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St. Dominic’s Kitchen

PUBLISHED: June 26, 2015

The sun had set when the friar knocked and asked if I was ready. I set aside my reading and rummaged for my borrowed, thick camo fatigues. We drove a half hour into the Swedish countryside, speaking little over a Bach organ concerto. We parked off a country road and trekked through snow a couple hundred meters to a hunting tower at the edge of a wood. Father Johan climbed up first, and I hoisted his rifle and backpack up to him. The tower, a box on stilts, was walled with rugs and blankets strewn about, but the cold cut everything, including my oversized boots and borrowed wool socks. It overlooked a clearing where we dumped food for the boars. Hunting wild boar without dogs means you set the table and hope the guests arrive. In the meantime, you wait. I drank a thermos of fruit soup Johan had prepared and thought about a grad-school paper that was due. Johan prayed the Psalms silently, from memory, the monastic melodies echoing in his mind. I heard only the silent cold, broken sporadically by rustling field mice. 

Shadows of trees and bushes appeared as animals, seemed to move. I fought off sleep. As if a dream, black shapes slowly appeared in the clearing. Johan leveled his rifle on the ledge of the tower’s window. He peered through its scope. I covered my ears and ducked as fire erupted from the tower.

In the summer of 2008, I left the boarding school where I’d spent my first year out of college teaching. My plan was to move to Chicago with friends to “write and think.” I hoped, maybe, to find a spiritual director, someone to help me piece together the remains of a faith shattered by the death of my father and the suicides of two close friends. Instead, I found myself living with my mom and her two cats in the rust-belt town of Rockford, Illinois, where I found a job at an industrial staffing agency running drug tests and sex-offender checks on applicants for $11 an hour. It was supposed to be a temporary arrangement. Then the economy crashed. Weeks turned into months, a year, more. I wrote little and saw no spiritual director. After work I came home to fourteen dishes of cat food and Fox News blaring on three televisions.

On the recommendation of a Swedish friend, Benjamin, I had applied and was accepted to the University of Lund, in the south of Sweden, for the English program in literature, culture, and media studies. I was skeptical about moving to Sweden to study English, but one factor prevailed: It was free. Actually, I would be paid to attend. My mother, a Swede, had wrangled dual citizenship for me, which made me eligible for the welfare state’s student funding, something like $300 a month. 

My first week of class, Benjamin took me to a student mass at the Dominican chapel. It wasn’t the mass that attracted me—I wasn’t Catholic—but the donation-based student lunch that followed. Sitting next to me, in a white robe with wooden rosary beads dangling from his belt, was Brother Björn, who functioned as the youth chaplain. Between mouthfuls of lasagna, prepared by a Spanish student who rented a room from the Dominicans, I answered Brother Björn’s questions about my life, studies, and living situation—a tiny room in a Lutheran student association. At twenty-five, I was almost the oldest person on a floor of nineteen-year-olds. That distinction belonged to Hugo, a middle-aged sometime student who had lived there fifteen years and wore a plain black T-shirt and blue jeans every day, except if there was a party—then the black shirt had words on it. The larger community seemed an impenetrable clique of tall, beautiful Lutherans.

“It’s a strange place, no?” said Brother Björn when I told him where I lived. “You should move.” 

A few days passed, and one of Brother Björn’s brethren, someone named Father Johan, e-mailed me to ask if I was looking for accommodation. The Spanish student was moving out. 

Four days later, I stood in the lobby of the Dominican house, waiting for Father Johan to interview me. He was late. Eventually, he descended the stairs from the cloistered portion of the house, muttering about a bad back. He was dressed all in black, save for his white priest’s collar. His head was buzzed and his face was red, round, and clean-shaven, set with steel-blue eyes and a small, slightly upturned nose. He ushered me to opposing couches and took out a leather planner.

“So, what are you doing in Sweden?” he asked tepidly in an impeccable British accent. I tried to answer in Swedish, but reading impatience on his face, I switched to English. When I mentioned my dual citizenship, he asked where in Sweden my mother was from. I mentioned a part of Småland remarkable only for its forests and producing Astrid Lingren and Pippi Longstocking. He perked up. 

