Common Wisdom: Fast Foods

Each year as Ash Wednesday approaches, I page through my food-stained copy of Evelyn Birge Vitz’s wonderful cookbook of the liturgical year, A Continual Feast. A friend gave it to me when it came out in 1985 (Ignatius Press now carries it), but it stood pristine and unopened on my kitchen shelf for two years before I searched it for some feastday recipe, and came back for more.

You may be surprised to learn that Lent fills a substantial chapter in this book, but those who must cook for others during fast-days will see the point.

Lent is a time for self-deprivation, however gingerly we moderns approach it. It offers the occasion to wean the body away from food of certain kinds, quantities, or qualities. Too often we close our eyes to what it means to be a creature: to be Someone else’s idea, brought into being for reasons we do not wholly understand and for purposes that may not wholly coincide with our desires or our foolish reckonings of our own good.

Fasting and other categories of doing-without force us to recognize our dependence, our duty to bow down before our Creator and consult His will at every step in our life’s journey. It was, after all, Adam and Eve’s failure to abstain from the fruit of a certain tree that led us to the foot of the cross. And partaking of another kind of meal, at Mass, brings us into bodily contact with our Lord and our God.

We are bodies and souls, both of which need to be fed. Our physical lives depend upon food and drink. Seasons of fast and abstinence are reminders that God not only brought us into being in our mother’s womb but sustains us, moment by moment, day by day. A Christian can assent to this notion with comparative ease, but it is spectacularly difficult for most of us to live. Those who succeed in doing so are called saints.

In recent years our Church has specified comparatively few days of relatively limited fasting, leaving it up to us to exceed these modest proposals as generously as we can. But these things get complicated in the kitchen.

For it is one thing to impose hardships upon oneself, or accept them from God and His Church. It is another to impose them upon one’s nearest and dearest. If you are the cook, you do not want glum looks and groans to greet your efforts. This is human nature, and no modern innovation in psychology. It is documented by all those tasty Lenten and fast-day recipes dreamed up by long-dead cooks under much more stringent circumstances than our own.

Consider one of my favorites: “Maltese almond cakes.” These use lots of slivered almonds and grated citrus rind and spices combined with flour and water to make a dessert that will not call attention to the required Lenten absence of butter and eggs. The French contribute tasty seafood tarts, the Mediterranean countries have wonderful soups, and for snack food there is of course the pretzel, which once was reserved for Lent.

So there is an historic tension in these seasons of deprivation. Though nothing in our family’s way of life approaches the rigor of a medieval monastery, I feel some kinship with monastic cooks throughout the ages who strove through charity and perhaps a little vanity to make Lent palatable but not excessively so.

Americans seeking an authentic route to self-denial also “suffer” from the great strides made in the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables in winter, and the nutritionists’ war on red meat. I often have to think twice about making Fridays meatless not because I crave steaks but because I enjoy fish and pasta so much that it isn’t a sacrifice to place them on the menu. Now the fishcakes of my childhood — ah, they made you realize how far you had descended down the scale of edibles from ham or chicken or roast beef.

Some foods were, so to speak, hallowed by custom and memory for Friday’s use. Egg salad sandwiches, however tasty, belonged to no other day. Macaroni and cheese retain a Friday flavor for me, and spaghetti with meatless sauce. Perhaps it was easier to recognize the penitential purpose of certain foods because the menu of possible items was so short.

So are we suffering today? Not nearly enough for the good of our souls, judging from the standards of pre-modern Christians. As things now stand, neither Church discipline nor local custom propel us towards true austerity.

But those Lenten practices that remain, augmented as best we can, are worthwhile signs of our membership in a Church traveling the yearly road from Ash Wednesday to Easter. They are reminders of the season we are in and the other efforts at renewal we should be attempting.

Past generations of aspiring ascetics ran the risk of spiritual pride. Most of us are laughably far from their situation, and the comparison can only help us to achieve the humility that underlies all spiritual progress. Meanwhile, as we inch through these 40 days, we can turn the cookbook pages ahead to roast lamb and those luscious Easter breads.


  • Ellen Wilson Fielding

    Ellen Wilson Fielding is a writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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