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..