Thanksgiving gave me occasion to think about feasts, fasts & normalcy. It wasn't much of a feast this year, as I'm armchair-quarterbacking and my mom is waiting on a knee replacement. I am not allowed to stand for long (cooking = standing) and she shouldn't. My son did well in his learning, my husband and daughter stood up and helped... but my memory is filled with proper feasting, and this was a simple family dinner. That is fine, the last few years have been full of simple things standing in for big celebrations. Sometimes the absence of the thing that one is supposed to be observing makes the observation sharper. And time to sit and think is invariably valuable. When celebration time comes 'round again, I will be ready. Celebrations are owed...
I am heartily tired of sitting and thinking these things through - but it is well enough, it's a spaghetti monster of confusion. Our culture doesn't lend itself to clarity of thought when it comes to consumption. Modernity is utterly broken when it comes to food. We're all at sixes and sevens. So let us talk of feasts, fasts and normalcy.
Feasts are our special days. You're supposed to eat special things on feast days. Eat your fill, and then some. Whenever I hear someone advising moderation on a feast day, I want to throw a bun at their head. That's not the purpose of feast days - and in a properly ordered life, overindulgence on a feast doesn't affect your health*. It's not the feast that's out of proportion - it's your normal life.
Feasts aren't supposed to be every day, or even every week. They aren't supposed to be the same. It is right and proper that feasts should have different centerpieces. They should be different, not just from normal life, but from one another. What we do now is find reasons to feast all too often, and then the act of feasting stops being special. It's also what sets you up for dietary failure - if every day is cake and champagne, the cake stops being so sweet, the champagne no longer tickles your nose, and your insulin sensitivity gets wrecked. The only thing happy is your tongue.. and your grocer/baker/sommelier.
A feast is a celebration. Feast days should be celebrated not merely at the dinner table, but in other ways. We are to set apart feast days. In this way, modernity has most profoundly deserted the feast day. Our melange of cultures, while beautiful in its own right, has left us without an understanding of "how to celebrate". Shall I do it this way or this other? Sometimes we end up sitting the whole thing out. And then the feast day becomes simply a meal.
One of the nicest ways to celebrate is by bringing people together who do not ordinarily see one another. It is this interaction that helps create a celebration. If you are a guest at a feast, you are helping create the festive atmosphere - act accordingly! Feast days are meant to be celebrated in community. Food-sharing is one of the primal bits of glue that holds society together. Potlucks aren't "less-than" - they're community builders! And this is where the melange of cultures becomes its most beautiful - as we move through other celebrations as guests, we gain appreciation for different reasons to celebrate and different ways of celebration. Just clue the guests in on what's expected, please.
But each type of feast is proper in its own right - not every festival is a potluck. Sometimes one hosts a special night to honor someone or some event. We need patterns and differentiation between feasts, just as we do between feasts, fasts and normalcy. Birthdays and Christmas may be, in my family, only a few weeks apart - but one doesn't celebrate them the same way! Nor should you.
Humans need feasts to be human. We need a time to come together over the table and break bread, to laugh, to share drink, to dance. Feasts are the bright lights in our gustatory lives. We feast not for our bodies, but for our hearts.
Fasts are not the opposite of feasts as one might think, because like a feast, a fast should be a special occasion. Fasting is a time set apart for the work of self-discipline and contemplation. Properly, it is a reset of one's priorities, placing the will over the body. Most religions have a tradtion of fasting, either cyclically or as needed. This is because a soul left at the whims of the body is a childish, weakened thing, fit for no spiritual work whatsoever.
Unfortunately, although fasting is a part of all traditional religions, modern practice has left fasting behind. Full days of fasting became abstention from a particular food group, then that abstention became less and less, until we can feel virtue for giving up a minor luxury. It is not what is abstained from that gives the spiritual discipline worth, it is the reordering of will over body, spirit over flesh. Every culture that fasts exempts children, pregnant/lactating women, and the infirm from some if not all fasting. This is because their bodies must be stewarded, and that discipline of being left out is in itself a discipline. (I'm not at all enjoying my enforced rest - I would much rather have been on my feet all of yesterday cooking a feast, and my appetite in this time of healing is preposterous, even as my clothing fits just as it did). So, it is not "what" but "that it is a challenge", when one contemplates the metaphysical benefits of the fast.
But the body, like the soul, benefits from a fast. Ketosis (which can be entered into simply by not eating at all) benefits the digestion, the immune system, the mind. Many people find themselves able to enter into much deeper concentration and hold higher levels of energy on a fast. I expect that as we continue to investigate scientifically, we'll find more bodily benefits from food restriction. After the period of adjustment, the body responds to being put in its proper place with gratitude.
A fast can be a time to set one's mind in order, it can be a time to get right with God (in repentance, in petition), it can be a time to reset one's bodily cravings so that they are in right order. But a fast is not forever. We must eat, and a never-ending fast would lose its meaning. Feasts, fasts and normalcy are all part of life.