“There’s good hunting there.” 

“Yeah…my uncles hunt there on our old family farm.” 

He looked interested. “Do you hunt?” 

“I’ve been deer hunting with them a few times.” I left out that on the hunts, I’d never been trusted with a gun. My role was to substitute when the dogs got tired, walking through the snowy woods and barking to rouse deer, silently praying I wouldn’t get shot. 

A smile played on the corners of his mouth. “I hunt, too. Mostly wild boar these days.”

There had been students living with the Dominicans in Lund for years. The arrangement, uncommon in the order, befitted the Dominicans, since religious men are often not practical or accomplished at taking care of themselves. The students took out their trash, tended the garden, and helped tidy up the library.

Father Johan was the superior of the house and, in his early forties, also the youngest; Brother Björn, an architect and artist in his early fifties, was the only non-priest in the house; Pascal-René, a Frenchman pushing sixty, had a ginger wreath of hair around his bald scalp and a long, red beard that hid the loose chin of a man who was once fat; and Bernard, a Frenchman around seventy, was a onetime engineer who didn’t know how to operate a microwave and specialized in Zen meditation and Eastern religions. They were joined by Brian, a paunchy Canadian from the Chicago province who had bounced around Europe until he landed in Lund for a few months to recover from surgery. Nothing like the Midwestern Evangelical pastors I had known, they drank, swore, and used tobacco. One weekend I ran into Brian outside a grocery store, and he asked for a loan, something like fifteen bucks. The currency exchange was closed. When I handed him some bills, he immediately went into a convenience store and bought two packs of cigarettes: “Between you and me, I’d rather have cigarettes than food.” 

They lived in an expansive, L-shaped house, three stories and a basement, on a cobblestoned street in the center of Lund. At the end of Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, the professor receives an honorary degree beside an ancient cathedral. That was outside our front door. 

The friars occupied the second and third floors, while the first floor was given to a chapel, a library, and a common room and kitchen for students. The basement held storage, library stacks, laundry, and a wine cellar. Students lived in a small wing attached only by a common stairwell with entry points to the friars’ kitchen and basement. I moved into the lowermost of the three student rooms, with windows that looked out on the backyard. 

Really, it wasn’t so much a backyard as a garden, more English than French in style, cultivated but unmanicured with a touch of wild. There was a willow that formed a canopy over two cherry trees, a plot of rosebushes, a minuscule greenhouse where Björn grew tomatoes, dahlias, and a fig and apple tree, as well as an herb garden where Johan grew mint, lettuce, rosemary, and thyme. Outside my windows, Johan planted black and white tulips, the colors of the Dominican order. 

The roses were Johan’s joy. There were more than sixty, and he knew all their Latin names. In summer, groups of retirees on garden tours would wander into the backyard unbidden to gaze upon the splendor. 

A few days after I moved in, I was invited to dinner after evening prayer. Pasqual, the son of an Alsatian butcher and café owner, had prepared a table spread with cold smoked tuna steaks, five kinds of cheese, and a creamy potato salad drizzled with oil and garnished with capers and tomatoes. We drank French wine and ate, the friars conversing in a mix of Swedish and French I couldn’t follow, as I wondered about the vow of poverty. 

The dinner was a send-off for Bernard, who moved back to France a few days later, and Pasqual, who moved to Stockholm to work for the Swedish bishop. After a dessert of espresso and pralines, I went to my room and dreamed crazy dreams, which I blamed on the richness of the food, like the medieval man I wasn’t.

My own meals were not so impressive. I had no money and subsisted on a diet of bread, spinach, “farmer’s cheese,” yogurt, muesli, and rice from a fifteen-kilo bag that I’d schlepped across town from an Iraqi bodega.

One day, Father Johan took me to IKEA to buy some furniture, and while there, I suggested we eat. They have these fantastically cheap hot dogs, I told him. He looked at me as if I was crazy. “I’d never eat here. You have to eat good food. Life’s too short.” A week later, I received an e-mail: “Polish cheesecake outside your door.” 

