Food for Thought

by Angela Hays

Food has been a very important part of my life. Almost every social occasion has put food front and center. From the boiled custard at Christmas to the little ham rolls I always wanted at my wedding reception, food has been an integral part of my family’s traditions.

To this day every time I smell gingerbread, I am taken back to our annual venture to Williamsburg. The testing of the potato salad — “No, I think it needs a little more mustard…” — is as much a part of summer as swimming pools and family vacations. And we’ve all heard how there’s nothing more American than mom and apple pie. Food and tradition are often inseparable.

Now that I’m Orthodox, I’m trying to re-invent some of those food traditions in my family. Christmas Eve dinner has gone, but continuing the Nativity celebration until Theophany has been a new joy. Making the Pascha bread on Holy Saturday is also a new family tradition.

Adding the feasts into my life as an Orthodox Christian was not hard at all. I love the fellowship and good food of our frequent potlucks. The fasting, however, was a far different story. Although I have been on many “diets” in my life, fasting was completely foreign to me.

No meat, no dairy! You’ve got to be kidding!

Four years ago, my husband, Brent, and I embraced Orthodoxy. My husband learned about the Church through discussions with friends at law school and much study. I thought, at the time, it was a mere intellectual pursuit. Much to my surprise, he announced to me one day that he thought we should consider becoming Orthodox. I was perfectly happy in my nice, charismatic Protestant church. It took me months to warm up to the idea.

Just as I was starting to get accustomed to Orthodox services, I was hit with a huge bombshell. I needed to fix meals that contained no meat and no dairy for almost half of the year, if you count Wednesdays, Fridays, and the four major fasts of the year. Did I have even one recipe that met those criteria? Although our priest was quite understanding and didn’t push us to do too much too quickly, I still spent a lot of time and energy trying to find recipes that would fit the bill.

My husband has always been a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy, and I’m a rather picky eater myself. I didn’t start eating salads until college and my repertoire of vegetables is still somewhat slim. We once joked that our kids wouldn’t know what green beans were until they went to school! What in the world would I fix for us to eat?

All of the Orthodox cookbooks that I found had tons of recipes that met the guidelines, but they all sounded foreign and weird. I have since learned that I love hummus and other traditional fasting foods, but at the time, I was quite frustrated. The vegetarian cookbooks I found at the bookstore were full of recipes with tofu, alfalfa sprouts and other things my husband calls “fru-fru foods”. Plus, they often contained dairy products. When I happened to run across a vegan — no animal products of any kind — cookbook, those recipes really sounded weird to us. It was food for granola-crunching, tree-hugger types, we’d say. (By the way, we now have some granola-crunching, tree-hugger types as very good friends.)

After several years of poring through cookbooks and collecting recipes from friends, I finally had a half-dozen or so things I could fix on fasting days — pasta with tomato sauce, Mexican rice and chips, baked beans and French fries. My mom also had the brilliant idea of giving us a bread machine for Christmas. She knew I’d be willing to try just about anything for dinner if I had some good bread to go with it.

Why We Orthodox Christians Fast

Fasting is not often something we want to do, but it is most certainly something that we are commanded to do. Since fasting, especially the Orthodox view of it, was totally foreign to me, I have had a lot to learn.

An Orthodox Navy chaplain attached to the little OCA parish in Virginia where my husband and I were Chrismated, Fr. Paul Pyrch, always reminded his parishioners that the Great Fast is not about “tasty Lenten recipes”. If we spent all our time thinking about food, it is a wasted effort.

Fr. Ted Panchek at the same parish taught that the most important thing we fast from is sin. He also encouraged us to turn off our televisions and radios during fasts. For some people a media fast is even more important than a food fast. It helps us to focus our attention back on God. As St. Theodore the Studite said, “While fasting, let us purify our hearts, sanctify our souls, and trample down all vices.”

As Fr. Steven Rogers, my priest at St. Ignatius Antiochian Orthodox Church in Franklin, Tennessee, explains in the introduction to Taste and See: American Orthodox Cooking:

We are commanded to. Christ did not say, “If you fast…” but said, “When you fast…” (Matthew 6:16). Christ Himself, who is our model in all things, fasted before being tempted by the devil in the wilderness (Matthew 4:2).

Fasting teaches us to control our bodily appetites rather than to be controlled by them. By controlling our physical appetites, we become aware of the spiritual struggle. We can “set our mind on the things above, not the things on the earth.” (Colossians 3:2)

Fasting reminds us of our dependence on God, “that every good and perfect gift cometh from above and cometh down from the Father of Lights…” (James 1:17 and contained in the Divine Liturgy).

Finally, fasting allows us to participate in the sufferings of Christ. “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me…” (Matthew 16:24).

Fasting Tips

Once again, I want to stress I am not an expert on fasting. In fact, I’m still learning daily. I want, however, to share some of the things I have learned, usually the hard way.

Prepare, prepare, prepare. Recently I went through the sudden loss of a very dear pet. I was completely devastated. The day he was killed, I really wanted my comfort food — macaroni and cheese. I didn’t even want the creamy stuff you get at a restaurant. I wanted the 3-boxes-for-a-dollar variety that was my favorite food as a child.

