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Cooking priest promotes healthy eating for body, mind and soul

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April 6, 2011

By Mary Caffrey Knapke

SIDNEY DEANERY — Father Leo Patalinghug tosses chopped onion, minced garlic and green bell pepper into a pan of hot oil and adds tomato paste and sauce. A splash of vodka brings out the flavors, and the flames that rise from the pan add visual drama while cooking off the alcohol. With some parsley, crushed red pepper and a healthy dose of heavy cream, the sauce is complete, and everyone in the audience is ready to devour the quick, tasty meal.



Father Leo Patalinghug demonstrates how to make penne alla vodka sauce at St. Patrick Parish in Troy March 26. The recipe can be found in Father Patalinghug’s book, Grace Before Meals. (Courtesy photo)

Father Patalinghug performed this cooking demonstration in front of 400 people at the St. Patrick Catholic Church parish center in Troy on March 26. A packed crowd of local residents included members of St. Patrick and the Church of the Transfiguration in West Milton, which collaborated to bring the popular cook and inspirational speaker to the area. Father Patalinghug has appeared on EWTN, the Food Network, PBS, and news programs on ABC, CBS and FOX, promoting “Grace Before Meals,” a movement to encourage families to sit down to meals together. Even more important is to use shared meal times as a means to greater communication.


“My purpose is to remind people of the great gift of food,” Father Patalinghug said during the cooking presentation. “But the greater blessing is the people around the table.”


Father Patalinghug “is aware that families who eat together have a greater ability to combat the things that drive families apart. He wants all of us to see the connection between Eucharist and our everyday gathering in our homes,” said Father John MacQuarrie, pastor at Transfiguration. “I especially enjoyed his message on Sunday to our teens on ‘spiritual combat’ with his demonstration of the martial arts. By teaching our youth how to ‘bypass’ the temptations of the devil and overcome their weakness in God’s grace, Father Leo gave our youth some very important tools for Christian living.”


Father Jim Duell, pastor of St. Patrick, said, “I would hope that people would again appreciate the possibility of having a family-oriented meal, involving everybody in some way to help with the meal on a regular occasion.”  


Father Patalinghug also hosts a Lenten radio program on Sirius Satellite Radio and has written a book, Grace Before Meals: Recipes and Inspiration for Family Meals and Family Life. He frequently travels to deliver “mini-missions” as he did at Transfiguration and St. Patrick, where the cooking presentation was just part of a weekend that included inspirational talks, a teen night and two Masses. He is also a full-time faculty member at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Maryland, where he directs the pastoral field education program for future priests.


Born in the Philippines and raised in the Baltimore area, Father Patalinghug was ordained for the Archdiocese of Baltimore in 1999. Before becoming a priest, he worked as a martial arts instructor and breakdance choreographer.


Father  Patalinghug’s engaging delivery and message were highlights for Curtis Kneblik, director of the Transfiguration Center for Spiritual Renewal. “Humor and laughter are ingredients we often don’t associate with church. Father Leo spiced up all his presentations with a clean humor that allowed us to lighten up and enjoy each other’s presence,” Kneblik said. “Simple actions, like sharing a meal together, are often the most effective ways of communicating our love for one another and also provide the opportunity for faith to be nourished through conversation. I hope people will be encouraged to make God the centerpiece of their lives by resurrecting the family meal.”


Pat Smith, adult faith formation coordinator at St. Patrick, said she especially enjoyed collaborating with Transfiguration Parish to organize the event. “It was so good to bring our parishes together. We all worked so well together and complemented each other with the different skills and volunteers we brought to the table.”


Father Patalinghug was already known for his culinary skills — which he initially learned from his mother and developed while attending seminary at the Pontifical North American College in Rome — when friends, colleagues and parishioners encouraged him to develop an on-air cooking program. He regarded the idea as a joke until it reached his bishop, who also supported it. Grace Before Meals gained prominence when Father appeared on the popular Food Network program “Throwdown! with Bobby Flay.” Father Patalinghug thought he was filming a segment about Internet cooking shows and was surprised when Flay emerged from the audience to challenge him to a cooking competition. When the Food Network judges cast their votes, it was Father Patalinghug — and his Asian fusion fajitas — who walked away victorious.


Despite his growing popularity as “the cooking priest,” “food is only a way to get people to the table,” Father Patalinghug said. Likewise, “the church wants nothing more, as a mother, to gather her children around the eucharistic table.”


Mary Caffrey Knapke can be reached at [email protected].

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