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Baran-Unland: Why food – or its lack – part of the Lenten season

Denise M. Baran-Unland
Denise M. Baran-Unland

"I have seen two of my great-uncles, both serious, sober men, half swoon with joy when they saw the first slice cut from a ham, or a pate disembowelled, on Easter Day."

I first read this quote by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in a cookbook my mother had given me for Christmas 1985: "A Continual Feast. A Cookbook to Celebrate the Joys of Family & Faith throughout the Christian Year" and it was written by Evelyn Birge Vitz.

The day after I received the cookbook (now in pieces due to so much use) I learned I was expecting my third child.

But my mother had bought it for me because I was already using food as a means to introduce my kids – at the time two and eight months (with the baby just starting on solid food) with the concept of keeping the liturgical year in all its feasts and fasts.

Interspersed among the pages were quotes about food and various food traditions associated with Eastern and Western liturgical calendars. I learned how keeping a Lenten fast in parts of Europe was, at one time, fairly easy to do because no one sold "flesh" foods until after Easter.

In fact, Vitz told one humorous tale of rabbits being "rebaptized" as fish, so great did people feel the privation. Still, people did keep some fairly austere fasts, which many Eastern Orthodox still keep: no meat, eggs and dairy products until Easter.

Thus, the swooning of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's uncles.

There's lots of theories about why people fast from certain foods during Lent ("giving up" something for Christ, self-discipline) and why fish is exempt (Biblical examples, economy, fish is cold, as opposed to warm-blooded).

And the Bible has plenty of verse about why and when people fasted and the types of fasting acceptable to God, such as this one from Isaiah:

"Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? "Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?"

For health reasons, I don't keep the strict dietary fast anymore. But it's also hard to find substitutes for it. I'm a fan of the "discipline" camp because I've seen the results. For instance, I have found it's easier to control the words coming out of your mouth once you learn how to control the types of food you put into it.

The the first week and a half is easy. We feel good about our choices, perhaps a little too good. Then week two passes and steak – and milk chocolate – and cheese – never seemed so tempting.

Once when my older children were small, we heard a seminarian at a local Catholic church talk about why he disliked Lent. At his particular seminary, pancakes were served in abundance, and he disliked pancakes.

Then he quipped with a smile, "I do, however, like Belgium waffles."

On the way home, I asked my oldest son, who was about 9 at the time, which was better to eat during Lent: half a hamburger or a three big platefuls of lentil stew?

Sometimes, the greater asceticism is not about abstaining all together, but eating a little and then stopping. For people who love chocolate ice cream, it's hard to taste a spoonful and call it quits.

There's an indescribable fullness to Easter when the fast is broken and soul and appetite rejoice together.

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