From that point on, I’d come home to find containers of stewed potatoes and carrots with beef, cooked cabbage, and borscht. Always borscht. They were leftovers from the parish, where the Polish housekeeper often made him lunch. When I asked him about it he’d shrug and say, “Well, I can’t eat borscht every day.” 

In mid-October, moose season began, and I took a train north to meet my uncles for a weekend hunt, where I tagged along and occasionally barked. Johan also headed north to a cabin he shared with his moose-hunting team, a collection of men he’d somehow found that included one paraplegic who hunted from a specially rigged ATV. I returned with a tin of my grandmother’s cinnamon rolls. When Father Johan returned, it was with a cooler full of moose. In the friars’ kitchen, we filled freezer bags with 500 grams of chuck. We sucked the air out with our mouths and then knotted the bags. I tried not to think about the particles of raw meat I was inhaling, telling myself this was the work of men. 

I became involved in the house. I started attending morning and evening prayer, Lauds and Vespers. Not because I was pious, but because I was lonely. The warm light shone through the windows facing the yard, drawing me into the small, bare chapel. Brian was in the process of moving, while mornings Johan’s back bothered him and evenings he was at the parish. Most days, I found just Björn, sitting in the lotus position, meditating before prayer. After I lit the candles, he stood on one side of the chapel, singing the cantor’s part, and I stood on the other, singing the response, sometimes with his help. Eventually, I cantored. At first, I understood little of what we sung, but singing in another language, everything sounds beautiful and important.

With Björn, a mostly vegetarian who hung out at the anarchist bookshop, I made sourdough bread and talked literature, movies, and mysticism; with Johan I talked hunting. In late November, he asked if I’d like to join him hunting wild boar. We drove into the countryside and turned down a forest road, parking at the end of a dirt path. Johan popped the back hatch and assembled his gun. It had been willed to him by his childhood mentor, a retired army officer, when he died. By then Johan had joined the order and given up his guns. He’d had to get special permission from the regional vicar. “It’s a German Mauser, a .375 H&H.” He saw that this meant nothing to me. “It’s a big-game rifle. It could kill an elephant.”

“Wait, what? Really?”

“It wouldn’t be pretty, but it’d get the job done with a couple shots.” 

He attached a scope and loaded three rounds as I stood dumbly, someone’s kid brother in a bundle of hand-me-downs. Gun assembled, Johan pulled his balaclava down over his face. I heard a slight pop, then the distinct anise smell of snus, Swedish smokeless tobacco. “Follow me, and walk very quietly.” As I walked I tried to recall some secret I had read as a child about how Indians walked silently, but my thoughts were drowned out by the gravel and leaves crunching underfoot. When Johan stopped, I almost bumped into him. “Listen,” he whispered. I heard faint snorting. “They’re already out. Wait here.” 

I stood in my layers, looking up at the stars, waiting for I didn’t know what. I hated this part of hunting. When, as a clumsy kid, I’d knock a plate or glass off the counter, rather than trying to catch it, I would invariably jump back and cover my ears. But then, I knew the crash was coming. Hunting with others, you are a passive victim to another’s will, brought to bear through the slight movement of a finger.

The shot came like a cannon ripping through the air, and I fell to the ground. A wounded wild boar will charge a man, its tusks cutting flesh like knives. My heart thumped with anxiety as I slowly got back up. A minute passed. 

“Come on,” he called. “I got it!” 

There, in the middle of a glade torn up by boars, illuminated by the friar’s flashlight, was a lifeless wild boar, its chest marked by a single red wound. 

“It’s a young one. Maybe twenty-five kilo.” Johan had a big smile on his face. 

“We gut it now?” 

“No. It’s too messy here. We’ll take it to Jacob’s.” 

Twenty minutes later, we swung into the driveway of a modest house and parked next to a carpenter’s van. The door to a freestanding garage stood open, and a man walked quickly out to greet us. 

“Hey Johan! Fuck, that took no time at all, eh?” The priest laughed. 

