Commonplace, Vol 2, Issue 7

In which the writer looks back on six weeks of Lent, and then on Lent six hundred years ago.

Hello! Today is the last day of Lent. I am neither Catholic nor indeed Christian (sort of a mildly observant heathen/chaos magician, really) but this year, by way of experiment, Nina and I have followed the rules (more or less) of a medieval Lenten diet. Because we are both stubborn people, we have stuck it out to the end. Because I am apparently an obligate carnivore, or at least animal-protein-ivore, I am really looking forward to the end. The initial experiences of the diet were detailed in Vol 2, Issue 5.

[ Commonplace is an occasional newsletter about food and food history. Drew, who needs to eat as well as read and ramble, has a Patreon page, about which people have said some nice things of late. Show your support, enable Drew’s book-buying habit, and get a look at the behind-the-scenes thinking on both this newsletter and Gentle Decline. Sign up today! ]

At this stage, I’m interested in the longer-term effects of the diet. In Issue 5, I described how I felt cold and hungry when on the vegan-plus-fish days, and how that abated for a bit on and after the Sunday Meat Day. It turns out that this abatement decreases over time. After the first Sunday, I was good up to Tuesday morning. The second Sunday, the effect only lasted up to Monday night. By this week, I woke up cold and hungry on Monday morning. I’m thinking of this as there being a certain reserve of animal protein in the body, which get depleted over time, and topped up. When that reserve goes below a certain level, I get to the cold and hungry state. And it appears that animal protein one day a week isn’t enough to keep it topped off for any significant length of time.

Obviously, there are physiological differences between people. Some of those, I think, may go as far as necessary diet. Some of my family who’ve done various DNA tests have been told they’ve a bit more Neanderthal than most, and maybe that’s part of it, or it’s just variation within the population. But I have to say that cutting out animal protein from my diet entirely - or even six days a week - doesn’t seem like it would be healthy for me. Quite aside from the cold and hunger, I know my brain hasn’t been operating at its usual level. This is a thing which happens in summer, too (all other heritage aside, I am clearly a Discworld troll), but that’s a different sort of slowdown; I feel stupid and short-tempered when I overheat, and this has instead been an inability to concentrate, and a limit to my creativity. Sunday evenings have not been like this, and oddly, Tuesday evening of this week was also ok, although that seemed to be connected more with the warm day than the food eaten (a vegetarian Bolognese, with lentils substituting for beef). Presumably without my body burning all the protein it could get to stay warm, it was able to spend a bit on running the grey matter.

(I’ve lost some weight over the six weeks, too, but I’m pretty sure that’s (mostly) a continuation of what’s been happening over the year of the pandemic. The combination of an hour a day, minimum, of dog-walking, as well as no longer having access to the biscuit stash in the office has made that difference.)

So I’m now shifting to looking at this from the historical perspective. First, our experience of this, while it is closer to the medieval experience than the modern Lenten observation, is still not the same. We have a warmer house, more reliable access to fish, a host of vegetables and fruits that are out of season in these islands, and the technical advantages of plant butter, nut butter, oat milk and Coke Zero, not to mention tea, coffee, and some varieties of chocolate, fruit sweets, etc. Attempting to live on an actual medieval Lenten diet for six weeks would completely and utterly wreck me, and I suspect it wasn’t a happy time for the folk of the real middle ages, either, even when they were a lot more inured to hardship than we are.

That said, sticking with the diet for the full six weeks has been genuinely different to trying something for a weekend or a week. I am reminded of how, in summers when the event is happening, camping medieval-style at Raglan Castle in Wales results in strong disorientation on the way home and for a day or two after we get back; getting up soon after sunrise and moving, in some way, for most of the day is a very different lifestyle, and that’s only for a ten days. Six weeks of that would be a very different beast. I wouldn’t have discovered the cumulative effect above in one week, and I don’t know how seriously I’d have taken the cold-and-hungry effect.

(In the same vein, it’s worth noting that in our ten days of medieval camping, we’re operating out of makeshift kitchens and tent-bedrooms, not actual medieval-style buildings, such that we’re re-creating the lives of soldiers and their accompaniments on campaign, rather than medieval people in any more settled sense.)

