The intersection of faith and food

19.7.10 § 0 commentarii

One of the small pleasures of being a chef (or indeed, anyone who cares about buying local, or minimising their carbon footprint), is the necessary incorporation of the seasonal cycle into one's life through food. For me, food and the seasons are inextricably linked: I eagerly await spring and early summer not just for the revivification of the land and its attendant rituals, but also for the exciting prospect of the first crop of Jersey Royals, or the beginning of the asparagus season. While every professional chef north of the Nile repeats, mantra-fashion, that he only uses the "finest, locally-sourced seasonal ingredients" to the point that it has become as much a cliché of modern cuisine as tiny portions and sliced mangoes were of that of the eighties, I do get a very deep sense of religious satisfaction from eating and cooking with local produce through the seasons.

A while ago over on Caer Feddwyd we had a discussion of food taboos, in which I unearthed a passage from Caesar's Gallic Wars about a Brittonic food taboo:

Leporem et gallinam et anserem gustare fas non putant; haec tamen alunt animi voluptatisque causa.
They do not think it lawful to eat hares, chickens and geese; however they raise them for amusement and pleasure.

As all of these animals were relatively recent introductions from the continent, I'm left wondering if this was actually a taboo as such, rather than just an unwillingness to eat a recently introduced foodstuff: after all, it took a century or so for people to start eating potatoes after they were introduced from the Americas. When it comes to meat, about my only reservation is that I won't eat carnivores. They're unclean.

A more fruitful (there is indeed a pun here) avenue for exploration to my mind is something Francis mentioned: taboos about when foodstuffs should be avoided. Like not eating pork during the summer, or as Francis says of blackberries: "don't pick or eat them after the end of September 'cos the Devil will have pissed on them". These taboos are generally based on scarcity and health reasons: essentially restricting one's diet to produce which is in season. Now, in the modern world we are afforded a bewildering luxury of choice: if I want strawberries in January, I can go out and buy them, what with them having been flown overnight from Kenya, Venezuela or wherever. Our ancestors, of course, did not have this luxury: they had no choice but to eat what the land provided. As such, restricting one's diet to seasonally appropriate foodstuffs would probably not have been seen as a religious activity, or a food taboo to our ancestors. I'm sure they would have been amazed and thrilled by the idea of strawberries at midwinter: this idea of "protecting the environment" is, alas, one we've only come to hold since we realised what we're actually doing to it. The ancients, it seems to me, viewed the environment as little more than a stockpile of raw materials.

However, we do have a choice. And with choice comes responsibility: would it really be responsible of me to buy and eat salad in February, when I know it's been flown from Africa, or grown in heated polytunnels? Knowing what the energy costs of those are, I would say no, not if I care anything for the health of the planet. As such, I only buy seasonal foods: primarily British produce, preferably from Dorset if I can. Sometimes I bend this a little: I'll allow myself to buy from European countries if absolutely necessary, but no further than that (with the exception of spices- the spice trade from India is a fine old tradition, after all!) I'm lucky enough to work for a company which takes its produce seriously: virtually everything I cook with at work is sourced either from here in the UK or from Ireland. I won't even drink New World wines (and not just because I believe that wine travels well).

Naturally, even buying locally I try to be careful. Eggs from free-range hens, and free-range organic meat wherever possible. This drives up the cost of food, particularly meat, but I believe firmly that we no longer respect meat as should. A chicken should be a treat, not the default choice when imagination fails.

Not only does this make me feel wonderfully smug about doing my bit for the environment (I bask in the tacit approval of the Independent here), but it also makes me feel more in touch with my ancestors: I am trying to live my life as they did, suitably adapted to the modern age. This, of course, is the whole rationale behind reconstructionism.

What's this?

You are currently reading The intersection of faith and food at logodædalus.


§ Leave a comment: