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FOOD CULTURE NOTES: To Fast or not to Fast?

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Each month when I am thinking about a topic to write about under the broad heading of ‘Food Culture Notes’ I often look back to my past articles and also give attention to the notes I make about possible future issues to consider. In doing so I see connections I wish I had had the space to develop. I also notice unfinished tentative thoughts left dangling at the end of some of my articles that I surmise I will follow up on later. Amongst the latter is the topic of ‘fasting’ that I mentioned at the end of my article ‘Recession Pounds Abound . . . Or Fast Food National Revisited’ that appeared in the March issue of the magazine (issue 162). There, after considering the seemingly paradoxical relationship between poverty and obesity, I queried: “. . . why do people not seriously consider fasting for the sake of their purses, wallets, health, and waistlines?” And I added: “The reply to this question is another story.”

When I posed that non-rhetorical question I had in mind a passing remark I had made in my article from January this year on ‘The First American Thanksgiving Meal - the myth, the historical reality’ (issue 160). There after detailing what fare was eaten when the Pilgrims shared a first meal with the local Indians in the New World I commented: “And this meal would not have been a thanksgiving since, ironically, the Pilgrims gave thanks by fasting, not by feasting.” When I made this statement I had the intuition that I would have to further research into the early history of thanksgiving and also that I wanted to investigate about fasting and food culture. In this month’s article then I want to give more detail about fasting in the historical context of the first thanksgiving in New England in the 17th century and then jump up to the present to look at fasting in another light.

Fasting and the Founding Fathers
When the Pilgrim community resided in Leiden in Holland and debated whether or not to emigrate, its member solemnly fasted and prayed together. The first time was in the fall of 1617. The second was in last 1619; and the third was at the very time of their departure by sea. When finally they arrived in the New World the Pilgrim Church of Plymouth kept both days of fasting and days of humiliation, as well as days of thanksgiving, almost from the beginning, and so too did the colonies of Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut. Fasting, then, was part and parcel of the of the Pilgrims radical Puritanism, which was also manifest in the fact that they did not did not keep Christmas, Good Friday or even Easter.  The ritual of fasting as purging took precedence over the indulgence of feasting. It was only gradually that the latter became acceptable and alternated with the former. We know this happened from the voluminous calendar of both days of fasting and humiliation, and days of thanksgiving, compiled by a certain Reverend William Love, starting from the earliest days of both the Plymouth Massachusetts and Bay colonies.
As early as 1630 Plymouth kept a fast day in sympathy with the Bay colony. The earliest known example in the history of Plymouth of feasting in connection with a thanksgiving day was when it was suggested that feasting after fasting was used to dispense charity to the less well off members of the community. The colonies also ordered fasts to counter any tendencies towards degenerate ways, and specifically called for fasts to renew the covenant between their churches and God. These were called ‘Reformation fasts.’ In the 1690s there were even fasts to invoke the Lord’s help against witchcraft.

Let us now fast forward from the period of the settlement of the New World by the Pilgrims in the 17th century to today with the aim of considering fasting in a different religious context in a changed world historical situation

The Seven Deadly Sins  
Last year in May, just a few months before the world economic crisis started to become conspicuous in the fall, the Vatican in Rome issued an updating of the traditional seven deadly sins that it considers prevalent in the age of ‘unstoppable globalization.’ The original seven deadly sins are pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed, and sloth. The seven modern evils identified by the Vatican are (1) environmental pollution; (2) genetic manipulation; (3) accumulating excessive wealth; (4) inflicting poverty; (5) drug trafficking and consumption; (6) morally debatable experiments; and (7) violation of the fundamental rights of human nature These new mortal sins aim at encouraging a revival of the practice of confession or the Sacrament of Penance.

Now I am not a Roman Catholic and it is not my intention to moralize about these updated seven mortal sins indentified by the Vatican. If I have a point to make regarding fasting in this connection it is this: In our secular, materialistic age issues of food underlie or are related to many problems in the world - and not the least the threat of starvation for those living in poverty. So extolling the virtues of this or that gourmet dish or expensive foodstuff or arguing for the apparently beneficial medical effects of this or that food is understandable if it is not for some acceptable. For those of us who do not face hunger every day we have a choice: To consume or not to consume? To eat moderately or to over eat? To eat or not to eat at all . . . Not to eat? Unless one is a muslim or holds to a religious belief that makes not eating a ritual why fast? Why should someone who is non-religious even consider fasting in today’s world?

I would like to proffer an answer to this question taking into account the Vatican’s view that the most dangerous areas for committing new types of sins lie in the fields of bioethics and ecology. For some time now we have been hearing of the phenomenon of the ‘carbon footprint’ in the context of global warming. This refers to how, at different levels of agency from individual to industries to states, we are pumping carbon into the atmosphere. Recently the phrase ‘ecological footprint’ has been circulating. This refers to how, again, at different levels of agency we affect our ecosystems and environments. In this context fasting concerns the conservation of resources including the preservation of ourselves as living beings.

Park Sung Eun  parkse@agrinet.co.kr

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