I am slacker, watch me eat!

17 03 2010

The mandatory official Lenten post

I once heard a quote from a conversation between Pope Paul VI and the Coptic Pope (I don’t remember which one.) When asked by the Roman Pope what he saw as the greatest barrier between his two churches, the Coptic prelate responded that he could not imagine a church that prayed and fasted so little to be an Apostolic church. This was no doubt a dig at the ascetical laxity of the West. There was a time in my life I would have agreed with him, but not anymore.

I am very fortunate to have married someone with a similar cultural background. AG’s experience of Lent growing up in greater New Orleans may not have been exactly the same as my own, but it is close enough that I can identify with it. For instead of an emphasis on Lent being an individual struggle to “be a better Christian”, of nuns standing over you forcing you to give up candy, AG’s experience is eloquently described in a recent post:

I grew up in New Orleans, and as long as I can remember, Fridays during Lent were always days that we’d go out for dinner to a nearby seafood restaurant and have po-boys. I think it’s safe to say many New Orleanians eat better on Fridays during Lent than they do any other time of the year. Sure, great seafood is available year-round here, but there’s just something about the exhortation to avoid meat on Fridays that inspires even the most devout to interpret it as a command to chow down on a $20 seafood platter, including soft-shell crab….

Then there are the church Friday Fish Frys. Our church has added a drive through service, so that you never have to leave your car to get that fried shrimp or catfish platter. My parents’ church is offering an even greater spread: an assortment of menu choices. According to my sister, you can choose from: boiled shrimp Caesar salad, grilled shrimp Caesar salad, shrimp basket, fish basket, and the seafood platter. You also have a choice of sides: macaroni and cheese, potato salad, cole slaw, green beans, sweet potato. All the choices come with hush puppies. And that’s just if your go through their “drive-through.” If you get out of your car and walk into the Church hall, you also get a drink and your choice of dessert for free. As my mom says, “there’s a lot of competition around here between the churches for Friday fish frys!” I had a suggestion: “First 50 people to Stations of the Cross get $1 off their seafood platter!” I think lots of people would like that promotion.

(I experienced this first hand as well when, going to the supermarket on Good Friday, I was greeted by a giant boat of hot seasoned crawfish and shrimp. Get behind me, Satan!)

I can’t totally identify with this, since my family sucks at cooking seafood. My mother’s side of the family comes from the landlocked state of Coahuila, and their idea of preparing fish, like their idea of preparing any dead animal to be eaten, is to cook the hell out of it. We had fried fish, but compared to what you get here in New Orleans, it might as well have been a whole other species. Truth be told, Lent was also at my house a time when your diet was only slightly altered. We had the mandatory lentils, fried fish, and fried (dried?) shrimp . There may have been some chile rellenos in there as well (not the kind get in restaurants: just a big green pepper stuff with cheese and fried. Not that appetizing.)

There was, nevertheless, the good stuff. We had a special bread pudding called capirotada, the recipe for which you can find on-line. We had another dessert whose real name escapes me, which was a fried piece of French bread stuffed with cheese and served with honey. And there was of course agua ensalada, which is what it sounds like, even to you gringos, a fruit salad water made with beet juice and any other fruit you can throw in: bananas, apples, oranges, pineapples, etc. Lent was not the outright culinary bacchanalia that it is here in New Orleans, but as a kid, it was pretty cool.

I should give the mandatory footnote here that in Spain and Spanish America, people did not abstain from meat on Fridays throughout the year (that is, assuming that they had meat, which they often didn’t). This dates back, according to some scholars, to the Reconquista and, particularly, the battle of Lepanto, when as an indult in reward for kicking Muslim ass, the Roman Pontiff dispensed the Spanish Empire from having to abstain from meat on Fridays during the year. Fridays of Lent still had to be observed, however, and that is where my mixed culinary experiences as a boy come from.

Of course, I now tire of people bitching about how Catholics fast so little, how much of slackers we are, and so on. It ain’t even a particularly theological objection I have to any of this either. It is more that any fasting discipline in an American context is not the same as it is in the “old country”. I can’t help but suspect it of being something akin to the Atkins diet or being a vegan. In other words, community really isn’t there; it is, like all things American, a matter of personal choice. I was raised in a very Catholic family, and we never spoke of “what we were giving up for Lent”. But then again, Mexican peasant Catholicism has never been particularly clerical. And I am beginning to think that most Catholicism isn’t.



13 responses

7 04 2010
Arturo Vasquez

There are differences, but for the average person, they are negligible. My ex-abbot grew up in a Greek Orthodox family. He said that they really only fasted during Holy Week. And a lot of the fasting in other stricter circumstances was completely tied to the culture. Bring it into 21st century America, and you end up having people spend more on food just because they can’t eat this-and-that. Really, is a can of Spam and a grilled cheese sandwich less penitential than scallops and sun dried tomato pasta just because the latter do not have meat or dairy in them? I really don’t think so. A lot of this stuff is just cultural. You are not re-creating 12th century Byzantium in your home; just a religious version of Whole Foods veganism.

7 04 2010

Will you share with me What changed yor thought on fasting differences between east and west?

