Garden Diary

Friday, January 20, 2006

Happy Ending

At the end of The Wonder Worker Alice has overcome her food addiction; finding confidence in her abilities and respect and love within her social circle has made the need for anesthetizing herself far less urgent. The healing she wondered about in the quote below had, of course, only begun; by the end of the novel, it was greatly progressed. Healing, such as she experienced in Howatch's story never finishes of course--it is a lifelong process in which God makes right what has gone wrong, where the mountains are leveled and the valleys filled in. The seemingly bottomless valley of self-hatred and despair for the future which Alice tried to fill with food and its comforts has been made a straight way by a healing.

And of course, it happened without directly attacking her eating habits, which were only a minor part of her problem, and were more in the line of symptoms than causes. This is not unusual; the way to solve a problem often lies in addressing a deeper problem that may not be obvious at all.

But what of the food that is, in a novel with a Cordon Bleu cook as a central character, a main feature? All that talk of roasts, puddings, has me wondering where to find the recipes for these dishes. When I find them, I'll report back.

I read a different series of books, by Patrick O'Brian, last year, and food was a staple in that narrative as well. If you haven't read these books (20 finished and 1 left unfinished at the author's death) do so...they are marvellous. Someday I'm planning on going back through to make a note of all the times Maturin (a Catholic amidst a mostly Anglican crowd) turns into a church or monastery to listen to and rhapsodize on Gregorian chant. The movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is also great. The burial at sea scene, with the crew reciting (in toto) the Our Father is a moving moment.

Fortunately, for those interested in things culinary, a pair of authors decided to track down the recipes for all of the dishes mentioned in the Aubrey/Maturin books like Master and Commander and The Far Side of the World (despite the movie title, these are two different volumes, 1 and 10 respectively) and have published them in the book Lobscouse and Spotted Dog. This past weekend I decided to make the eponymous Spotted Dog, which is a boiled pudding. The resulting pudding (which is nothing like what we Americans call a pudding) is something like a sweet raisin bread. It has something in common with Irish Soda Bread (which was originally cooked in a pot over a fire, but without the boiling). We enjoyed it at home with creme anglaise, and I brought some in for my coworkers who also enjoyed it. Here's the recipe:

4 cups flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. baking soda
1 cup currants
1/2 pound beef suet
2 eggs (slightly beaten)
1 cup milk

Mix the dry ingredients together, making sure to separate the currants. Grate the suet (cleaned of any connective tissue or meat) and mix with the other dry ingredients. Add the eggs and milk, and stir together, finishing with a light kneading on a floured surface. Put in a greased pudding mold (I used a stainless steel mixing bowl) and cover with a floured cloth (a bar towel would work, although I used cheesecloth) tied tightly with a string. Put in a pot of boiling water (with a plate at the bottom so the mold or bowl doesn't come directly into contact with the heat), cover loosely and cook for about 2 hours. Turn out on a plate and serve slices with creme anglaise, sweetened condensed milk, dulce de leche or hard sauce.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Wednesday Fast

A couple of years ago, when I first started reading about Eastern Christianity's distinctive penitential discipline, I came across the practice of fasting and abstaining on both Wednesday and Friday. This brought to mind immediately the parable of Christ about the proud Pharisee who complimented himself on his twice per week fasts. Of course, Christ himself said that when the bridegroom had been taken from his friends, that they would then fast. In the Western Church, however, this traditional weekly fast on Wednesday has fallen off the charts; most people would probably be amazed to learn it had ever been part of the regular routine of Western Christians. Yet this fast is found mentioned in the Didache and is still kept by the Eastern Church.

However, the Wednesday fast has never entirely been forgotten in the Western Church; it is remembered in those ancient fast days of the Embertides, when fasting was enjoined on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays four times yearly; and it is remembered by some liturgists and spiritual writers.

I suppose that as I learned about the penitential customs of the past, I was drawn to take a closer look at them and try to institute them in my own life. It seems the more eager some of my peers in the contemporary Church to abandon traditions, the more eager I am to take them up. And so, as a sort of New Year's resolution for 2006, I'll begin trying to keep the Wednesday fast. Using as a model the Eastern fast, this will be a day with only one meal, observing abstinence of meat, dairy and eggs. I suppose if I'm going to write about food and eating, I better keep some perspective and fasting should help with that.

The earliest reference to the Wednesday fast is in the Didache, following its teaching on baptism and the necessity of the baptismal candidate to fast for a day or two prior to his baptism. At the head of the eighth chapter we read:

Your fasts must not be identical with those of the hypocrites. They fast on Mondays and Thursdays; but you should fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.1

The fast of the hypocrites on Mondays and Thursdays would have been the twice weekly fast of pious Jews, which the Pharisee of the parable got so mixed up about. Perhaps the hypocrites mentioned are the Ebionites, Jewish Christians of the first two centuries who continued to keep the Law of Moses and in some instances, insisted on the necessity of conversion to Judaism prior to baptism.