And thus to "how then shall we live"? Take heart, my friends. I am not going to give you yet another prescriptive. I have gleaned some wisdom over 50 years, which I shall share - but how shall I speak to your life when my floor is unswept? (In other words, I'm not a slim maiden with perfect blood sugar, and I'm not going to pretend to be someone I'm not or speak ex cathedra).
First, what is normalcy? It is that state that is neither fast nor feast. The dieters want to make the fasts "normal" and the gluttons want to make "everyday special". Neither is the way forward. I've been on extremely restrictive diets, both long term and short. The result? Well, the long-term restrictive diet was helpful while I was on it.. but otherwise, one greedily returns to all that one foreswore. Normalcy is not meant to be void of gustatory pleasure. Neither is it supposed to be cake and roast beast for breakfast.
These are the things that I have learned, whether or not I practice it as I ought:
- Processed food that your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize is almost invariably something you should avoid eating. If you like it, add it to your festive spread. This includes GMOs, meat from animals in CAFO feeding lots, boxed items with ingredients with too many syllables and intentionally indigestible items. You may eat items that someone else's great-grandmother ate, especially if she was from another culture. It's all about "pre-1930".
- Less sugar = More Better. I like sugar. Sugar is not our friend and great-great-great grandma didn't eat very much of it. We all know it. The list of "this isn't awesome" is very, very long. Figure out how "less sugar" can integrate in your diet while not turning your normalcy into a fast. I have recommendations - read on.
- More veggies = More Better. For a few months of that long-term diet, I was asked to eat a really insane amount of vegetables. It was about 10 servings or more a day. PILES of vegetables. Enough vegetables that the first week was physically uncomfortable. I have never felt better in my life (after my stomach figured out what to do with all that roughage). I had so much energy. I felt insanely healthy. Research suggests that we really can't eat too much fiber. I looove veggies and I don't eat as many of them as I did back then - veggie mountains aren't "quick and easy". Eating like that takes work. Work I am looking forward to as I return to health next year.
- Ancestral diets are worth looking into. PROPER ancestral diets, before we started exchanging foods quite so much. (Medieval is a good aim). This is not as a fast, not even as a total prescriptive, it just gives you a starting point. We have blended our lives to the point that I hear all about the evils of dairy, when my ancestors ate it at virtually every meal. Oh, I've done Whole 30, and while wheat isn't exactly a bosom buddy, my family insists I never go off of whole-fat milk products ever again. The point is that while most of the world doesn't have the gene to digest dairy products, I do. So, I'm feeding me (and my family, who share my genes) on normal days, and therefore knowing what my folk ate back in the day is useful. There are plenty of folk whose digestion is well suited to a diet heavy on grains, fruits and very light indeed on meat and animal fat. Let's support one another rather than squabbling.
- Fermented foods and use of herbs and spices is much more important than we think, and reintegrating as much of both as possible is only to our benefit. More mushrooms would also benefit us tremendously. These highly flavorful elements make a poor diet for abstention - how restricted do you feel when savoring pesto and chimmichurri sauce? Normal diets, full of nutrition, aren't meant to be fasts.
I am preparing, lounging on my couch, to move forward and find a new normal. An invalid's extremely odd diet isn't business as usual, and when I tried to eat "normally" it didn't work out well. So where do I start with my "new normal"? That normal won't be a restrictive diet. Before I challenge myself to retake ground lost to circumstance, I need to establish a baseline. A "normal" I can live with, a "normal" I can return to. It's not good for me to move between restriction and "everyday is special". Too many of us can sing that song, and our metabolisms are much the worse. We lost the concept of "feasts, fasts and normalcy" and fell on our faces. It's time to pick ourselves up.
I need a healthy diet with a bit of fun. Perhaps I might cut the sugar out of most of my diet and leave myself a bit of jam with afternoon tea? Weekdays have one sort of breakfast, weekends quite another. How many veggies can I squeeze in? What kind of rituals can I set up to honor the pattern of my life, my energy needs, and what I know to be healthiest for my body? It's worth my while to contemplate - I only get one body for this lifetime.
After I find "normal" again, I can return to fasting and relearn that discipline and enjoy the fruits of the peace it brings. Only after I find "normal" again, and search out that which exceeds it, will feasts be restored to their meaning. I've learned quite a lot from the years that have gone by, and as much from the celebrations that missed the mark as the ones that were nearly perfect. For now, for this season of feasting, I will eat a bite and a sup and I will wait......... but you don't have to.
So to you I ask, what is your concept of feasts, fasts and normalcy? How can you bring all three to their fullest flower in your life?
*I'm not talking about people with diabetes or special diets. They must, regrettably, monitor themselves at all times. I'm talking about the "everybodys".