While Lenten practices have evolved and changed over the millennia, Christianity joins other world religions with a season of fasting and penance.
As someone who loves food and thinks about it frequently, Lent is an important part of the year for me. Irrespective of religious convictions and traditions, fasting (or abstaining from certain foods) puts food into a perspective that’s often overlooked. First, it reminds me of the hunger that many people experience daily, the nearly one billion people who face each day without knowing if they will have adequate food or nutrition. We who love food and have food security have to address inequities and policies that prevent all people from having adequate nutrition. Second, fasting connects us to older agricultural rhythms of seasonality; as so many restaurants advertise their seasonal menus, fasting reminds us of “the season of hunger” that spring represented in earlier, agricultural communities. This is the time when winter provisions were beginning to run out and nothing could be harvested. Depending on where you live, we're still weeks away from planting fava beans, peas, and other early spring greens. Third, fasting sensitizes our bodies to the contradictions of how much we want for our bodies and what they really need.
Me, I'm a fanatic for baked goods and sweets. I love pastry, doughnuts, chocolate, and almost every other dessert. I’m a daily consumer. So, every Lent I give up all sweets, pastry, and desserts. No doughnut with my coffee, no ice cream after dinner, no crème caramel or pound cake on the weekends. It's really hard for me, and every day I’m confronted by my hunger for a danish or a piece of cake. My family now expects me to give these things up each year, as if it’s already decided. But the reality is that each day of Lent I think about food in its absence, and I’m reminded of Patience Gray’s wonderful book, Honey from a weed, in which she writes about the fasts that precede feasts. In this country of enormous supermarkets and food that’s processed beyond recognition, fasting connects food to the body and helps us remember both the nutritional and ritualistic roles that food plays in our lives.