Saturday, March 12, 2011

Food, Balance, and Lent

Through the wonders of the Internet, a quote from an article written by James McWilliams for The Atlantic happened to catch my eye today: "Although culinary abstinence might sound downright depressing, if not sanctimonious in its own way, it's actually profoundly empowering...". Interestingly enough, the piece is from March 1st, just before Lenten season got under way. For many, Lent means a time of fasting, sacrifice, and abstinence-mostly in terms of food.  As McWilliams alludes to in the abovementioned quote, abstinence and sacrifice are concepts typically given a negative connotation.  However, there are many aspects of these terms that aren't as bad as they seem.

The object of fasting and abstinence isn't deprivation for it's own sake-it is to bring a balance to one's lifestyle.  According to McWilliams, "for most people food is just food", which is a concept lost on "foodies", whom he depicts as seeing food as more than what it is.  Looking from a different perspective, food is BOTH "just food" as well as something beyond.  It not only sustains our bodies, but reflect how people live.  In many respects, one's personal life and culture can be summed up on a plate. How people prepare food and what they prepare is influenced by their personal and cultural background. Case in point: pizza:-what began as a tradition brought from Italian immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries has become, to use the old cliche, "As American as Apple Pie". It thus is not only food, but a mini history lesson on the impact of Italians in American culture. Many other examples abound that go without saying.  While it's importantant to appreciate the value of food, that appreciation must be tempered with a more practical perspective.

Food is sustenance. It also speaks to where our priorities lie.  As my father used to ask me when I was younger, "Do you eat to live or live to eat"? The problem lies when one leans towards one side or the other.  That's where fasting and abstinence comes in.  In limiting the amount of food taken in and staying away from certian foods for a specific period of time, one gains a new appreciation for the other aspects of life, such as the plight of those less well of than oneself or one's connection with their family and friends. Most importantly, it teaches us about self-control, a value that permeates all areas of human existence. This is the "empowering" that McWilliams alludes to and what Lent hopes to achieve.

It's very easy to think of food as "just food".  However, food also speaks to the comprehensive nature of biology, emotion, culture, and spirit in human existence. While it is ok to enjoy food, it is in limiting its intake through fasting and abstinence where the importance of banance in life is truly learned.


James McWilliams, "B.R. Myers and the Myth of 'Sustainable' Food"

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