“This is David, a student that lives with us. From the US but he understands Swedish.”

“Hello David! Nice to meet you!” he said in a Swede’s singsong English. “I love America! You like guns there.” He had a superhero chin and solid head, but in his hunting clothes, with his brutish features and heavy brow, he looked like he belonged in a trench somewhere, a man safest to admire through the faded pigments of an old war photograph. 

“My God. A little guy, eh?” he said in Swedish as he looked in the trunk. The two grabbed its legs and carried it into the garage, laying it on what can best be described as a rudimentary trough, the kind of thing in which Baby Jesus sleeps in nativity scenes. 

The garage smelled of entrails and disinfectant. Wall space that wasn’t used by his carpentry tools was covered by horns.

“That’s a lot of horns,” I said, mouth agape.

“That’s nothing. Wait till he sees the inside of my house, eh, Johan?” 

Two butcher’s belts with knives hung from an industrial sink. At the center of the garage, a chain hung from the rafters, a large hook dangling at its end. Beneath, a single drain in the floor. After Jacob retrieved coffee and bullar, a sweet bun, from his house, Johan stood by the sink, sipping his coffee, while Jacob told me step by step how to gut a boar. 

The trick to skinning a wild boar’s tough hide is to inflate the animal. You make small incisions at the base of each leg, then use a wand attachment on your air compressor. Insert it into each of the holes, pushing the tip between the skin and muscle. Slowly release air. The pig bloats as the epithelial connective tissue tears and the hide separates from the flesh. Stand to the side—the corpse shits whatever remains in its sphincter. Pull the hide back taut and make small slices through the connective tissue with a flaying knife, all while slowly peeling the hide back like a banana peel. 

Jacob did this last bit quickly, wielding his knife with a sure hand and manic energy, a goblin stripping its victim of gold.

“Are you going to be a monk, too?” 

“No, I’m studying literature.” 

“Literature, eh?” He paused, unsure how to continue. “So you like girls, eh?”

“I do.”

“Yeah, me too, David.” He grinned and drew his knife, called the “can opener,” through the boar’s chest plate, exposing its heart. “Now we must remove its, how do you say, piss bag?”

“Bladder,” chimed in Johan, his mouth full of bullar. 

“Yes! So, David, see here.” He took his hand and placed it in the boar’s pelvic girdle. “Feel this?” He guided my hand to a point on the bone, the sacral promontory. “There!” He laughed. “Just like on your girlfriend!” Then he pinched the boar’s urethra and cut out the bladder, which shot a yellow stream across the floor. “Johan wouldn’t know anything about that.” 

Johan’s face was beet red, but he smiled. “You forget I haven’t always been a priest.” 

The entrails went into plastic tubs, which Jacob dumped in the woods for foxes. So did the head, which Jacob removed at the atlas vertebrae with a few hacks. We saved the heart, which could be smoked, and some gland, which we sent to a lab to test for trichinella. 

In the back corner of the garage stood an almost walk-in industrial refrigerator. Inside, like a closet, was a fixed metal dowel. Onto this we hoisted the boar, hooked from its pelvis. “It’ll take three, four days to cure, then I can butcher it.” 

We pulled into the priory’s drive well past midnight with a bag full of chops, filets, and chuck, what was left of a boar Johan had shot a few weeks earlier. We put them in a freezer, filled with wild game, in the basement. 

“If you ever want some meat, ” he said as he placed the bag next to a pair of frozen deer hooves, “just take some, don’t ask. I’m the only one who eats it around here.”

I rarely did, though. It felt like stealing. Instead, I enjoyed the meat when invited to occasional dinners on Sundays or Holy Days with the friars and their guests, distinguished Dominicans and priests from all over Europe. One weekend an Aquinas scholar, the next an English psychoanalyst. Johan often asked me to help cook. The preparations began with a glass of wine. An album of Bach, maybe Wagner. He cut mushrooms and onions, fried them with liver or kidney and snacked on this while cooking. I was given apprentice tasks like peeling potatoes and carrots, dicing onions, washing lettuce and making a salad. Almost always, I made dessert, a nod to American stereotypes. I’d make apple pie or homemade ice cream, sometimes both. Once, I ventured peanut-butter brownies but forgot to add the flour. When it was Johan’s turn, he made pears soaked in brandy.  

