28 June: Saints and Sinners

A little bread—a crust—a crumb—

A little trust—a demijohn—

Can keep the soul alive—

Not portly, mind! but breathing—warm—

Conscious—as old Napoleon,

The night before the Crown!

‘A little bread – a crust – a crumb’ by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

The summer gets a bit thin festival wise, and there wasn’t anything in the schedule this week that really appealed. On top of that it’s getting frantically busy here. I’m getting ready for three events that I’m involved in at the forthcoming Penzance Literary Festival – of which more in a week or two, I’m trying to complete a quilt cover before a friend’s baby arrives, and he sure won’t wait! I’ve been doing some final editing and cooking for ‘Cornish Feasts and Festivals’ and I’ve decided to try and lose some weight. 

I think talking of diets and weight loss is as boring as eating rice cakes (the culinary equivalent of a ceiling tile) so don’t worry, I’m not going to inflict that on on you. However our relationship with what we eat interests me profoundly, and diet (as opposed to diet-ing) is very much on my mind.

I’ve written a bit about fasting before - http://feastsandfestivals.blogspot.co.uk/2010/03/lenten-fast.html
and also about some notable saints who have made fasting their peculiar way to divinity. St Endelliata lived on milk, St Guthlac existed on barley bread whilst living in an earth dug out and St David is supposed to have eaten only bread, herbs and water.

Then there are the really hard-core saints who not only fasted but also ate horrible things as a way of showing the power of the mind over the body; St Catherine of Siena was one. Look it up if you have a strong stomach – it has no place in a food blog. It's easy to jump to the conclusion that all this saintly fasting was anorexia nervosa by another name. But there is a serious distinction between fasting and anorexia.  Eventually with anorexia, the mind becomes helpless against the body’s refusal of food. On the other hand, the practice of religious fasting is to show the triumph of the mind over sinful matter. That said, I think that one can definitely lead to the other, St Margaret of Cortona said ‘I want to die of starvation to satiate the poor’. A sensible religious would say that at the point where the body takes over, fasting becomes the indulgence and eating is the saintly thing to do. St Margaret does look rather skinny in this painting by Hugo Van der Goes which is part of the Portinari Altarpiece done in 1475 - nice frock though.

Karen Armstrong in her book 'Through the Narrow Gate' talks about the way that in her convent in the 1960s, food was seen by all the nuns as a way of mortifying the flesh. You were supposed to force yourself to eat two helpings of things you hated, or more bizarrely to spoil the taste of things you loved, by over or under salting them. When forced to eat macaroni cheese, a thing Armstrong loathed, her subsequent vomiting was seen as a sign of weakness and indulgence.

It is important to understand why these holy people inflicted this type of punishment on their bodies.  They believed that it was a way to share in the suffering of Christ, a way to experience ecstasy and divine revelation, a way to expiate not only their own sin but also the sins of others. We might condemn the behaviour as being personally harmful and a bit barmy, but it is important to understand the belief that lay behind it.  Actually to be truthful, I would have given them a serious talking to and say if you are that concerned about the sins of the world, get your sleeves rolled up and do something practical to help.

But the Church’s odd relationship with the flesh is still causing problems today, and it mirrors the mind’s ambivalent relationship with the body.  If you believe as the the Church does, that human beings are inherently sinful, then doing anything that pleases the body such eating, drinking and having sex becomes an easy target for religious disapproval. It’s much harder to start tackling the arms trade, child labour or global warming and it's easier to condemn what people do in their private lives, rather than what they do in their civic ones. Sorry! I’ll get off my hobby horse now.

Anorexia nervosa is commonly portrayed in the media as a modern phenomena, but actually it isn’t. It may be that the modern obsession we have with perfect body image is a new cause, but the disease itself is ancient. Whether it be the bored and constrained Victorian maiden, the Regency beauty with her dampened muslin gowns or the mediaeval nun mortifying her ‘sinful’ flesh, they all resist the body’s call for wholesome nourishment. And moderate wholesome nourishment is what we should be aiming for, not just for ourselves but for everyone on the planet.

So - speaking of wholesome nourishment, there was fresh garlic in my local greengrocer's today.

Jasmine rice with smoked tofu, fresh garlic and and peas

200g pack smoked tofu 
About 1/4 a head of fresh garlic finely sliced (or two fat cloves of ordinary garlic)
Three spring onions chopped on a slant
1/2 a red chilli
1tbsp light oil, I used my usual cold pressed rape seed
1 cupful of cooked peas 
120g wholemeal jasmine rice
1tbsp tamari and 2tsp sesame oil
Small handful of chopped mint
1tbsp chopped pistachios
(serves 2)

Cook the rice and keep warm in the lidded pan. Lightly stir fry the garlic and chopped chilli in a little oil until just soft but not coloured, add the spring onions, diced tofu and the peas to the pan and warm through. Tip into the rice pan, add the tamari and sesame oil and fork through. Put into a serving dish and garnish with the pistachios and finally the mint which makes the whole thing sing.
Simple and soothing.

TO what a cumbersome unwieldiness
And burdenous corpulence my love had grown,
But that I did, to make it less,
And keep it in proportion,
Give it a diet, made it feed upon
That which love worst endures, discretion....

From 'Love's Diet' by John Donne (1572-1631)


Jo said...

This looks absolutely lovely Liz! And as my increasingly sedentary lifestyle is also causing too many pounds to go on, you've inspired me to have a bit of a dietary overhaul. Not in a 'Holy Anorexia' way of course (check out Rudolph Bell's book). XXX

Marmaduke Scarlet said...

I too am now inspired to follow your example (since I am finding it harder to see my feet!) but not in a ceiling tile way either (still laughing at that one!). Love the simplicity of this recipe.

Actually I had some plain rice last night with a little leftover veggie curry and I had forgotten just how much I like rice!

thecatalanway said...

Me too! Sitting on the beach this afternoon and looking at my stomach wobble I thought - ENOUGH! ANd I happen to have smoked tofu in the fridge and some resh garlic and mint and some left over rice. so this will be dinner. Oh this land of cakes and coffee shops - can mind win over matter? I seriously doubt it ...so I think I will be taking the exercise route K x

janice15 said...

This looks wonderful, I have recently been struggling with my weight...as before I did not...I think I have been in a depression mode. But I'm trying to fight my way out...eating less junk and more better and less food...in moderation I think its called lol...lovely post Happy Tuesday with love Janice

Liz Woods said...

Oh gosh we're all at it then. I think the key thing is to not get bored, to eat deliciously and elegantly and lightly..in a my body is a temple kind of way without going the whole hog - literally! More soon.

Love and blessings to all...

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