By Eric J. Lyman
ROME (RNS) Baked skinless chicken, salad, fruit and a glass of simple wine hardly seems like food fit for a king. But it does seem to be a meal fit for a pope.
Pope Francis is becoming well known for his simple tastes: As Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, he carried his own bags when traveling, preferred public transportation to chauffeur-driven limousines, and, the stories go, cooks meals for himself.
His humble lifestyle extends to the kitchen, a stark contrast with his predecessor, Benedict XVI, who before becoming pope relished feasting on fettuccine with shrimp, zucchini and saffron.
Many of the men favored to become pope going into the conclave also had fancier tastes. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, an Italian, hosted an elaborate vegetarian dinner to celebrate Benedict's 60th anniversary as a priest in 2011, featuring fresh-picked fare from the area near Venice, including chicory, white asparagus, peas and cherries.
New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan has waxed poetic about the seductive charms of food in the Italian capital, enthusiastically describing meals of fettuccine Bolognese, lamb cutlet, spinach and peppers, with Sicilian cannoli and homemade tiramisu as his favorite choices for dessert.
The new pontiff's preferences are far less elaborate. Staff at La Venerina and Il Passetto di Borgo, the two most popular restaurants for cardinals and bishops in the Borgo Pio, the neighborhood adjacent to the Vatican City, could not recall ever serving Cardinal Bergoglio at their tables.
Francis is the church's first Jesuit pope, and Jesuit traditions favor simple cuisine -- one of the rules of the order is for diners to fill up on bread because it avoids the "disorder" that comes from being "tempted by other foods."
It's something the new pope has apparently taken to heart, but that does not mean he does not enjoy an occasional luxury, at least in relative terms.
As a cardinal in Buenos Aires, he admitted enjoying an occasional "Bagna Cauda" prepared by nuns. "Bagna Cauda" -- a name in the Piedmont dialect spoken by his parents whose families hailed from northern Italy -- is a classical farmer's dish that requires dipping roasted carrots, celery, artichokes, cauliflower and onions into a piping hot broth made from garlic, olive oil and butter, then serving the dish in a terra cotta bowl with a candle underneath.
After being selected as pope and making his appearance to the massive crowd in St. Peter's Square, Francis ate dinner with the College of Cardinals. The menu was a simple pasta dish that may have seemed extravagant by the new pontiff's standards.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has petitioned Francis to honor the legacy of his nature-loving namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, and refrain from serving factory-farmed meat, eggs and dairy at the papal dinner table.
Eventually, PETA spokeswoman Colleen O'Brien said, she'd like to see the Vatican get "veganized" and go entirely meat-free. A similar request made of Pope Benedict XVI failed to gain traction.
"Today's factory farms are a living hell for chickens, pigs, cows, and other animals," said O'Brien, a self-described devout Catholic. "Jesus would be appalled to witness the meat, egg, and dairy industries' harmful effects on animals and human health."
(Eric J. Lyman writes for USA Today. Kevin Eckstrom contributed to this report)