Problem was, it was a Wednesday. As much as I really wanted the mac and cheese, I was able to resist the temptation because I had a fasting alternative that was just as easy to fix. I couldn’t handle fixing anything from scratch. I couldn’t even handle making a sandwich. But I was able to boil some water and add it to a dry soup mix. A few minutes later I had lunch. If I had not had that soup mix on hand and in the front of my pantry, I don’t know if I could have resisted the temptation.

Preparation is an important key to fasting. Make sure you have some ready-made or easy-to-fix meals in the house at all times. I especially like to prepare a few meals in advance for Holy Week and the first week of the Great Fast. It’s more tempting to miss a service or two during those busy weeks if you can’t figure out what to fix for dinner.

It’s also a good idea to have something that you can grab quickly for a fasting potluck. Sure you wanted to share your new recipe for vegetarian chili, but life got busy. You don’t want to miss that special service just because you don’t have anything to take to the potluck afterwards. My favorite grab-and-go item is frozen miniature bagels with apple butter. They keep through a whole fasting period, and it takes no time at all to put them onto a platter. Almost instantly, I’m ready to go.

Keep it simple. Times of fasting should not be times of stress, but changing the way your family eats can be a very real source of stress. Try to plan simple foods for your meals, prepared relatively quickly and, hopefully, cheaply.

We are supposed to be devoting more time to prayer and almsgiving and less time to food preparation. If we are constantly making elaborate meals that trick our taste buds from thinking that we are fasting, we are, in a way, defeating the purpose of the fast. A few favorite side dishes work very well as a meal. As I mentioned before, vegetarian baked beans and French fries are often a fasting meal for us.

Check your attitude. Judgmentalism, pride, and resentment are all major pitfalls to our fasting efforts. As St. John Chrysostom stated, “It is folly to abstain all day long from food, but fail to abstain from sin and selfishness.”

The more we judge others in their fasting, the harder it is for us to fast. “Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats, for God has received him. Who are you to judge another’s servant?” (Romans 14:3-4)

We’re also supposed to keep our fasting to ourselves. We’re not to wear it as a badge of honor. “But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.” (Matthew 6:17-18)

By the end of a fasting period, I know I often have a problem with resentment. On my weakest days, I can get mad at God because He won’t “let me” have ice cream. That is completely the wrong attitude to have. Fasting is a tool to our spiritual development. It should not be a barrier between God and us. “Accept the fast,” said St. John Chrysostom, “as an experienced educator by whom the Church teaches us piety.”

Be sure to also teach your kids the correct attitude towards fasting, by word and example. A friend of mine was at a restaurant on a fasting day. She was questioning the waitress if there was meat in a certain dish. Her child felt the need to explain to the waitress the situation. “We’re Christians,” he said. “We don’t eat meat.” Needless to say, my friend had a bit of explaining to do.

Pray for Guidance. If you are having trouble fasting, prayer is your first tool. St. Augustine said, “Do what you can and then pray that God will give you the power to do what you cannot.”

Fasting is never easy. As St. Mark the Ascetic said, “Living a chaste Christian life is sometimes more difficult than suffering a martyr’s death.”

But fasting does have its rewards. Since I have been Orthodox and fasting on a regular basis, God has shown me several major sins in my life, including gluttony, which I had always ignored or excused. I haven’t conquered those sins yet, but God has given me His grace and the tool of fasting. I’m slowly, but surely, making some progress.

“To yield and give in to our sinful desires is the lowest form of slavery,” said St. Justin Martyr. “To rule over such base desires in the only true freedom.”

Another Resource…

I know I’m not the only one who has been through the ordeal of learning to fast and to cook for the fasts. In fact, when my husband and I moved from Virginia to Tennessee we started attending St. Ignatius Antiochian Orthodox Church in Franklin, Tennessee — a predominately convert parish where many of the ladies had similar experiences.

We decided to put together a cookbook of recipes that conformed to standard Orthodox fasting guidelines, yet were simple to prepare and appealed to an “American” palate. We took our search for recipes to the Internet and collected more than 370 recipes from 21 parishes across the United States and even overseas. We found fasting recipes for everything from apple pie to Frito pie (a southern tradition of combining chili with corn chips, recipe included in this issue!); we even have a fasting recipe for hushpuppies!

Our cookbook is entitled Taste & See: American Orthodox Cooking. We have been amazed at the response: we were not alone in our desire to have an American Orthodox cookbook! There were hundreds of other Orthodox Christians looking for a cookbook just like this.

To order a Taste & See cookbook, write to St. Ignatius Antiochian Orthodox Church AOCWNA, 4671 Peytonsville Road, Franklin, TN 37064. Make your check/MO payable for $19 ($15 + $4 shipping & handling) to “St. Ignatius Antiochian Orthodox Church”. Though the goal of this project is to help our fellow Orthodox cooks prepare stress-free meals during fasting periods, proceeds from the cookbook are used for various charity projects, including the support of an orphanage and a crisis pregnancy center.

The ladies of St. Ignatius pray Taste & See is a blessing to everyone who has it. We pray it minimizes their time thinking about food during fasting periods and maximizes their time outside the kitchen serving the Lord.