Thursday, March 2, 2017

Six Weeks of Self Discipline

Lent officially began yesterday. It's a season of fasting and moderation. The length of this Lenten fast was established in the 4th century as 46 days (40 days, plus 6 Sundays). Forty having other historical and religious significance, with Lent probably having roots in pagan ritual. The season of Lent I grew up with meant you were to eat sparingly or perhaps give up a particular food or habit, maybe give up smoking or quit watching television or eating candy or telling lies. You can search the history of Lent and come up with numerous definitions and meanings, understood differently in different geographic areas and different time periods. Basically, though, it's six weeks of self-discipline and self-control, a time of prayer, a time to start again, a time to become closer to God or the Divine. When I was a kid, though, the idea of giving something up during Lent was temporary and once Easter came it was back to usual. Give up candy? Well, on Easter you got a huge basket including the biggest chocolate bunny my parents could find. Hopefully solid, too, not one of those cheap hollow chocolate bunnies. That huge basket of candy only proved that giving up candy for a short while was rewarded big time later on. Abstaining from meat traditionally also linked us to the poor, who could rarely afford it. So, the purpose of abstaining from certain foods, especially meat, was seen as a spiritual link to those whose diets were sparse and simple. 

But giving something up without changing behavior means you haven't really learned anything at all.
This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own. Isaiah 58:6-7
I'm not overly religious or biblically-based, but, as I've mentioned in a previous post, I do feel drawn to observing in my own way certain traditions I was brought up in (no matter where the true roots lie). So here I was, once again, wondering how to observe Lent. I was leaning more toward the idea of spiritual renewal rather than giving up any particular food. Although fasting could also mean fasting from a behavior and not necessarily a food.

Should I blog about it?? Should I give up a particular food anyway?? Then I realized that I've really neglected this blog and a lot has passed since I last posted anything. I type slowly, reflecting on each word, each sentence: is what I’m writing of any interest; is it informative and/or witty, or just another rant; do I need a photo; does the recipe work and is it easy to understand. At the rate I go, a blog post can take me hours, sometimes even a few days. Or, like it did this time, years. Life has a way of getting hectic, but I was taking notes and photos and jotting down ideas. Then we shifted food gears and everything I was working on became moot. So what food I give up for Lent might not make any sense, because, hey, we already gave up meat, fish, eggs, dairy. 

Shortly after the post about the Wonderbag, in January 2015, we decided to quit eating meat. Again. Rick and I have been vegetarians on and off since our high school years. I especially remember the stuffed eggplant we made back then; I can’t remember how long we kept it up, though. I do know that going to college ended it for a time. Living in Texas for a bit after college was also a pretty big meat eating era. I gained 20 lbs. from eating “chicken fried” steak constantly. It took me years, and running up to 40 miles a week, to work that weight off. Anyway, our decision to go vegetarian again was sometime after we got married in June 1979. Rick and I were still living in our first apartment here in New York and we were grocery shopping. I can’t remember specifically what meats were in our cart, except a half pound of salami since it’s my all time favorite. While on the check-out line, Rick picked up a magazine and was reading about CAFO farms and the brutal treatment of the animals. By the time we got back to our apartment, we had decided to ditch the meat. I gathered up all we had, including that salami, drove to my parent’s house, and handed it all over to my mom.

I’m not sure how long we stayed on a vegetarian diet or when we started to “slip up” that time, but it was somewhere around 17 years. Who takes note of things like that really? Life happens. That number sticks in my head because I recall someone asking me “but don’t you miss steak?” and I have this vague memory of responding that I hadn’t eaten a steak in 17 years and, no, I didn’t miss it. Our daughters, even with their younger brains and better memories, can’t remember when meat started sneaking back into our diet. It was a lot of little things. Traveling to perform with our family band and having to eat while “on the road” often meant McDonald’s. As much as we otherwise avoid McDonald’s and condemn it, when you have a car full of equipment and instruments, it’s a quick easy place to stop for cheap fast food while being able to keep an eye on the car. Sometimes we were hosted by a family when we traveled, so we ate whatever they cooked for us. I also remember family gatherings where the assortment of food was an enticement, and distinctly remember the first hamburger I ate again at my brother’s backyard barbecue. Or my mom sneaking me a piece of lamb at my aunt & uncle’s 50th wedding anniversary, so proud of herself because she remembered how I loved it as a kid. We had this dual identity going for a while: no meat at home, but we often had some when not at home, until gradually we started adding it more and more into our daily diet.

Whenever I start to think about food on a more esoteric level I tend to do research on my southern Italian roots. My mom’s family is from a small town outside Bari, Italy. When meat started sneaking back into our diet I looked into the food culture of Puglia, the region that includes Bari. Bari lies on the Adriatic coast, and is an important fishing area, so the diet offers a wide range of fresh fish. Here on Long Island, fishing also has a long history. My mom recalls eating mostly vegetables, grains, beans, fish, and only occasionally meat. Meat being something saved for a holiday or when guests came over. So, okay, I decided we’d eat like my Italian ancestors, including meat only once in the while, fish more often. The first time I bought chicken cutlet I wore those clear surgical gloves while cutting it up because I was so grossed out by the feel of raw chicken. Why that didn’t stop me from keeping meat in the diet, I don’t know. But, again, as life would have it, once the decision was made to include certain foods, and because life was always chaotic with homeschooling, performing, and driving children around to a zillion activities — basketball, soccer, dance class, gymnastics, music lessons, etc. — dinner became whatever I could manage on any given night. The slide went further and the next thing you know, chicken was part of three or four meals a week, beef one or two, fish maybe only once. And it was easy to quit thinking of it as having been a live animal and instead just a hunk of something you buy all nicely packaged at the store, just another ingredient in the meal. Dissociation. 

