9 June 2019
On a recent trip to the library I came across an intriguing cook book. It was not just a collection of recipes but a history of cook books dating back centuries. Each recipe was preceded by historical context which provided fascinating insights into how people lived. What most interested me was how many of the recipes from that time were separated into feast and fast days. On fast days, no terrestrial (land based) animal products could be eaten. On feast days there was no such restriction. The church dictated which days were for feasting and fasting, and people complied. One rule that stood out to me was that no eggs could be consumed for 40 days prior to Easter. Then at the traditional Easter festival, eggs featured both metaphorically and literally—the egg became an object of desire, in part, because of its absence. Decorating the eggs with paint and dyes built anticipation before the feast was enjoyed together among family and friends. It is no coincidence that eggs are abundant in traditional Greek and Italian Easter recipes.
Reflecting upon my own experience with celebratory meals, last Christmas I travelled with my wife and toddler to my in-law’s hobby farm. We drank lots of wine and ate too much meat. By the time Christmas day rolled around, I wasn’t all that hungry. I of course ate, and ate, and then had thirds, but a meal of meat and vegetables felt less special than it should have. What was missing was the fast to give the feast meaning, otherwise the feast becomes close to just another day.
Five hundred years ago religions were powerful and food was expensive. Absence was practiced not so much with will, but because of strong external factors. The strongest influence in today’s culture is marketing from large corporations, not religion. And so at Easter most people celebrate with eggs made of chocolate that can be purchased from the supermarket on the night before the celebration. There are no rules in place instructing us to abstain from sugar for 40 days prior to Easter, or even to abstain from eating the celebratory chocolate before the egg hunt. Why does a rabbit deliver chocolate eggs at Easter? The cynical answer is that chocolate eggs have far higher profit margins than chicken eggs. I’m not suggesting that religion presents a better story, but we’ve lost much in the transition to the modern way.
There is nothing stopping us from building our own traditions; fasting is no longer dictated but we can choose to do it with our own willpower. This task is made ever more difficult by the prevalence of affordable food and the encouragement to consume it. But, it is possible. When Feast Day arrives it will be that much more special to know that you and your family have sacrificed something for it. Through this process we come to appreciate that what we already have is special and that we don’t need to continually strive for more.