Sunday, November 18, 2007

52 Weeks Down - Week 27 - Feast...Thoughtfully.

All around Almanzo were cakes and pies of every kind, and he was
so hungry he could have eaten them all. But he dared not touch even
a crumb.

At last he and father got places at the log table in the dining room.
Everyone was merry, talking and laughing, but Almanzo simply ate.
He ate ham and chicken and turkey and dressing and cranberry jelly;
he ate potatoes and gravy, succotash, baked beans and boiled beans
and onions, and white bread and rye'n'injun bread, and sweet pickles
and jam and preserves. Then he drew a long breath, and he ate pie.

When he began to eat pie, he wished he had eaten nothing else. He ate
a pieces of pumpkin pie and a piece of custard pie, and he ate almost a
piece of vinegar pie. He tried a piece of mince pie, but could not finish
it. He just couldn't do it. There were berry pies and cream pies and
vinegar pies and raisin pies, but he could not eat any more.
-_Farmer Boy_ by Laura Ingalls Wilder

If you've read what I had to say about pie last month, you'll not be surprised to know that this is one of my favorite passages in all of Wilder's wonderful books. The glorious descriptions of food and eating in "Farmer Boy" stand in stark contrast to Laura's own childhood, which included a winter of starvation and long periods of limited diet. It has been suggested that the reason the food sections of "Farmer Boy" are so glorious is because of this stark contrast, because of Laura's envy of her husband's wonderful dinners.

But even Almanzo's marvellous farm meals came in the context of a daily life that was spare by modern standards. The average family used only a few pounds of sugar a year - we now eat over a hundred pounds of sweetener per person. And Almanzo's luxury meals also were built around days spent doing heavy manual farm work. That is, part of what is so glo about the description above is that it is pleasure with no hint of shame - there is no reason to feel bad about pie in the context of a life of hard work and few sweets and fats.

I know that I cannot be the only environmentalist carrying a few extra pounds around, but it is one of those little things that we don't talk a whole lot about. That is, when we talk about equal food for everyone, we very rarely own up to our own deficiencies in the "eating only a fair share" department. I, unfortunately, cannot as easily approach feast days without a little guilt - and how often do we say these things to one another "Oh, I really shouldn' we take another bite."

Now Thanksgiving (for us Americans), and heading hard into the winter holidays is a terrible, terrible time to start a diet and since I pretty much make it a firm policy not to advise anyone to do anything I'm not prepared to do, I wish to be clear I don't want anyone to start one. I'm looking forwards to home grown turkey and pumpkin pie just like everyone else.

And that's appropriate - feasting is a good thing. It is important - there should be times in our lives when we live lushly, when we rejoice in full larders and the pleasures of excess. I may be into energy related austerity, but I'm all for sensual pleasures and the delights of communal festivity. There should be times when the food and the wine flow without restraint.

The problem is that we in the west live in a place that is always in feast mode, almost always without restraint. We can eat what was once a month's work of luxury foods in a single meal at a chain restaurant, we can have whatever we want, whenever we want. We live in a culture where it is hard to tell feast days apart from ordinary ones - except, perhaps that in many homes Thanksgiving is the one time in a year anyone eats a root vegetable that isn't a french fry and the one time a year anyone cooks from scratch.

So far be it from me to discourage any of us from feasting. But the thing that I am trying to bring home to myself is this - just as seasonal eating represents an increase in pure sensual delight, a new found pleasure in eating things when they are at their peak, and only then, so would greater restraint make my moments of feasting more pleasurable. That is, I would enjoy my feasts without the slightest hint of discomfort if I ate less the rest of the time, if my current meals were a bit more austere.

And doing so would be both just and fiscally sound - the reality is that many of us eat more than we need to and more of the rich, luxurious fats and sweets that are supposed to be an occasional treat. One of my own goals, as we come out of the feasting season, and into the quieter, leaner times of winter, is not so much to lose weight (although that would be good) or eat less, but to derive more pleasure from what I do eat, that is, to feast thoroughly and fully with great pleasure and no discomfort, and then, in the ordinary days in between, to eat less and appreciate the beauty and simplicity of my food, and the way that simpler meals with less fat and sweet and salt, more vegetables, greens, beans and grains, are both delightful in themselves, and a way of heightening the pleasure of our feasting days.




Anonymous said...

