Feasting and Fasting

Why denial tastes so good

20 JANUARY 2015,
Apples and Raisins, Zena, Blic
Apples and Raisins, Zena, Blic

My TV set bombards me with images of falling, flaky pastries and chocolate cascading from whisks [1] in imaginary workshops (why so much moving food?) Every grocery store, clothing store, and pharmacy, has a box of something sweet and festive lining their displays. And worst still are the invitations to bake and eat, with friends, family, work. There is no safe space, no refuge.

I’m Ukrainian Catholic and as of November 16, it is Advent. Most people, upon hearing the word Advent, think of Advent calendars, the decoratively designed cardboard calendars for children, filled with chocolates to mark each day of December leading to Christmas. And isn’t that what December has come to mean to most people? A binge month of holiday parties and general noshing. But for those of the Eastern Christian faiths, Advent is a time of fasting. Explained by the Church as a way to prepare our souls and bodies for the coming of Jesus Christ, I’ve come to see this as the smartest holiday eating strategy. But first to the actual fasting.

The rules of the game are as follows:
1. Are you fit to fast? As long as you’re not a child, pregnant, could become pregnant, sick, or elderly, you can start.
2. What’s not ok to eat? There is no meat, no meat products, no dairy, no oil, and no fish with a backbone. So immediately, you’ve become a vegan, but also, a sober vegan, because there’s also no alcohol. Now pick up your calendar, because this is a doozy. The answer also depends on the day of the week. Tuesdays and Thursdays fish is not allowed. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday there is no oil or wine. If a Saints day happens to be a Tuesday or Thursday … I’ll stop there.

There are two times a year as an Eastern Catholic that we are seriously expected to fast, during Lent, the forty days before Easter, and during Advent; also known as the Nativity fast, the forty days before Christmas (my Christmas being Jan 7th). I had never tried to fast before, believing that it was an antiquated idea. But, that changed last spring when I became more serious about my spiritual life and was curious as to whether I could in fact, complete the forty days.

After my first day, I was feeling pretty righteous, but by seven thirty that evening I wanted to eat anything sweet and was imagining myself chugging a bottle of maple syrup or indulging in a box of chocolates that had been on the table for a week.

I craved sweets above all else. I hadn’t noticed them before they were verboten. I found ways of cheating. Dried mangos and grapes were my favourite, highly concentrated packets of natural sugar. I felt like I was on some sort of weight watchers diet of my own making. I remember reading an article about René Redzepi’s restaurant Noma, and how the kitchen restricts the use of sugar in the desserts, so much so that the palates of the chefs have become sensitized to even the slightest sweetness. I soon found that in myself. Like acquiring a superhuman palate, I tasted hidden sugar in the most mundane places, and once the fast was over, anything processed was cloying. Removing meat from my diet rarely bothered me. Many times I would look at the bounty of a meal in front of me; like roasted vegetables, almost caramelized and coated in a homemade pesto, and creamy golden polenta, and more eagerly consume dinner than before. Perhaps it is because this exercise in restriction forced me to be creative, and in so doing, pushed me out of my recipe ennui, rotating those golden oldies over and over until they too, have lost any specialness.

In order to get a better understanding of the Nativity fast, I interviewed Father Michael Winn; Professor at Saint Paul’s University in Ottawa on Eastern Christian Studies and also a priest of the Archeparchy of Winnipeg, to contextualize the situation.

Why do we fast?

Fr Michael, “Some may fast for dieting or cleansing … All cultures have a fasting aspect.” “When we say fasting, we mean two things. We mean fasting and abstinence. Abstinence means not eating a certain type of food. Fasting has to do with the reduced number or the amount you eat.” “It’s not a disregard for food that we fast. We think that it’s important. [It] plays a role, not just because it tastes good, it plays a role in relationships, in moments of gathering, so giving things up helps us realize the absence of it and the longing for [it].”

What are the foods we are and are not allowed to consume?

“There are no meat or meat products, milk, butter, and cheese, yoghurt, sour cream, buttermilk, and so forth. When it means meat, it means things with a backbone, so fish would be included in that, but octopus, would not, nor would shrimps. Also, you would not have any oil or wine. And when it says wine, it just says generally accepted wine. What does that mean? Can you have beer? I think that’s being legalistic. Wine would entail all alcoholic beverages.”

Wouldn’t people at the time of Jesus only have had wine and beer as potable drinks?

“Why would we abstain from wine, for example, if that’s something that is every day? For the same reason we would abstain from meat. Because they are good for us. People think you must hate yourself because you’re fasting. No. We actually affirm the goodness of this food and actually it shows how important that food is.”

Nearing the end of this experiment, apart from feeling full of life and energy, and noticeably a few pounds lighter, I was enjoying my break with decadence. I was looking forward eagerly to Christmas itself, when I could indulge, and really mean that. So often, food is about everything other than its actual purpose; nourishment, whether that be entertainment or an emotional substitute. Stripped down to the core, this ancient tradition taught me a lot about my modern relationship with food, and reminded me of how easily its abundance and availability is taken for granted. Like most traditions, I felt connected to the people throughout history who had practiced it, but also to the wider global population for whom food is a daily concern.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XpLtQDbnWEs