Fast Days

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

In the Christian calendar there are feast days and fast days. My English and Scottish ancestors would have observed the great feasts and saints' days of the liturgical calendar and also the fasting days that preceded them. Many of the world's religions still observe times of fasting to clear the mind and encourage a focus away from the material world and towards the spiritual, but our secular society has chosen to keep the great feast days of Christmas and Easter, and drop the fasting altogether. Here in Australia the most sacred fasting day in the Christian calendar, Good Friday, has been turned into a marketing opportunity for an enormous slap-up seafood buffet.

Excess and restraint, feasting and fasting, are two sides of the same coin, the yin and yang of the cycle of living. The natural cycles of the year encourage feasting and fasting as well, with late summer and the autumn harvest giving us a time of feasting, and then the late winter, early spring 'hungry gap' before spring greens come on providing us with a natural time of fasting. A recent diet trend encourages intermittent fasting on the basis that our paleolithic ancestors would have had irregular access to food, and that the feast/fast cycle is how our bodies evolved for ultimate health.

However you look at it, whether for its spiritual or physical benefits, fasting has been part of our past and is part of many cultures today - but not ours. We appear to be very uncomfortable with the idea of voluntarily consuming less than we can. Our society is predicated on the value of More. Even when we put ourselves on diets, they are usually anything but simple. We have invented an enormous dieting industry that makes eating less somehow complicated and expensive.

I am tentatively exploring facets of the simple life, and what I am looking at now is food. There is so much of it all around us in our incredibly privileged enclaves, and so little of it in so much of the rest of the world. Recently I have been trying to ditch the supermarkets and shop as locally as I can for food. We didn't eat a lot of processed food before, but now there is even less in our kitchen. The children are continually complaining that we have no food. This is not even a little bit true, but what you mostly get when you shop locally is ingredients. We have a kitchen full of ingredients that need a little work to be rustled up into food. We can have boiled eggs in five minutes, an egg salad in ten minutes. Rosy has just made us Christmas egg nog in five minutes from local eggs, cream and milk, and rather non-local nutmeg, sugar and vanilla bought at the whole food shop. But the fact that there are five minutes between us and our snacks has curbed a lot of mindless snacking, and the fact that the ingredients are full of flavour and also quite expensive makes me want to cook them simply and let them shine.

Local meat is eye-wateringly costly. I buy it from the farmers who have tended it, killed it carefully and butchered it superbly. They generally tell me how to cook it as well, and I take great care with it and its taste is transcendental. Meat eating has been elevated to a ritual, like the Sunday roast in granny's day. And like the Sunday roast, the left overs are also carefully consumed and the bones made into soup stock. This is a once or twice a week treat. For the rest of the week we are happy vegetarians, with homegrown or local vegies and eggs filling our bellies. See, right there, by deciding to place some limits on our consumption, we have created a little feast and fast cycle over the course of the week. Our meat days are a bit special, fill us up, build up our bodies, but also require a lot of digesting.. and then we balance that by eating gently nourishing eggs and broth and vegies on other days. Also our budget evens out with a large expenditure on meat being balanced by vegies and beans and lentils for the rest of the week.

December is often a month of parties so that by Christmas we are are not as thrilled as we might be by our mid-winter or mid-summer feast. I am thinking that in order to highlight our feast day this month, at our place we might do some gentle fasting for the remainder of the days leading up to Christmas. I just looked up the rules for fasting for different religions and I find it fascinating that these guidelines for eating were developed in a time when food was not at all as plentiful as it is now. It is almost as if fasting was developed as a form of rationing, and as such possibly helped communities to survive lean times as food could only be consumed sparingly on many days. Mostly, fasting in religious traditions does not mean a complete abstinence from food, but merely eating smaller meals, or less of them, and refraining from including certain groups of foods, mainly meat, and sometimes dairy and alcohol as well.

For many Christian traditions it seems that a vegetarian or vegan fast without alcohol was required on Wednesdays and Fridays, with other fast days throughout the year, particularly before Easter and Christmas. I find it interesting that this is almost what we have found ourselves doing with our budgetary constraints which have accompanied eating local. With a roast, plus a left-overs night, plus a chicken dish, we are left with four vegetarian days a week, only one or two of which might be vegan, the others with eggs or yoghurt. Sometimes we also go out to eat, so there is generally another meat night as well once every few weeks. Our vegetarian meals are mostly very simple - soup and bread, or a tray of roast vegies with feta and chickpeas; salad with roasted pumpkin seeds and hardboiled eggs tossed through, or our quick favourite, a fry up of eggs, mushrooms, spinach and haloumi.

