A Feast Recollected During the Fast

A Feast Recollected During the Fast

At my overpriced market cabbage was sixteen cents a pound recently.  Sixteen cents!  Time to stock up, clearly.

But really, how much cabbage can one actually use?  How many dishes can you make out of it?

This blue light special on cabbage brought to mind a wonderful feast of cabbage rolls my family had this winter with some friends from our Orthodox church.

I have to explain a bit about my church.  Originally it was filled with converts, former Protestants who heeded the strange siren song of Eastern Orthodoxy.  There have also always been many inquirers, curious gawkers who come in once, feel something magnetic about this unfamiliar, non-Western worship, and find it difficult to leave, but never jump in all the way.  In recent years we have also been welcoming many ethnic Orthodox from Orthodox jurisdictions all over the world.  We have a couple of Greeks.  We have Arabs.  We get the occasional Copt from Egypt.  Russians too.   The biggest group of immigrant Orthodox in our church right now seems to be Romanians.

It's a pretty diverse and wonderful place to be.  There is so much to learn from everyone.

An adult convert myself, I will always find Orthodoxy endlessly fascinating, a deep well where you never hear the pebble hit the water, something not quite fully knowable and a little intimidating, a little scary.  I don't think I'll ever get over that slightly outsider feeling, that sense that there are only more mysteries behind the things I finally think I figure out.

One thing I figure out in layers is the Great Fast.  We're in the waning days of that right now, also called Great Lent, or just Lent.  For the Orthodox the fast is no meat, no dairy, no wine, and in certain circles, no oil, every day for the duration of Lent.

Let me just say right here that this fast is not fun, and by now it has gotten a little old.  There are a lot of dishes one can cook within these parameters--hello, veganism?--but as an omnivore I find it boring and tedious week in, week out.

The fast is about a lot of things--it's about self-discipline; it's about cutting down on my own consumption and sharing my resources with others; it's about living within boring and tedious parameters joyfully, thankfully; and it's about confronting the reality that sometimes I have no interest in self-discipline, or sharing, or joy, or parameters of any kind.  So many exercises, lessons, and truths emerge during these weeks it's positively dizzying if you pay attention.

But it's easy not to.  Very little in our daily life here, now--unless we are very poor--is about limits, deprivation, sacrifice, or discipline.  Our markets are tsunamis of abundance.  Our big box stores have everything we can think of at low low underpaid-Chinese-factory-worker prices.  Our gas stations give us expensive gas and we get cranky, but there is never a question that the gas will be there.

Where our culture does not provide us object lessons in scarcity and deprivation, our fasts step in, heroically trying to teach us what there is to learn from a pantry full of mostly lentils.

So: though we are most of the way through the fast now, most of the way toward Easter, my head is full of a feast.  I'm not sure that the recollection of a feast is the best way to bide time and encourage one's self as the energy for fasting is waning.  But I will tell the story now, and perhaps by the end we will be able to latch onto something Lenten after all.


"We were surprised when we came here that mămăligă was eaten in the American South."

Grits, she means.

Seventeen years ago Peter and Anna came from Romania to Texas as students.  The grits were one of the first unexpected things about their new home.  But cooked in the proper Romanian way, they are different than grits.  The proper Romanian way requires a lengthy bout of constant stirring to keep the cornmeal from sticking in the pot.  "I cheat," says Anna, as she prepares the dish for our meal.  Mămăligă is always eaten with cabbage rolls.  She's brought some water to a boil and pours in a little slug of olive oil.  "My grandmother wouldn't use olive oil.  She would just stir."  Anna pantomimes the job, imaginary cast iron pot between her feet, a long stirring stick like a 3-foot, heavy dowel going in great circles, back hunched.  Grandmother would do this for a half hour without ceasing. Then when it was done, solid and hard, she would dump out the pot on a plate and cut slices with a string.

She may not use her grandmother's method but she's still picky when it comes to the right spoon.  She pulls open a drawer filled with wooden spoons, each one unique.  I comment that her spoons are--what else is there to say?--beautiful.  "I only use spoons from home.  We get them when we go back. They're hand carved."  She sifts through them carefully, looking for the right length, the right bowl shape, and chooses one to begin her cheating preparation.

"You have to be stirring the boiling water as you slowly pour in the corn meal.  I put in a teaspoon or two of salt.  And if I've put in too much corn meal, I pour a little more boiling water in to thin it."  The boiling and stirring takes longer than I would have thought.  As she stirs, Anna tells me things.

When they came to Chicago after Texas, they had a baby.  As time passed and the family grew, they sought a Romanian nanny.  Though Anna and her husband are southern Romanians, the nanny they found is a northerner.

These are really two different cultures.  The southern half of the country has more Orthodox and has seen less US immigration.  The north, while still an Orthodox-majority region, has more Protestants and Catholics, and more emigres to the US.  Southerners own a food culture that leans Mediterranean, the north tending more German.  Where southern cooking would use tomatoes, northern uses heavy sauces and sour cream.