Flash forward to January 2015. Rick and I had been reading on the issue of food again for a few years, but focusing this time on topics such as eating local vs. eating organic, eating “humanely raised” meat, buying eggs from supposedly cage-free chickens, fermenting foods, making our own cheese, creating healthy soil in the garden, using solar to cook (Sun Oven) or the Wonderbag to save electricity, etc. I had been also researching the idea of la cucina povera — the poor kitchen, or how to eat well, but cheaply — ever since Rick closed his photolab. It made eating based on barely any income sound romantic rather than based in poverty. It was inevitable, though, that we’d work our way back to vegetarianism eventually. One bit of information leads to another and another …

Rick watched as many documentaries as he could find on the treatment of animals raised for food. I watched along. He was also having an ongoing discussion with an old friend who was vegan. Out went meat, but we left in fish as we had done in the past. Dairy and eggs were also still a part of the diet. Rick was never a fan of milk, although he did love cheese. Dairy always bothered his stomach and eating pizza often left him with a night of agony. Many of the documentaries we were watching weren’t just about the big CAFO farms and the inhumane treatment of animals headed for the meat you put on the table, but about the problems with the treatment of dairy cows and the chickens raised for egg production. Rick felt vindicated for always having insisted that dairy was for you, not just from a health standpoint, but because of the treatment of the animals. Eight months later, in August 2015, Rick eliminated dairy from his diet. At the time of his decision, I had just made a half gallon milk’s worth of fresh homemade yogurt, we had an unopened gallon of milk, and some freshly made feta cheese. Rather than waste it, Annalee and I continued eating the yogurt. I used the milk to keep up our kefir, and she and I ate the feta in salads. Once the milk was gone, the yogurt was gone, and the feta was gone, I sadly quit feeding the kefir and joined Rick in the no-dairy decision. Annalee took a bit longer, but eventually decided to also stop having been convinced no dairy might alleviate some of her menstrual problems and allergies. Armed with the knowledge of what was being done to the animals, we couldn’t justify the continued consumption of dairy or eggs any more than we could condone eating meat.

On September 6, 2015, we had a gig at the Bethel Woods Performing Arts Center. It was a long and early drive up, and a long drive home. We got Erica back to her apartment around 7:00 p.m. and decided we were pretty hungry. We picked up her boyfriend and went out for sushi rather than continue on home. During the meal, Rick began telling them about his reasons for cutting meat and dairy out of his diet. Erica has always been a softie when it comes to animal welfare; we often attended the Clearwater Music Festival when the girls were young and she used to drag us around to all the booths so she could sign petitions to end animal cruelty. Watch a sad movie or read a sad story involving humans and she didn’t have much reaction, but if it involved animals she would be sobbing hysterically. It didn’t take much to convince her to quit eating meat and dairy. But, hey, we’d just had sushi!

Once again, I went back to reading up on food from Puglia. Besides all the fresh vegetables, pasta, and beans they eat, this time I thought, hmmm, maybe we’ll keep in some of the fish they seem to eat a lot of, which includes clams, oysters, mussels, and anchovies. Clams, oysters, and mussels have historical significance on Long Island also. Anchovy consumption was recently found to be a factor in longevity. And there's the vitamin B12 problem. Humans need vitamin B12, which we can get that by eating shellfish. There are non-dairy milks and cereals fortified with B12, nutritional yeast with B12, but if you’re not into taking supplements then clams and oysters seemed like they ought to be left in a healthy diet. And anchovies will lead me to long life. Right?

But … there’s always a but … in April 2016 we watched yet another documentary — a TED talk by oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle — on the oceans and the depletion of the world’s fish, so out went fish, too. I think, ethically, once you know all the facts about animal cruelty in the food industry, and depletion of the oceans, a vegan diet becomes a no-brainer. Whether humans were meant to be vegan or not isn’t really relevant in the argument. What is relevant is that it’s about compassion and ethics and the environment. We’re not primitive people living in caves and hunting mastodons to survive; we get in our cars and drive to the grocery store. We don’t need to raise animals solely for food causing lives of horrific suffering. I don’t think a vegan diet can apply to all areas of the world, but in this country it should.

This site has a list of what they consider the top ten vegan documentary films that will inspire you to quit eating meat (including the two mentioned above). Rather than list them all, head over here and follow the links for those ten films. Rick’s favorite of the documentaries was Forks Over Knives. Maybe give it a try during this season of Lent.

Reflecting on the quote from Isaiah I think there exists a strong biblical message for the freeing of those who are oppressed and that includes animals. This is a link to a well-written article on the Christian basis for veganism.

Life is a journey and this is where we've been led over the past two years. As for Lent, well, instead of giving up a particular food I think I'll keep a journal on gratitude.