We live in the midst of a cornucopia of plenty. Every day can be a feast day, which leaves no room for gratitude and joy for a splendid meal, and is bad for the planet and bad for our health. Imagine the benefits of sometimes choosing less. The more I simplify my life, the happier I find myself becoming. Simple food is one of the great blessings of my life, because food is wonderful of itself, and I would rather read about food than cook it! If you would like to read about how to keep food simple, try Tamar Adler's An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace. It is my favourite book about food. So far. It is particularly special among books about food in that for Adler, food must be treated with care and reverence. Even the peels and stalks are worthy of saving and transforming into broth.

And I think that this is what we have forgotten in our bubble of protected plenty - food is precious. It keeps us alive and strong and happy. Maybe if we have a little less of it, sometimes, from day to day and season to season, we might appreciate it all the more when we gather together to feast.. so here in our wee cottage we will be eating vegetable soup and a salad or two over the next week in preparation for some serious feasting come the 25th..


fran7narf said…
You might want to add a vego stew to that quotient with the forecast of colder weather and even snow on the cards for Tassie this week. Steve has just decided to become vegan after watching a documentary called "Forks over Knives". The hardest thing for him is removing cheese from our diet but he is doing well and more to the point, is willing to try to simplify his food intake in order to gain better health and do less damage to the earth. We have simplified our lives by living in the country and learning to do most things for ourselves, using what we have here. This year we installed our fridge wicker city and we are just about to finish the structure around it to protect it from our possum invading neighbours. When you live closer to nature and a simple life, when you bypass consumerism and mainstream mindless spending you suddenly realise that frugality is actually a very rewarding thing. Learning to use all of your ingredients and make your own staple food is brilliantly liberating and eminently empowering. Simple living means less cost, less waste and more satisfaction. Because Steve and I are students, we can't afford to buy everything that we need to construct gardens etc. and in the process of creating our fridge wicker city, we have learned SO much as well as applied ourselves to tasks and thought processes that we would never have even contemplated if we weren't skint on a regular basis. Living simply has lifted the lid on our lifestyle and has give us a new way to interact with our environment, ourselves and each other. Food is so prevalent in society that we forget that it is vitally important to human survival. Fasting, as you have shared, was equally as vital to keeping the human machine ticking along in times of shortage. I don't know when humanity decided that it was outside the realms of nature but as soon as we stepped out of the natural cycles, we started exhibiting some serious health and mental problems. It's not just hippy mumbo jumbo, it makes perfect sense to reduce, re-use and recycle what we need in order to make our lives simpler and more meaningful and so that everyone can share and food, and how we interact with it, is a vital step in this equation. Another excellent post Jo. I love how you write :)
Tracy said…
I have been in churches all my life, and the church we now call home is the only one that includes fasting in its yearly routine. We have done a Daniel Fast (it's always 3 weeks, once it was the 6 weeks of Lent), which is vegan + no sugar, no caffeine, no white grains. It is harder work, because there is no "easy" food when you must prepare everything from scratch. But I ALWAYS come out feeling clean and clear at the end, and wishing I could keep it up!

One of the things I've found, about fasting, is that it is easier when you have a group of people around you who are also fasting. You're right; in this culture of more and excess, fasting is otherwise difficult.

Have you seen the documentary by Michael Mosley on intermittent fasting? is the link. Fascinating show.
GretchenJoanna said…
Here's an example of the escalation of feasting, in my in-laws' Christmas traditions: When I married into the family I joined in the special meals on Christmas Eve (with one side of their family) and Christmas Day (with the other side.) We always had oyster stew on Christmas Eve because it was a tradition that the older people especially liked. But we had lots of other things, too, so it was a big meal. We weren't really hungry the next day for Christmas Day dinner, but if anything, that meal was bigger!

After decades of this, I found out from my mother-in-law that when she was a child, on Christmas Eve they always had oyster stew and oyster crackers. Period. It seems from what I've read that many cultures with a Christian heritage (used to?) have some kind of skimpy meal, often including shellfish or legumes, on Christmas Eve.

I am the only person in my family who has any interest in fasting, personally or intellectually, so I am always exploring ideas for how to feed the 15-20 feasters and not partake too heartily myself. When Christmas Day comes I will have been eating Vegan + Fish for 40 days and I want to come to the table still a little bit empty so I can best enjoy feasting on lamb -- transcendental, yes! -- and things containing butter. :-)

Thanks, Jo, for these reminders and inspirations.