Ive gotten into the habit of having a monthly 24 hour fast. I use the new moon as a reminder and pick a quiet day to take off heavy yard work.
Most traditional cultures had a regular cycle of feasting *and* fasting. I think it is really beneficial for the digestion and the metabolism, plus I think it readjusts your sense of appetite so that you don't forget what actual hunger feels like.

Green Bean said...

Ohhh, I love those passages from Farmer Boy. I also enjoyed the ones from Laura's life where they ate simple meals and really savored them. You are so right. We get to the point that there is nothing special about Thanksgiving because we have all that food available to us whenever we want anyway.

Karen said...

Isn't it strange when you read someone else commenting on pretty much exactly what had been going through your head for a couple of days? Food can be such an issue for me, and most everyone I know. If I can be so prudent in so many other ways, then what is my particular catch with food...I certainly take more than my fair share in that department. Especially the with sugar, I have come to recognize myself as an addict. *sigh* With the holidays on us, when it practically rains sugar from the sky, I am aiming for moderation, and real enjoyment instead of just stuffing my face.

I also keep thinking this may be the last holiday season where we can afford such extravagent meals, as the price of everything goes up and up. We should enjoy our food in a mindful, reverent way.

Wendy said...

This is one of the reasons the local diet is so important to me - it kind of challenges me to eat in season, which means our diet is really limited to what we've managed to preserve. Sure, we could "cheat" and buy all kinds of things from the grocery store, but who would we be cheating?

We will be spending this season being truly thankful for the many blessings in our life and the wonderful bounty of our local food shed, and the "season" will be kicked off in grand style with our 100% all Maine food Thanksgiving Day Feast. I'm looking forward to it :), and while there won't be any pie of any kind on the menu, we're hoping the apple bread-pudding with hard cider recipe we found turns out to be good.

Tess said...

I also enjoyed the wonderful energy of the descriptions from Farmer Boy.

This issue of food is an important one. I've eaten as much organic as possible for year, but the last couple of weeks I've been cutting way down on the amount of animal products I eat. Initially this was to lose weight (and I have been) but I've been surprised how much clearer-headed and energetic I've felt.

Jessica at Bwlchyrhyd said...

I have been vaguely saying this for some time now -- thank you for putting it much more articulately than I ever can!

RAS said...

I grew up in poverty as deep as Laura Ingalls, and there were lots of times when food was in very short supply. I vividly recall going to bed with my tummy rumbling more often than not as a kid. I read all the other Little House books back then, but I could never get into Farmer Boy because the descriptions of food made me cry. As an adult I've had a real problem with food; I'm not overweight but I have a problem not finishing food, not using up leftovers, and even before I got into the whole climate change/peak oil issue, I was a real food hoarder. If I didn't have a month of food in the house (except for non-perishables) I felt and feel a real panic. Not it's more like 6 months to a year.

In the end, it may turn out to be a good thing. It might just save my butt.

RAS said...

oh yeah, check this out:

Deb G said...

This made me smile. I was eating an orange the other day (my choice for my out of state treat) and thinking about the passage in Little House in the Big Woods about getting an orange in the Christmas stocking and what a treat it was. I have to confess that I've never thought about how much I like oranges until they became the treat item.

As someone who fights weight issues, I've thought a lot about sweets needing to be a food for celebrations, not for everyday eating. Sharon is quite right about them becoming every day food in our society. One of the things that I've been really thankful about with the 90% project is that I've returned to something like an orange becoming a treat. I've also lost 20 pounds since I sold my car and started walking/busing!

Anonymous said...

My husband and I started a 100-mile diet Nov. 1. We're both finding that the good local fresh foods are more satisfying, in smaller quantities, than industrial food. "Feast" is more than just a table groaning with food; I've found it can be a modest portion of really tasty local freshly-cooked foods. We'll have a Colorado-grown heritage turkey, mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes grown at our CSA, winter greens, and pumpkin pudding with local pumpkin, milk, cream and eggs. I haven't found a local source of flour, so no piecrust yet.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody. I'm thankful I've found Sharon's blog. It has changed my life.

--Lynnet from Colorado

Heather G said...

Good post! And although we rarely eat out anymore (and when we do, it's the local pizza place - independent, and better for it), I thought it might be worth posting what I used to do when we frequented restaurants more often (what happens all too easily when you're overbusy and commute to work)... and a few thoughts on feasts...