In the Rule of St. Benedict, Wednesday as a penitential day along with Friday is listed when deciding when and how often the monks may eat:

From holy Easter till Pentecost let the brethren dine at the sixth hour and take supper in the evening. From Pentecost on, however, during the whole summer, if the monks have no work in the fields and the excess of the heat doth not interfere, let them fast on Wednesday and Friday until the ninth hour; but on the other days let them dine at the sixth hour. This sixth hour for dinner is to be continued, if they have work in the fields or the heat of the summer is great. Let the Abbot provide for this; and so let him manage and adapt everything that souls may be saved, and that what the brethren do, they may do without having a reasonable cause to murmur. From the ides of September until the beginning of Lent let them always dine at the ninth hour. During Lent, however, until Easter, let them dine in the evening. But let this evening hour be so arranged that they will not need lamp-light during their meal; but let everything be finished whilst it is still day. But at all times let the hour of meals, whether for dinner or for supper, be so arranged that everything is done by daylight.2

And more recently, The St. Dunstan Psalter mentions the Wednesday fast in passing in its Introduction to the Office:

Then, there may be said the Exhortation and General Confession (p. 243-244), especially on the penitential days (e.g. Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year; ferial days in Advent, Lent, Passiontide; Ember Days; etc.).3

1. Early Christian Fathers, Cyril C. Richardson, editor. Macmillan Publishing Company. "The Didache" p. 174.
2. The Rule of St. Benedict,, accessed on January 18, 2006.
3. Saint Dunstan's Plainsong Psalter, copyright 2002, Lancelot Andrewes Press, p. 232.

Friday, January 13, 2006

The Wonder Worker

I’m currently rereading The Wonder Worker by Susan Howatch. This is the first of her trilogy (thus far) of St. Benet’s books, which are a continuation of her six Starbridge novels.

This particular book, which narrates events in 1988, has several sections, each narrated from the point of view of one of the major characters. The main character of all three of the St. Benet’s books is Nicholas Darrow, an Anglican priest who is the narrator of one of the Starbridge books (set in 1968) who is the son of an Anglican priest, Jonathan Darrow, who was the narrator of another of the Starbridge tales (set in 1944). The Wonder Worker begins from the point of view of Alice Fletcher.

Alice has a problematic relationship with food. While she holds a Cordon Bleu and has continued to hone her skills as a cook, she also uses food as a crutch. At the beginning of the book we meet Alice as her Aunt, who has raised her since she was quite young, lies dying after a stroke. Nicholas Darrow and a doctor from the Healing Centre at St. Benet’s have visited Alice and her Aunt, and her aunt, after rallying to say a crucial farewell to Alice, which is the occasion for a deep emotional healing for both, dies the next morning. Shortly thereafter this passage occurs, and gives an snapshot of Alice’s dilemma at the opening of the novel.

Apparently my healing, such as it was, had left my compulsion to eat untouched. But what had I expected? A craving for a liquid diet of a thousand calories a day? I might fantasize about losing four stone and winding up with the ideal husband, but at heart I knew this was just a romantic dream which hadn’t a hope of coming true. I did feel a little better about myself now I knew Aunt had genuinely cared for me, but how could I ever feel more than a little better when I was still repulsively fat and likely to remain so? Stress always drove me to binge, and although I no longer had to cope with Aunt I still had to endure the strain of making a new life for myself.
I knew I needed the help Mr. Hall had suggested, but still I hesitated to phone Francie. I had taken a perverse pride for so long in struggling on alone; the struggle had given me a flicker of self-esteem, and besides, I had a horror of being a burden or a bore and putting myself in danger of further humiliating brush-offs. When I was much younger I had hoped to make friends but there seemed to be no place in the world of the thin for someone like me, and in the end I’d retreated into isolation. Loneliness was painful but at least it was silent, devoid of snide laughter and barbed comments. I was used to loneliness now. I thought of it as a chosen solitude and was only occasionally aware of being unhappy.
But this was a time when I regretted not having a friend. Picking up Mr. Hall’s card I stared at Francie’s number and told myself she wouldn’t want to hear from a fat nonentity, particularly a fat nonentity with all sorts of tiresome problems.

Alice’s problem with food is unfortunately far from rare. Her addictive pattern of binging on food is a way to deal with stress, as she recognizes in the passage above. Food can be so comforting: certain foods remind us of home or are associated with particularly happy memories, like cake with birthdays. In times of stress we can cease to regard food as the God-given gift it is to sustain life and to make us aware of the infinite beauty of the world (in the tastes, texture and presentation of food) and instead use it as a pain-killer. Alice uses food in the same way many drunkards use alcohol or many people use sex: as an analgesic.

Our society today idolizes and idealizes the thin and trim (the world of the thin in the passage above), just as it now frowns on excess drinking and smoking. If those are signs of a well-integrated, balanced personality, then they are indeed admirable. But lack of obviouis physical problems is not a guarantee of such integration. As the opening quote of chapter 1 in The Wonder Worker puts it:

We all have our favourite addictions to which we turn when we are under stress. For you it is food, while for others it can range from chemical substances to spending money or constant contact with others in order to avoid alone-ness.

Gareth Tuckwell and David Flagg
A Question of Healing