You Mean the Patron Saint of Cooks
Isn't Rachael Ray?

Chefs are cranky prima donnas.

Chefs will tell you -- and the rest of the world, if the reality show cameras are running -- that they're overworked, underappreciated and misunderstood. Surely their patron saint would have sympathized.

This Thursday is the official feast day for Martha, the traditional defender of cooks, servers, butlers and hostelers. Locally, The Grape's marking the occasion this weekend by serving a $36 three-course tasting menu to benefit the Stewpot Alliance. While that agency doesn't use Martha's name, soup kitchens across the country feed the hungry under the St. Martha banner.

But who was Martha, and what did she do to distinguish herself in the kitchen? Since my Biblical knowledge is pretty much limited to the Old Testament, I called Jeff Young, the self-styled "Catholic Foodie," to find out.

As Young tells the story, Martha, Mary and Lazarus were awaiting a visit from Jesus. Martha spent the day hauling water, pounding grain and probably wishing she had a hot stove over which to slave. "It really was an all-day affair," Young says of Martha's extensive dinner preparations.

What most galled Martha was that her sister refused to pitch in after Jesus showed up, instead taking a seat at Jesus' feet. An aggrieved Martha complained to Jesus that she could have used Mary's help.

But, as Martha discovered, it's hard for an angry chef to get respect, even if she makes the best roasted figs this side of the Galilee.

"Jesus kind of reprimanded her," Young says. "He told her 'Mary has chosen the better part. She's being quiet and listening to what God is saying.'"

In Young's reading, Martha redeems herself by later professing her faith after her brother's death. While she may have wished Mary would have at least done the dishes, she apparently didn't hold the incident against Jesus.

"You don't get the sense Martha got her feelings hurt," Young says.

There's one more story about Martha that may help account for her association with chefs. According to tradition, Martha and Lazarus moved to France, where they settled in a community with a dragon problem. The dragon had slain the town's strongest men, so Martha reached into her pantry for holy water. She poured the water over the dragon, who promptly entered a trance. The town of Tarascon has been celebrating her recipe since 1474.

Interestingly, though, Martha became far less chef-like after the killing: According to the Golden Legend, "she eschewed all meat, eggs, cheese and wine; she ate but once a day."

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