Restaurants typically serve overlarge portions because people who go away hungry usually don't come back -- and they tell their friends. Raised like many folks not to leave food on the plate (there are children starving in X -- um, how does this help them?), I usually tried to eat everything. On the other hand, in some cultures you're supposed to leave a little food on the plate to indicate that they have been good hosts and have served enough food....

So, I started doing one of two things:

1) I ordered a meal, separated about half of it to one side of the plate and ate only half. The other half came home in a box for a second meal. I gave an approximation on the halves because some things really don't reheat well, and you can always add some veggies at home if the half that came home is a little light for a meal.

2) I ordered something off the appetizers/soup/salad menus. Something I could actually finish and not be overfull. Useful if you won't be home soon and you don't have a cooler with you.

Just a couple of thoughts for those folks who are still eating out.

We do something like this at holidays too, because there's always too much food. At Thanksgiving all the leftovers are bagged/containerized, and whatever our usual hostess isn't keeping for the kids, goes with other family members. Since my SIL who hosts is diabetic, we all especially make sure to take any extra sweet/carb stuff. Stuffing freezes well too, so it isn't like you have to eat it right away. We do have a problem with too many pies (everyone has their own favs), so I'm thinking that next year I may bring a container with me to put a few slices into -- I just can't eat that much sugar at once! (yes, next year -- we celebrated this past Saturday. Thursday I'll be at home, recovering from arthroscopic procedure on my right shoulder).

At Christmas we go to a friend's house, and her mother always makes tons of different types of cookies and also fudge. There's an expectation you'll take some home (kind of a holiday gift as it were), so we do... but it takes quite a long while for us to eat them. Again, these foods can be frozen or chilled to last longer, so there's no "need" to eat it all at once.

my two cents,
Heather G

Amelia said...

Thanksgiving has become so emotionally fraught for me that this year we're doing chicken curry and watching whatever marathon the Discovery Channel is running.

I've been thinking about the oft-quoted statistic that the average person in Cuba lost 20 pounds after the withdrawal of support from the Soviet Union. 20 pounds would put me just this side of the "unhealthy weight" numbers by BMI; I wouldn't enjoy it, but I've been that thin before and could still function. DH could spare 40 easily; DS, not an ounce.

Anonymous said...

My sons loved "Farmer Boy." They read it repeatedly on their own at ages 5 and 8. My younger son was an early reader.

Yes, it's so discouraging and sad to see most people in our empire culture feasting (generally with factory farmed animals/meats and refined carbohydrates) three times a day, seven days a week and then acquiring the diseases of decadent queens and kings of the past -- obesity, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, heart disease, cancer, etc.

Thanksgiving has become for the most part a commercial celebration where people find an excuse to pig out.

My family does not really celebrate Thanksgiving per se, with the exception that it's a day off work for my husband and older son so my husband and I usually cook something special. This time we're having an organic eclectic "menu" of portabella mushroom, black beans Cuban style, Yucca with lots of garlic, brown rice, steamed collards, and salad. We only indulge in desert a few times per year. I'll be making a vegan pumpkin pie with soft tofu (yummy!).

On another note, a Native American friend of ours despises Thanksgiving. He says that it's an American celebration of the genocide of Native Americans. I tend to agree.

Poor turkeys!

~Vegan/Leaving So. FL

Anonymous said...

"Thanksgiving has become for the most part a commercial celebration where people find an excuse to pig out."

Interesting, it actually seems the opposite to me: that Thanksgiving has real meaning and is a family/harvest/feast oriented holiday fairly immune (thus far) to commercial stuff. I like it all the better for this reason.

homebrewlibrarian said...

I've been reading Barbara Kingsolver's book _Animal, Vegetable, Miracle_ and just this morning read her section on Thanksgiving. After having spent considerable energy growing food to last them the rest of the year and succeeding, Thanksgiving to her and her family was a celebration of true thanks. She is unashamedly fond of Thanksgiving as a harvest holiday and reading her explanation of all that it means nearly brings tears to my eyes. In the context of a harvest festival, I feel it's totally appropriate to feast outrageously.