Their northern nanny began to cook for the family using her own recipes, and over the years as she began to take on more of the cooking duties, the children grew to want only the nanny's northern dishes.

That nanny, Teodora, is quite a cook.  She and Anna's father prepared our main dish, the cabbage rolls, called sarmale in Romanian.

"This is a winter dish, a traditional Christmas food.  Cabbage is harvested in the fall and stored, pickled, in barrels.  They're ready to use around Christmas."  Anna uses whole heads of pickled cabbage from a Polish store to get her leaves, but you can also pull single leaves off a fresh cabbage and boil them until they're soft enough to roll.  The rolls are filled with a mix of beef and pork, an indication of their northern Romanian influence.  Mountainous northern land, unsuited to crop farming, was for cattle.  Flat southern land was for agriculture, so beef was not much a part of the food culture.

In Teodora's preparation, cabbage rolls are layered with sauerkraut and smoked ham (one cured without sugar, Anna says, which is a little hard to find) in an immense pot and steamed for what must be an eternity, judging by the size of the pot.

This north-vs-south conversation sparks a question.  "Do you feel like you're passing on your culture?"  I ask.  Anna pauses.  "No."  The kids don't like Romanian food much, the family doesn't do a lot of cultural things, and they no longer go to a Romanian church.  But the children know the language.  And the family used to go back every summer, sometimes leaving their older child to stay with the grandparents all summer.

I wonder, often, what it is we who are trying to pass on culture wish to give to our children.  Is it family?  Food?  Art, language, literature? Our lives and experiences?  This last one is hardest to pass on.

Anna's and Peter's house is filled with artifacts from their home culture.  The most gorgeous handwoven rugs I've ever seen grace their living room, made by Anna's grandmother.  Iconography hangs on the walls, along with paintings of family homes from the old country.  We eat our meal on pretty Romanian china--china being, despite its fragility, one of the great heavy lifters of culture and a sense of home for people who leave beloved places.

Over dinner--so delicious, such warm hospitality--we talk of things that will probably never be passed on.

Hospitality was different in Anna's childhood.  If you went to someone's house, you were never to eat there; conversely you were never to offer food to visitors to your own home.  How could this be?  The implication was, if you ate in someone's home, that you couldn't manage to feed yourself; if children ate at a friend's house, it suggested the parents could not take adequate care of their children.  What? You don't think we can feed our family? was the unspoken question which laid the foundation for this unspoken rule.

Privation and want undergirded Anna's and Peter's Romanian lives.  In Ceausescu's Romania, crops were exported to pay down national debt; this left the people with insufficient food.  Ceausescu razed old neighborhood communities to build high-rises for which the technology was inadequate, leaving residents with no hot water and limited windows of electricity every day.  Winters were unbearably cold.  Living conditions were so uncomfortable they became a joke:  "Close the window, the passers-by might catch pneumonia," the joke went, a riff on the temperature being colder inside than out.

Anna shared that in front of her high-rise was a little patch of unpaved ground which was hotly contested property.  Two factions--vegetable gardeners and flower gardeners--wrangled over the use of the patch.  Flower gardeners dominated for a few years in a row, only to have all the flowers yanked out by the vegetable faction one year.  Anna chuckles.  "Even when you have nothing, you still fight--over the littlest things."

They don't speak of those days much.  It's all different now, their lives here, their children's lives.  "We tell our children these things, and it makes no impression.  They complain of being deprived of ipods," Peter observes mildly.

It is impossible to pass on some things, impossible to make an impression about some aspects of our lives upon our children.  And in our middle-class world of abundance, conveying anything about privation is out of the question.

Privation and want are in themselves no virtue.  But they do make certain things possible.  Anna told me that back home, feasts, holidays,  were a very big deal.  Lots of food, lots of family, dancing at every big holiday.  The contrast between feasting and their typical state of want was quite extreme, but I would argue that a big, joyful, true feast requires--perhaps not want and suffering--but at least a state of non-feasting in ordinary time.  Otherwise there is no difference between feast and not-feast, making feast and celebration meaningless.

Is something lost for us?  Is this what we lack here, now?

May your resolve to fast strengthen.

And may your feasts be characterized by great joy.

The recipe for these wonderful cabbage rolls and polenta, sarmale and mămăligă, will appear here soon.






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  • Astute reader Chris forwards me this link, about the effect of the fast on hyenas in Egypt.


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    julie, julie, you write allegedly about food. and you do always do that. but along the way, we are drawn through great odysseys, to faraway lands, and lives we wouldn't otherwise know. you set the table for us each and every time, and you invite us to feast. for this is always a feast, never a fast. but you make me want to partake of fasting, so that the feast tastes as sweet as it possibly can. you know who you remind me of? calvin trillin.

  • Thanks bammy for reading and for your comments! There are a lot of great stories out there, with recipes lurking nearby. It's enough to make even fasting fun.

    Now I think I need to go read some Calvin Trilin.

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