19 03 2010
Frank Avila

also the Italians have the pepper and egg sandwich which is delicious

19 03 2010
Frank Avila

I love the food at Lent.
For most (non land locked) Mexicans it is tacos de papa, tacos de pescado, caldo de camarones, siete mares, ceviche, flautas de papa, nopales, red snapper (huachingango), sopa de mariscos, tamales with pepper and cheese, anything with cheese–panela, quesadillas

now to the Italian side:
St. Josephs Day tables, eggplant, calamari, misto di mare, pasta vongoli, fried zucchini, fried mozzarella, baked breaded eggplant, eggplant ratatoee, pasta primevera, all sorts of great salads, all sorts of breaded and baked and fried fish and vegetables, the smelts

I am not as familiar with Louisiana but it sounds great and I have to come back there again some time and really delve into the culinary treasures.
Giving up meat can be good for your health as a side benefit.

18 03 2010
Robert Thomas Llizo

“I like going to churches with mostly traditionally Orthodox families and/or old people who just don’t care anymore. There are no quibbles about this oil vs. that oil or wine vs. beer there.”


I think later today I’m going to my local Johnny Reb’s Restaurant and have myself a good po’boys sandwich, and maybe some catfish, and I may down it with some good Sam Adams. On St. Paddy’s Day, the mandatory Guiness.

18 03 2010
J.S. Bangs

Your descriptions of peasant observance of Lent is doubtlessly accurate for your own context, but I don’t think that it’s necessarily a universal of traditional catholic societies. At least, it’s not what I observed in Orthodox Romania. There most people don’t fast, but they also don’t “fasts” just by stuffing themselves with fish on the days allowed. The people that do fast tend to follow the fast pretty strictly, though of course there are traditional Lenten recipes designed to make the reduced Lenten diet as palatable as possible. What the fast means in practice is not really a reduction in the amount of food, but a steep drop in the variety, since you wind up eating the same handful of Lenten foods over and over again.

But everyone gorges themselves on the mouth-watering, gut-busting feast after the Easter Vigil.

18 03 2010
random Orthodox chick

How do we observe it (when we do)? In very very silly ways. I’m talking special cookbooks and meat substitutes, all expensive (extra money going to charity? yeah about that…). When I can, I do I like going to churches with mostly traditionally Orthodox families and/or old people who just don’t care anymore. There are no quibbles about this oil vs. that oil or wine vs. beer there.

18 03 2010

I eat better at Church during fast periods than at other times. The lure of inventiveness brings cooks out of the woodwork.

17 03 2010

Just to let you know I grew up in a very Italian Catholic family and It was not at all clerical. I would define it as devotional. We all had our devotions. I can remember long periods in which we never went to church. I was never forced to go and rarely did. But I always wore my crucifix and my miraculous metal. We always had statuary in the house and at any given time you could find someone praying a novena. What this all had to do with the very ugly churches and flaky priests I could not have begun to tell you. Catholicism for me was those devotions to the sacred heart. It was statues and images of St Anthony, the type you can find in any italian Catholic home. None of these things seemed to jive with what was going on in the churches in those days. If fact our homes seemed to me Catholic. Churches seemed alien. I have to confess they get more and more alien everyday. I raise my own children the same way, big on home devotions and light on church.

17 03 2010

Since I don’t consider stuffing my maw with shrimp, clams, scallops, crab (or shrimp po boys with red pepper remoulade, avocado, and lettuce…yum)to be all that penitential, in the past I observed vegetarianism on Fridays (during Lent and throughout the year). The funny thing was I rarely desired meat, except on Fridays when it was proscribed. How fiendish. Then I became a vegetarian so it became a question of ok, so now what? It’s not like as a modern American I’d be so likely to walk on my knees over rocks.

Even vegetarian cooking can be sumptuous. Well, I’m back to being an omnivore, and now I observe pescatarianism on Fridays only during Lent, and only because I’m “supposed” to. At this point I find it to be a silly game of trade-offs that in the end miss the point. I also think for many observant American Catholics it has a more cultural dimension to it rather than a spiritual one.

Interesting also, is that I think that a lot alternative diets and lifestyles (vegan, raw, Paleolithic, organic, green, etc) have a certain neo-orthopraxy in search of an old time religion aspect. Humans are religious creatures, even if agnostic or atheist.

17 03 2010

Well, the Church never said we have to hate our meals.

17 03 2010

You had capirotada durring Lent?

You are so lucky. I can only get my wife to make it when someone is dying. She says it’s just too much work for the living.

17 03 2010

I’m a convert to Orthodoxy and I still find Lent a very strange season. I always begin with the best of intentions which never last more than a couple of days. And I can never get a straight answer to the question, “What is the actual level of Lenten observance among American Orthodox?” In the pulpit, priests always talk as if everyone is fasting, but I have my doubts, which no one will confirm or refute. Its like its a big secret. There is an excellent cafeteria right across the street from my church, and the parking lot is just as full during Lent as during other times of the year. I suppose everyone could be eating trout almondine. But the cynic in me tends to doubt it.

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