As for appreciating every meal, last night I made a very local supper of latkes with applesauce. The potatoes had come from the CSA as had the onions, the kefir I added was made from local milk (okay, the tiny amounts of baking powder, flour and salt weren't local) and the applesauce was a delightful surprise from last year's canning of local apples I had harvested while living in Wisconsin. These were cooked in schmaltz (fat rendered from local chickens). I invited a friend over and all I can say is that we were brimming with happiness from so simple a meal. He'd never had latkes before and wasn't sure if he liked them better with or without applesauce but decided it was all good.

While I can't say that I'm always this appreciative of every meal, I give thanks for being able to feed myself simply and regularly. Eating locally and seasonally makes it easier to enjoy the food the nourishes myself and my friends.

Kerri who hasn't eaten at a fast food place in many years but once a week dines at a slow food restaurant (owned and operated locally!)

Anonymous said...

Aren't the Little House books marvelous? I remember one episode where Mary pushed away her chair from the fire, stating she was "too warm." And Laura wrote, "What a marvelous thing to be too warm." That sentence always reminds me not to take heating and food for granted.

For a number of years, I didn't celebrate Thanksgiving. I was single and far apart from family, so to me it was really just a long weekend from work to chill out. After I got married in my late thirties, Thanksgiving became more important, particularly since I moved to the UK where it isn't celebrated. I have had great fun introducing these American customs to my British relatives. Everything on my table is from my garden or the local farmer's marketanyhow, so Thanksgiving was a chance to make a feast out of all this lovely food and to share it with my family. The best bit is that there is no American football to suffer through on the television! Have a splendid Thanksgiving Sharon.

Best wishes,

Anna Marie

Jessica at Bwlchyrhyd said...

Anna Marie --

Hello from another American in the UK -- I am about to start cooking for Thanksgiving tomorrow -- we are having our meal on Saturday because all my British friends have to work on Thursday. I have been making Thanksgiving here in the UK for about 6 years now and my British friends really like it!

just ducky said...

Please forgive my sense of humor...but when I read your post, unlike the others that reminisced over the fond memories of Laura Ingalls Wilder books, all I could think of was you telling me "Hey fatty! Put down the cupcake!". (Now, I'm not being modest when I say that I'm really sadly incredibly please no one scold me on the use of the word 'fatty'. My size has 'earned' me the right to say it.)

Of course, I absolutely agree with the message in your post. If we saved the treats/desserts for truly special celebrations--it would mean so much more to us. I keep trying to tell my children that dessert is a privilege and not a right. The constitution did not state life, liberty, and the pursuit of chocolate...

Maeve said...

I think of Laura Ingalls in Indian Territory, being stunned into silence over receiving her -very own- tin cup AND a shiny penny, and a pretty cake. How many of us would be truly grateful to receive such a gift? And how many of us would be sorely disappointed?

I am grateful for Thanksgiving. It is a time for me to count my blessings, to have a feast, and to be with family.

I, the Queen of the stove-top casserole, seldom cook feasts. So when I do, we all enjoy it fully and without guilt. :) I'm personally looking forward to dinner on Thursday, with a wild turkey, and some homemade pie.

Anonymous said...

Thought Prof. Robert Jensen's essay "No Thanks to Thanksgiving" might be of interest:

~Vegan/Leaving So. FL

Annette said...

Hate to put the damper on the fond remembrances of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books because I enjoyed them as a child too. However, when I looked at them for my own children, I was absolutely appalled at the racist depiction of Indians in Little House on the Prairie, so much so that I decided against introducing them to my own children.

Karen said...

Hmmmm.... not to start an off topic debate, but the racist remarks and attitudes in those books sparked many an important discussion in my house about why people used to feel that way, and why we know better now. It became a valuable learning tool. That is honestly the way many people believed back then, and probably some folks now. I won't shelter my kids from it, they need to be exposed to it to understand it. IMO.

Annette said...

Well, my kids are African-American, and believe me, they didn't need books to learn about racism - they experienced it first-hand as children and continue to as adults. Racism is definitely NOT a thing of the past - it is alive and well and still ugly in America, as anyone with non-European friends or family could tell you. Its one thing to provide children with books which explore the topic of racism "Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry" leaps immediately to mind - and quite another, in my opinion, to provide books which are blatantly racist. I'm afraid "Little House on the Prairie" falls into the latter category. We do vote with our dollars. I won't shop at evil Wal-mart, and I won't buy children's books that have a blatantly racist point of view.

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