Thursday, February 18, 2010

Fish on Friday

We eat for more reasons than just to fill our stomachs. In my world, food is about connection and family and friends. About slowing down, and becoming engrossed in an activity. About joy and creativity.

It’s bigger than what I put in my mouth (and don’t take that out of context).

The most obvious marker of this is the role feasting and fasting have in religion. Prescribed fasting. Prohibited foods. Ritualised feasting. Ramadan, Yom Kippur, Lent. Iftar and Eid, Sabbath, the Eucharist, the Great Thanksgiving, the Lord’s Supper. Bread and wine.

Fasting – not eating – is a remarkably powerful statement about connection and identity. The fasting, and death, of Bobby Sands. Gandhi’s passive resistance. Mia Farrow’s fast for Dafur. The forty hour famine.

Last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent – the first day of the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. A period marked, for those who observe it, by abstinence and reflection. Deprivation for the purpose of contemplation. Fasting as preparation for feasting (in both a mundane and sacramental sense). I don’t do it, but I kind of get it.

Lent, and Easter, are traditionally marked by a number of observances around food. Perhaps the most widely known (after the Easter Egg!) is the idea of ‘giving something up for Lent’ – chocolate or wine or meat for example. One of my favourites is Shrove Tuesday – the day before Lent, upon which pancakes are traditionally eaten. Roast spring lamb and Tsourekia. During Lent, Ash Wednesday is a day of fasting, which in the catholic and orthodox churches means abstinence from meat and dairy. Traditionally, the menu is fish.

Food is something that transcends mere sustenance.

Kosher and Halal both describe, respectively for Jewish and Islamic faith, foods and methods of food preparation that are clean and unclean, holy and not-holy. In the Christian catholic tradition, feast days and fast days are determined in the calendar of the church (the lectionary, great word).

And within these faith traditions, certain foods recur as both culturally and spiritually significant. Matzo, the replication of manna from heaven. Made into balls and poached as dumplings in chicken soup – the legendary cure-all. Asida, a kind of semolina porridge (plain or sweetened) traditionally served during Muslim holy days. And the ubiquitous fish-on-Fridays of the catholic tradition, anything from salt cod and mashed potato fritters to fish pie to simple grilled fish. Comfort food: soul food.

Whether it is Lent (as it is now, for many) or Ramadan or Yom Kippur or a hunger strike or countless other politics and faiths and times, I am curious about how food is so deeply and immediately part of our identity – what pulls us together and what sets us apart. Whether sacred or secular, this is how we celebrate and commiserate, how we remember and how we mark what and who we value.

On Wednesday, by pure coincidence, we ate fish for dinner.

In a modern world where meat is considered common and cheap (in comparison to a) what it used to cost, b) how much it costs to produce and c) how much other things cost), and seafood a bit fancy, deprivation starts to look like celebration.

Grilled Marlin steaks. With anchovy and olive sauce. And watercress salad with raspberry vinaigrette. Not exactly Lenten, by any definition*.

* It may have been karma, or divine retribution, but I just didn’t manage to char the fish. It still tasted fine, but no lovely smoky flavour, and no striking brown-black cross-hatch marking.

Raspberry Vinaigrette

½ cup fresh or thawed frozen raspberries
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp verjuice
½ teaspoon mustard (Dijon or Grain mustard)
1 tbsp oil
Pinch salt

Mash the raspberries through a sieve into a bowl. This creates a thickish liquid without any seeds. Whisk in the other ingredients and season to taste. Drizzle over watercress leaves that have been plucked off the stalks and shaved cucumber. I tossed in the left over borage flowers as well.

Great accompaniment to (char) grilled marlin, roast potatoes and anchovy and olive paste (for the paste: in a blender combined pitted black olives, parsley leaves and anchovies to taste (I used ½ dozen fillets for two, but I love them).

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