The Black Fast, a Mortification of the Appetite

Photo credit: Chris Blakeley

With Lent fast approaching (February 17, 2010), an examination of fasting and other fleshly challenges seems apropos.

Religious-based fasting, in the history of English speakers anyway, belies its importance in the commonly used word for the first meal of the day: breakfast or “break fast.” After all, for much of Western European history, almost half the days of the year counted as times of fasting.

Locavores and vegetarians today will find much to inspire them in the dishes created to get people through the harsh Lenten seasons of the past. Coinciding with the “lean months” of winter, Church-decreed fasting eschewed fats like butter and lard,* eggs, cheese, milk, and, of course, meat during the forty days of Lent, the period before Easter Sunday.  (Is it no wonder that bacon and eggs became such a popular dish first thing in the morning?)

The Black Fast** required people to eat only one meal a day, and that only after the sun went down. No alcohol was allowed and just prior to Easter, during Holy Week, people subsisted on bread, salt, herbs, and water. Part of this traditional practice of fasting owes something to the seasonal fluctuations in food supplies: to make their stores last longer, people ate less.

After the tenth century, people could eat their one daily meal at three in the afternoon. In the fourteenth century, Church law permitted cooks to serve this meal at mid-day (“none”). One could enjoy a “collation” (or light meal) in the evening, too. A softening of the rules occurred at the beginning of the nineteenth century and allowed a sip of coffee and crust of bread in the morning, as well as the noon meal. Nowadays, Church rules require fasting only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and abstinence from meat eating on all Fridays during Lent.

Photo credit: Robyn Jay

Remember the impossible old question, “What came first? The chicken or the egg?” The same riddle applies to the dishes eaten in medieval monasteries, which influenced the cuisine of Europe and beyond. It’s difficult to determine if the recipes served in the monastery kitchens sprang from the hearths (hearts) of the medieval mothers who raised the men who became monks and priests of the Middle Ages, or the women who became nuns, or if monastery cooks used those dishes as the fond, the basis for their own recipes.

One thing is for sure: fish became very important in Europe because of the Church’s fast days. Mark Kurlansky covered this in his Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World (1997), as did Brian M. Fagan in Fish on Friday: Feasting, Fasting, and the Discovery of the New World (2007). A prime example of the impact of demand for a food product changing economies, lives, and nations.

But we’ll tackle the fish stories later.

13 thoughts on “The Black Fast, a Mortification of the Appetite

  1. So you don’t think that the animal skin thing was at the bottom of the original prohibition? It’s true that giving up certain important foods during Lent is part of the spiritual renewal of the season, but I wonder if the roots of the practice don’t stem from more than that

  2. Cynthia, Orthodox Christians abstained from olive oil many days during fasting periods, especially where olive oil was a major part of the diet. However, sesame oil and tahini were used as substitutes for it. In regions where olive oil was not a major part of the diet, the rule was taken to include vegetable oils in general. Since fasting and abstinence teach self-discipline and their purpose is to strengthen the spirit in order to gain control over the body, it is not surprising that the consumption of olive oil was so restricted.

  3. Fascinating Cynthia. Your research is impeccable. I’m planning a post for Pretzel Sunday. If I do manage to post, I would love to include this link. Thank you so much for sharing.

  4. I’m friends with several people who are Polish, including my nephew’s fiancee, so that explains it. BTW, The Oracular Cook is starting up again in the next day or so.

  5. Bozena,

    Thank you for sharing your experience with fasting and the Christmas Wigilia in Poland. I think a lot of time people forget just how much memory seasons our food, as well as salt …

  6. I may add some interesting fact about fast eating, although concerned with Christmas’ Eve. In Poland it was a long tradition that the supper on this day has to be fast. The common knowledge was that it’s catholic rule, but in fact it was patriotic rule (since the times when Poland as a nation was divided between Russia, Austria and Prussia). Just a few years ago Polish church said officially that you can eat meat on Christmas Eve. But most people don’t do it because the taste of the meals for this supper is so different (because of the lack of stock and any animals’ fat) from what we cook for everyday eating that it just tastes like Christmas Eve. Changing it would spoil the fun.

    Thanks for all the thoughts provoking posts!

  7. I’ve been waiting for a suitable post to thank you for the essay on Van Gogh. I’ve finally been diagnosed with Sjogren;s syndrome, a disorder of the gastric tract mucosa. This on top of a gastric bypass and a perferated ulcer treated by emergency surgery. I had been frightened and confused by my perceptual, behavioral, and emotional changes, which seemed to correspond to no illness I had heard of. I can now see why some people might more or less deliberately seek the “bursts of elation” that the Keys study mentioned. Such as some saints.

  8. Yes and no about the bones. I know that when I get bones with little flesh on them from the grocer, they just don’t render the same flavor as when I have meatier bones. The gelatin, thickening, comes from the bones, yes, but the flavor comes from the flesh. Also the color of just-bones stock leaves a great deal to be desired.

  9. Fascinating, I had never really thought about the “real” reasons for Lenten fasts. I’m looking forward to part two!

    And technically couldn’t you say that beef stock comes from bones, not flesh?

  10. Hi Ken,

    I know about your fasting book — looking forward to it.

    And thanks for the information about the olive oil — please tell us more about that, sources, etc. As for the eggs, it was a pretty universal prohibition.

    That Luther –what a guy!

    Thanks for commenting.

  11. Hi Cynthia, Olive oil was never forbidden in the West. Only the Eastern Orthodox Church. In fact it’s a big point of contention for Germans, Luther says we can’t eat all this butter and Rome makes us eat rancid oil they wouldn’t grease their boots with. And only the most ascetic of holy people avoided wine. And even eggs are forbidden in some places and times, but not always.

    If you want further details on this, I just happen to be doing a book on fasting. Kurlansky adn Fagan really didn’t cover the topic in all it’s bizarre and fascinating detail.


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