Q & A with Rita Heikenfeld
Well-known for her contributions about the Bible and food on Sacred Heart Radio, Rita Heikenfeld has been a consistent on-air presence over the years. She also writes on food and faith for multiple publications and shares recipes and anecdotes on her blog, About Eating (abouteating.com).
Tell us a little bit about who you are!
I come from a big Catholic family—eight girls and one boy– born and raised on the east side of Cincinnati. We became members of Holy Trinity in Batavia when our middle son, Jason, was born, and we love being in this relatively small church community. We also “belong,” but not in a formal sense, to St. Anthony of Padua.
What drew you to the culinary arts?
My Lebanese background of faith and family was an integral influence throughout my life. I especially remember Sunday suppers when my mom, Mary, cooked Lebanese food, always seasonal and usually served from one iron pot or her hand-hewn wooden bowl. Regardless of how many people enjoyed meals with us, my dad, Charlie, would say, “There’s always room for one more.”
Watching my mother, aunts and sisters cook fascinated me growing up. I can still remember the blessing of any food mixed with the hands, especially the bulghur wheat for tabouleh and kibbi. It’s a tradition I’ve passed on to my own kids and grandchildren.
My Mom taught us how to forage for early greens, like dandelions. Despite our tiny backyard, every spring she found enough wild greens for a salad.
Most relatives on both sides of my family have been in the food business. Our parents took us as children to Downtown Cincinnati to visit Aunt Norma’s little grocery store—the aroma of fried kibbi wafted through the door as we entered. My family had a small, popular neighborhood diner in the late 50’s, with everything made from scratch.
When I married my German husband, Frank, I learned to cook his family’s favorites, as well. Goetta, spaetzle and sauerbraten were unfamiliar dishes, but I enjoyed learning how to make them.
Much of what you blog and speak about unites your faith and food. How did you start down that path?
I always associated God’s green earth and its offerings with the food we grow and prepare. After our youngest son, Shane, started kindergarten, my friend and excellent cook, Bert Villing, asked if I’d like to start a catering business with her. We started small, growing as we needed it to grow, the business allowing us to still be “at home” moms.
That led to teaching, media and, eventually, to the Sonrise Morning Show on Sacred Heart Radio. I remember I called Brian Patrick and told him I felt a strong calling to share my knowledge on food and herbs that have roots in Bible days. He thought it was a good idea, and since then I’ve shared many recipes and the Bible stories that go with them.
When you prepare recipes, do you read the Bible first, or are you inspired and go in search of Scripture?
Both. For example, reading Passover scriptures leads me to food prepared during that time, eons ago. Then again, a lot of my recipes already include Bible foods and herbs. Tabouleh, with its biblical ingredients of bulghur wheat, cucumbers, onions and mint is a lovely, healthy and trendy salad. My teaching herb garden is divided into household sections: medicinal, culinary and Bible herbs, which is the most popular. Having little ones pick edible herbs and flowers from this section is a learning experience. It’s fun to talk about how mint was a tithing herb and why garlic was eaten as a vegetable, such as to give strength to the slaves who built the pyramids.
My focus is encouraging folks to make meal time one of thanksgiving and praise for the abundant blessings of food.
Do you have a favorite meal you enjoy cooking?
Tabouleh is not only a family favorite, but one I prepare almost weekly. Lebanese green beans and lamb with cinnamon, rice and tomatoes is a hearty and filling stew, and fried kibbi patties are yummy and a good, totable lunch.
How can a home chef do some small things to pair their cooking with their faith?
As you prepare a meal, take a look at the ingredients. It doesn’t have to be a fancy meal; in fact, the recipes I share are doable and budget friendly. The honey that you drizzle on biscuits? Think of the Exodus passage where God promises to take the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt to a land flowing with milk and honey. Honey has been eaten and used medicinally since long before Christ was born. (And it never goes bad!)
Tell the story in Genesis of how Esau sold his birthright to Jacob for a pot of lentil stew. It doesn’t take much effort to weave Biblical history, our treasured faith and food together into a memorable mealtime experience.
Rita Heikenfeld lives on a little patch of heaven overlooking the East Fork River in Clermont County. She and her husband have three sons and 11 grandchildren.
This article appeared in the June 2023 edition of The Catholic Telegraph Magazine. For your complimentary subscription, click here.