for the feast of our wedding day, so there was a lot less eating out and a lot more rice and beans at my house! On a different level, we both tried to take the advice of the Church Fathers, who saw fasting as an aid to chastity. When we struggled with chastity—as most engaged couples do—we turned to fasting to help make us more disciplined and more open to the grace God wanted to give us. Chris would fast from all food on Fridays. I fasted from sweets and wine.
In terms of feasting, we drew inspiration from Sacred Scripture, which repeatedly compares heaven to a wedding feast. The marriage of man and woman is an image of the life-giving communion within the Trinity. It’s sacred. So, we wanted everything about our wedding to reflect that—not just the ceremony, but the reception as well. We wanted the whole day to be a witness to the truth about God’s love and generosity. Approaching it from that perspective took the focus off us, and put it on Him.
I kept saying, “It’s not ‘our day’; it’s ‘His day.’” That made it easier to not fall prey to some of the silliness surrounding the wedding industry, because our focus was on honoring God and showing hospitality to our guests, not impressing people or putting on some Pinterest ready show.
Our culture really pushes brides to look a certain way on their wedding day, to diet, and “sweat it for the wedding.” How can brides still find joy in food during their engagement, despite all these external pressures?
Again, I think the key is taking the focus off yourself. Too many brides get caught up in the idea that their wedding day is their day to be a star, their day to be a celebrity, their day to walk the red carpet. But it’s not. Your wedding day is the day you’re giving yourself, body and soul, to another person. It’s the day you’re beginning this new, surprising, wild ride of a holy life together. It’s a gift. It’s a sacrament. It’s not a show. The more you focus on preparing for the sacrament and the less you focus on yourself, the easier it is to relax and enjoy everything, food included, during the weeks and months leading up to your wedding.
I didn’t diet or restrict myself in any way in the months before the wedding. I did do some extra pushups every day (sleeveless dress…pictures…hard to avoid), but that was it. There were just too many other important things to worry about. Plus, a hungry bride is not a happy bride—and I waited way too long for my wedding day to spend all the days and weeks leading up to it in “hangry” mode.
In your book, you speak often about hospitality, and how you’ve opened up your home to friends and family on a regular basis. Now that you’re married, how do you and your husband incorporate this charism of hospitality into your life?
Hospitality is important to both of us, and we actually made sure it was included in our wedding readings. Then, the first month after our honeymoon, God gave us lots of opportunities to show that we were serious about it. Over the course of those four weeks, we hosted four different sets of houseguests: two single women, a family of 8, and one of our priest friends. Only one set was planned. The rest were all last minute requests. It was crazy, but we had a blast with every single guest (especially the six kids!)
The temptation, as a newly wedded couple, is to insulate yourself from others, but we wanted to do the opposite. From the first, we wanted to be open to life in every possible way, including the lives of our friends.
Right now, unfortunately, we’ve had to curtail the hospitality as we recently moved. We sold my house (where I lived as a single woman) and bought our first house together. It’s big because we wanted lots of room for our friends and all their kids to stay with us, but it’s also a construction zone; it was, literally, falling apart when we bought it. At this point, we’re living in an unheated attic room and cooking for ourselves on a freezing cold porch, while the rest of the house gutted. There are definitely seasons when hospitality has to be curtailed. But hopefully the house will be ready for guests and parties soon. I’m counting the days!
We’re so inspired by the recipes on your blog! You identify your approach to cooking, eating, and time spent around the table as “eucharistic.” Tell us more?
We live in a world of sacred signs. God made everything in creation, so everything in creation, in some way, points back to Him. It bears His mark and tells us something about His nature. Food is one of the most important of these signs; it’s a natural symbol of the Eucharist. Everything it does on the natural level—nourish, comfort, gladden, heal, build community—the Eucharist does on the supernatural level. It nourishes us with the life of God, comforts our souls, brings joy to our hearts, heals us from the wounds of sin, and draws us into the Body of Christ. So, when I eat, I try to see food always from that perspective—as a gift from God meant to help me understand more clearly the great mystery of the Eucharist.
For those interested in following your example, can you share one practical way to eat and approach food more Eucharistically?
Be grateful. Eucharist (eucharistia in Greek), literally means “thanksgiving.” To receive Holy Communion is an act of thanksgiving to God. I believe we’re called to make a similar act of thanksgiving every time we eat more ordinary meals. That starts with saying grace—even in restaurants!—but it’s also about an interior attitude. It’s really about being grateful for the food set before us, appreciating the love and time that went into growing it and preparing it, seeing all food as a gift from God, and not letting our dietary hang ups get in the way of enjoying that gift.
As a newlywed, what’s the one piece of advice you’d like to share with other brides about wedding planning or married life?
What matters most about wedding planning is the process: it’s learning how to make decisions as a couple, handle stress as a couple, navigate differing family pressures as a couple, and think about loving and serving others on your wedding day as a couple. Try to see all of the difficulties and complexities of planning a wedding as an opportunity to learn how to better navigate the difficulties and complexities of your shared life. I don’t think that makes the process any less stressful, but it does remind you that it’s a gift from God and that there is a divine point to all the stress!
Emily Stimpson is a freelance Catholic writer based in Steubenville, Ohio and the creator of The Catholic Table, a blog about food, friendship, and hospitality. Her books include These Beautiful Bones: An Everyday Theology of the Body, The Catholic Girl’s Survival Guide for the Single Years , and The American Catholic Almanac: A Daily Reader of Patriots, Saints, Rogues, and Ordinary People Who Changed the United States (Co-authored with Brian Burch). Her most recent book, The Catholic Table, is about why food--preparing it with care, sharing it with others, and eating it with gratitude--matters (or ought to matter) to Catholics. She and her husband were married in July 2015.