EMMITSBURG, Md. (AP) — The Rev. Leo Patalinghug is all about cooking. And prayer.
He has combined his two passions into a book, “Grace Before Meals, Recipes and Inspiration for Family Meals and Family Life.”
Father Leo, as he’s known, teaches future priests at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary by day. Weekends, he preaches behind the stove as well as from the pulpit, encouraging people to come together over food.
“My inspiration comes from what I do as a priest,” he said. He’s also a pretty good cook. His fusion fajitas helped him win his “Throwdown With Bobby Flay.”
Father Leo was born in the Philippines, but grew up in the Brooklyn Park neighborhood of Baltimore. His large family always came together over meals, and he still gets home once a month to cook Sunday dinner for his parents, siblings, nieces and nephews.
His mother was a good cook, and he learned a lot from her. She combined Filipino cooking with French and Italian influences. That helped provide the foundation he needed, not only for a career in cooking, but also a career in the priesthood.
“The sociological benefits of a regular meal together are astounding,” he said. “Families could spend more time together and learn to enjoy each other’s company.”
Studies have shown that children from families who eat dinner together regularly are less likely to smoke, drink or take drugs.
Children need sports and other activities, but not as much as they need family, Father Leo said. “They know if they have a good family structure, they won’t be alone,” he said.
Saying grace before meals is a way for a family to share a few moments together. It can be a very short grace. “Grace serves as a blessing, but more important are the people around the table,” he said. “I don’t care what you ask, or what you eat, just as long as you are eating together and talking.”
Father Leo, 40, started on the road toward Grace Before Meals on Sept. 11, 2001. He was supposed to go to Paris for a retreat for priests. The retreat was postponed, but when it finally happened, a fellow priest said he thought Father Leo would be good on camera talking about food and faith.
“I thought about this,” he said. He came up with the name, Grace Before Meals, but didn’t expect anything to come of it. “Then it took on a life of its own. It’s more of a movement than a TV show. My inspiration comes from what I do as a priest.”
Father Leo has an engaging, outgoing personality compatible with both the priesthood and celebrity chefs. In addition to “Throwdown With Bobby Flay,” he has appeared on “CBS Sunday Morning.” He often appears on cooking shows. Nearly every weekend, he’s cooking somewhere.
Father Leo didn’t set out to become a priest. His dad was a physician and his mother stayed home with the children. Although he was raised Catholic, he did what any kid in Baltimore in the ’80s did. He took martial arts and became good at it. He had a talent for break dancing.
At the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, he majored in journalism and political science. He planned to become a lawyer. Along the way, he taught speech and drama, and founded a martial arts school with his brother in 1988.
He decided to study philosophy at Catholic University, still not sure that the priesthood was for him. His years at seminary, however, showed him that he had a calling to the priesthood.
He was a parish priest in Westminster for five years, starting in 1999. He was already honing his talent as a chef, because he would often cook for the families who invited him to dinner.
He came to Mount St. Mary’s to teach theology five years ago, and in that time, his Grace Before Meals ministry has flourished. He also had the chance to study in Rome, where he learned Italian cooking and the Italian approach to family meals.
“People are sitting in traffic for two hours every day and there’s nothing there to welcome them home,” he said. “You can see why people’s existence is sad. I’m not advocating we go back to the way it once was, but what we could do is put our priorities in order.”
Eating, talking and savoring meals allows people to spend more time chewing their food, causing them to eat less, and more time together. “Just because kids want to do 16 sports, doesn’t mean they should,” he said.
He cited an MTV study that showed kids really do want to spend time with their families.
The book “Grace Before Meals” outlines Father Leo’s philosophy. Each recipe is divided into three sections. “Let’s Talk” outlines a series of questions on an issue. One is, “If you were writing goals or resolutions for your family, what would top the list? What would be one step toward achieving it?”
“Let’s Listen” offers biblical passages that relate to the first section. “Let’s Cook” offers up recipes that can be made. Some take no more than a half-hour to prepare, Father Leo said.
Families needn’t worry about disagreements. “Even if you’re going to argue, come together,” he said. “We don’t promise perfection, we promise faithfulness. That’s what families need to remember.”
The Frederick News-Post
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)