Linda said…
I loved reading your post - it all makes so much sense. My husband and I only eat meat a couple of times a week, fish a couple of times, the rest of the week it's vegetarian food. I have never liked huge meals - the sight of a piled up plate makes me feel full before I start to eat anything! So smaller meals, less meat, more vegies all makes sense to me. The 5:2 Diet works well, have a look at that book. Lovely veggie stir fries without added carbs such as noodles or rice are filling but light. Sometimes I add a small amount of left over chicken or some prawns but really the veggies are great on their own with some soy sauce stirred through during cooking.
Pam in Virginia said…
Hi, Jo!

What a thought-provoking post and what wonderful comments from everyone. And in your composition you have laid out a very good plan for someone desiring to transition to vegetarianism. By restricting meat to certain days/occasions you begin to train yourself to eat differently. When I became a vegetarian I cut out one type of meat, and then, when I felt comfortable no longer having that, I cut out another type, until I ate meat no longer. Then I did the same with dairy products. The only animal products that I eat now are an occasional egg or bit of honey. If you follow this path, give yourself time! It pays not to make yourself feel that you are deprived or "suffering". And have a very strong reason (reasons) for doing it.

Pam in Virginia said…

I forgot to mention how much I liked this idea: " Even the peels and stalks are worthy of saving and transforming into broth." A little less for the compost bin, but more food for us.
I also like your comment about how forcing oneself to make one's own snacks - even if it only takes 5 minutes - makes one more mindful and careful about what one is eating.

anexactinglife said…
Hi Jo, While I am not a fan of fasting, I can relate to a lot of what you say, especially as it applies to Christmas. When I was a kid, my very Catholic family kept Advent which was seen as an austere time. Christmas started only on Christmas Day and lasted until January 6. We had a Christmas concert at school and a little classroom party but nothing on the scale of today's events. When I lived in the US, it was typical for families to get together at Thanksgiving when everyone had 4 days off - because they don't have Boxing Day, they get only one day off for Christmas. So it was normal to put up Christmas trees, lights and decor around November 25 and keep it up for a month! In Canada it is typical to start Christmas shopping after Nov 11 (Remembrance/Veterans Day) although many wait until December 1. With the escalation of the commercial Christmas "season," we have treats at work every day from about Dec 1 onward, and special Christmas parties/dinners at every level of every organization, both work and volunteer. Being festive is practically a full time job! By December 25 I am tired of it all. So many people now take down their Christmas trees by Jan 1, or some even Dec 26! Really, I enjoyed everything so much more when there was such a thing as restraint. And when Christmas was the beginning of the season instead of the end.
Jo said…
Fran, it's a bit of a cliche, but it is quite empowering to have to be creative and make do with what you have, to live a good life with less. I know you are masters of the art..

Tracy, yes, to the 'no easy food', except fruit of course, nature's great snack, and what would we do without it. I find my children now are great short order cooks, as they whip up fruit and yoghurt and smoothies and eggs any way.. but, oh, the dishes..

Gretchen Joanna, you describe our Christmas season perfectly! Christmas Eve should absolutely be simple and calm for sanity. I am thinking a very quiet Nicoise salad (it will be way too hot for oyster stew here..) Like you I am interested in history (which as it applies to Europe, is basically Church history, and I love the way the Church year balances itself as it swings through the seasons.

Linda, I recently went out to a Thai restaurant with a friend of mine who eats paleo and she ordered a stir fry without the rice, so I did too, just because, and it was lovely, as you say, light and satisfying. I will be serving some up at home, especially at lunch with all the garden greens, and maybe an egg pancake..

Pam, our family eats vegetarian at least half the time now, and I'm not sure that they have actually noticed! I still do love a meal with meat, but it is generally a smallish amount of meat with a mound of vegies. It feels much easier to digest, both physically and ethically.. and reverence for food I think is an important value - what we respect we are not going to waste..

Dar, there is more than one type of fasting, and I hear you on the advisability of a fast from the excesses of the Christmas season.. and doesn't it seem to go on and on. It goes on for months here in Australia. Which as ou say, makes us all a bit tired of it by Dec 25.

Anonymous said…
Merry Christmas andca happy new year, Jo. I just went back on previous post to see your response to my comments. Andcfound I hadn't commented. What!!! I had in my mind. Surely I transcribed thoughts into text!?! Sometimes I think about doing something and then think I have actually done it. Helpful when it comes to horrid tasks.

Anyway, while not actually fasting, the idea that we restrict special foods makes special foods all the more special. If we forge all the time, then not only do we (and we are) get fat, but special foods lose the sense that they are treats. And thus we lose that sense of fun and joy and anticipation.

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