There is also the consideration of how well the average medieval person observed the fast. Much of our knowledge of the middle ages comes from monastic writings, and the monastery has always been a much more rules-bound environment than that of the common people. At the same time, the fast of Lent falls at a time of year when meat, from animals slaughtered in autumn, is running low, and when there’s a need to have eggs hatch into new chickens rather than eat them, and when the animals are no longer giving milk to make butter and cheese. And there’s little in the way of foraged food (nettles are coming in, and there are a few mushrooms, and that’s almost it), and almost no crops come in at the tail end of winter or the beginning of spring. So in that way, Lent isn’t so much a voluntary observance but the formalisation and naming of an already existing lean period, wherein you’re eating the last bits of last year’s grain and onions, and whatever root crops have made it through, and really looking forward to the first lambs being big enough to be worth eating.

The monasteries, by virtue of being an elite in most senses, had as steady a food supply as the actual nobility, which was far better than that of the commoners. So their rules probably did make a difference, even at this time of year. The nobility were certainly supposed to follow the rules, but I have my doubts as to how much they did so. And I am pretty sure, considering all the above, that if a squirrel or rabbit or pigeon could be brought down by trap or sling, it was going in the peasant pot regardless of where the count of days until Easter was.

But anyway. Let’s assume that we’re looking at someone who is observing Lent through enforcement of rules in a monastery, through piety among the nobility, or by largely-coincidental annual mini-famine among the peasants. They do not have plant butter, oat milk, sugar, etc, and they’re living in a space which is colder than ours (I will refrain from diverting into a discussion of medieval architecture and furniture; roll with me here). Except for the absolute top end of the nobility, they’re engaged in more physical work than we are, every day; spring is a time of genuinely unforgiving labour right up to the industrial revolution, and well beyond it in any cases. If you don’t plough, pull rocks out of the field, sow, and keep up with the calving and lambing, then you will actually starve later in the year. These people were cold, hungry, and tired for those six weeks in a way that’s quite genuinely out of our reach. I suspect it was a time of visions for many, because when you’re cold and hungry and tired and you manage to get to sleep, you have really vivid dreams, and quite possibly you doze off at random points in the day, whenever you’ve a moment to sit down, and have some more of the half-waking dreams that turn really strange.

And then you have Easter. The nobility feast in excess, and the excess goes to the poor. The monastery blows out the stops entirely, there’s meat and eggs and beer for everyone. The commoners get to eat eggs too, and also the chickens who have by now done their work and hatched this year’s eggs, and that one ram lamb who is pretty definitely surplus to requirements is going in the pot. And since the calves and lambs are being weaned, there’s quite suddenly masses of milk and cream and butter and fresh cheese. It’s no wonder that this is the apex of the Christian year; it’s the most visceral, most heart-felt, most stomach-felt point in the whole cycle.

I’ve not had nearly that hardship, and I can tell you I am looking forward pretty immensely to eggs and bacon and sausages and pancakes and roast pork and pizza and burgers and that’s just the coming weekend.

There’s not a whole lot of other food news going by at the moment, or perhaps I’ve not been paying my usual level of attention. I can point you at the interesting datum that Tesco are introducing unwashed potatoes in the UK, and that “the shelf-life of unwashed potatoes was nearly double that of washed ones, adding up to an extra five days of freshness.“ A longer shelf life by not carrying out a processing step can only be a good thing, but I am a little fascinated by the five-day (now ten-day) shelf life. Aren’t potatoes supposed to keep for months? It does make me feel a little better about the ones I buy which start trying to sprout by the end of the week, mind.

And I can also recommend this rhubarb ginger beer, which sounds strange, but is absolutely excellent.

Rhubarb and ginger has long been a combination of flavours in jam, but this is crisp and sharp and not at all jam-like, and is, quite honestly, a competitor against Hobgoblin beer for my default wow-I-need-a-beer fridge stock.

Anyway. This issue has been brought to you by frequent parentheses, a grocery delivery containing a great deal of animal protein, a lot of delivery people, and some thinking about media which will probably surface somewhere soon. Eat well, and I shall write again soon.

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