“The life of a friar is a beautiful one,” I wrote to a girl I’d been seeing back home. “If I didn’t want to get married, I’d consider the life.”

She called off the relationship after getting my letter. “You want to be a monk.” 

I began to accompany Johan on hunts regularly, sometimes sitting in towers with him, sometimes with Jacob. I still traveled north to hunt with my uncles, but it seemed almost amateurish, this group of old farmers and truck drivers huddled around a fire grilling hot dogs. With Johan and Jacob, it was professional, precise. We hauled wheelbarrows of sugar beets into the forest or left open cans of surströmming, a northern “delicatessen” of fermented herring, which boars could smell for a mile. From a friend at a grocery store, Jacob scored a pallet stacked five feet high with ginger snaps whose expiration date had lapsed. Jealous of the boars, I took as many boxes as I could stack in my arms and snacked on them for months. 

  More than the hunting or the butchering, I came to love our drives through the countryside, through fields of sugar beets and potatoes spotted by windmill sentinels. Johan scanned the roads for wildlife, pointing out birds by their Latin names while I asked questions about the priesthood. He told me about his time in the army, his work for the Swedish department of natural resources, his education in France, and his vocation. 

In spring, two of Johan’s parishioners asked him to slaughter a dozen sheep they’d been raising. That Sunday, after Johan celebrated mass, we drove to their property where Jacob met us with a pickup and a revolver. I turned away as he straddled a sheep, put the revolver to its skull, and sent it to the ground convulsing. He did this four times. “Load ‘em up!” he called to me, and I grabbed their fleeces and hoisted them into his vehicle. Then we drove to the garage, where Jacob handed me a set of knives. “You’re on your own today.” The air compressor inflated the sheep into balloons that deflated under our knives like in a cartoon. 

Johan had a parish committee the following Sunday, so I borrowed his car and drove out to meet Jacob alone. Again, he gave me a set of knives. Hung-over from Saturday night, my knife slipped as I sliced the inflated sheep’s hide. I looked down at my left hand’s middle finger, covered in blood. We held it under cold water, then sprayed it with rubbing alcohol, which made we wince. “You’re a tough guy, aren’t you, David?” he asked in a voice not unlike the one he used to address his four-year-old son. He slapped Band-Aids on it and gave me a white surgical glove. I kept working, pausing only to switch my glove, which had filled with blood. 

That Easter, we ate lamb shank.  

Johan visited me once after I returned to the US, to New York. “A Godfather check-in,” he called it. We rented a car and drove down to Kentucky to visit monasteries and bourbon distilleries. On the drive back to New York, we stopped in a run-down part of Louisville for barbecue. The proprietor, a stocky white man with shaggy gray hair and train-engineer overalls wandered over to take our order. 

“Where y’all from?” he asked after he’d heard Johan’s accent.

“Sweden,” Johan replied. 

“Sweden? Goddamn! Lemme ask you, what’d you think of the ladies here in Kentucky?”

“I didn’t really notice them.” 

The man laughed and slapped Johan on the back. 

“Well, how ’bout the dudes?” 

Johan laughed. “No, no…you see, I’m a Catholic priest.” 

“Mazel tov! Me, I’m a hillbilly Jew, a rare breed ’round here!” 

I ordered the pulled pork and excused myself to the restroom. When I returned, the man was crouched over Johan. 

“And then,” he whispered, “when the dogs cornered the hog, I crept up and stuck my knife through its side. Bam!” He shouted as he jabbed Johan in the ribs as Johan’s face turned red. “Right in that bastard’s heart!”

“But, uh, Sweden,” the man said, again becoming aware of himself. “I bet you got some good hunting up there.” 

A smile played on the corners of Father Johan’s mouth. “We do.”


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