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Feasting Even During Ordinary Time

We've lost the cultural rhythms that come from a calendar of feasts—and the wonderful pleasures that they afford.

It is June. Christians from liturgical traditions have just finished the season of Eastertide, or Paschaltide, which extends from Easter to Pentecost. It is now the season of “Ordinary Time”—often referred to as the “green season,” a period of growth and quiet faithfulness.

As a child raised in nondenominational evangelicalism, I never observed or understood Eastertide (or other liturgical seasons, with the exception of Advent). I did not see “feasting” as a key element of the Christian faith—indeed, I was far more likely to fall prey to a sort of Gnostic understand of our bodies, the earth, and their relationship to the spiritual.

But as an adult, I’ve gotten to experience the beauty of the liturgical church calendar. I’ve realized that Lent’s 40-day period of fasting only makes sense when united with a 50-day period of feasting and celebration in Eastertide. The Christian faith centers on the table, on the bread and wine. Which means that feasting is an integral part of who we are as Christians.

But I’ve also realized that feasting is key to who we are as humans: it’s baked into our universe, a key part of its seasonal design. It is only in our modern era that we’ve truly lost sight of seasonality and its ties to feasting. This, I would argue, is an important loss.

Festal celebrations have taken place across centuries, civilizations, and cultures. They characterized life in both modern and ancient societies. Americans today observe various secular “feast days”: Thanksgiving is the most prominent, perhaps, but the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve are also opportunities to eat, drink, and be merry.

But the foods we feast on don’t generally correspond with the local environment, or esteem the limits of place. Rather, today’s feasts are generally known for their bland similarities: a Floridian Thanksgiving table will likely resemble one in Montana. Today’s feasts are characterized by a disconnect from the local landscape.

It doesn’t take much work, then, to realize that feasting historically understood is drastically different from the feasting we participate in today—not just because of its broadly secular nature, but also because of its lack of seasonality and limits. Feasting was not historically just a religious experience, after all—it was also an agricultural one, a natural part of working the soil and participating in the rhythms of place.

In the region of Idaho where I grew up, when a crop was ready for harvest, communities worked together to get the job done and then ate together in celebration. Historically, most crops were grown for local food consumption, and so whatever could be preserved—via smoking or drying, canning or fermenting—was saved away, while the rest was enjoyed for as long as it lasted. (This is a key part of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s early books: when her father brings home fresh maple syrup or honey, her parents save what they can, and then her family feasts on the rest.)

During hay harvesting seasons, my great-grandmother would prepare fried chicken (she killed and plucked the birds herself before dawn), fresh vegetables from the garden, homemade biscuits and preserves, and dozens of freshly baked pies. It was her way of offering thanks to the harvesters, of celebrating their hard work with bounty. My dad, who often helped out on the farm, remembers those heavy-laden tables, the laughter and the prayers offered up around them, the bone weariness and soul satisfaction he felt at the end of haying days.

But as our society has grown food less and bought more from stores, we’ve lost many of these ties to place and its fruit—and thus many opportunities for feasting. Don’t get me wrong: we’re incredibly fortunate to get avocados and bananas year-round, and to have refrigerators and freezers in our houses. But I think we’ve also lost some of the joy of food, the ability to treasure the flavors of the seasons, because we no longer understand these patterns of waiting and feasting.

This concern became especially real for me two summers ago, after my husband and I moved to the Virginia countryside. As we were unpacking our books and clothes, I transplanted our fledgling tomato plants into a garden plot the previous homeowners had left behind. Those plants seemed to shoot upward overnight, spreading with fervent glee. (I cannot take credit for their success: good soil, plenty of sunlight, and a wealth of pollinators made those tomatoes the best they could be.)

Soon we were picking giant bowls full of tomatoes every day, and the toddler and dog would sit next to each other in the garden and eat them to their hearts’ content. (Yes, our dog loves tomatoes and can pick them off the vine without help.) We made salsa and marinara sauce, gazpacho and bruschetta, BLTs and tomato soup. And still there were tomatoes to spare. We canned them, froze them, and texted pictures of them to family members, begging for them to be taken off our hands.

It was the first time I’d experienced the sheer glory of a bumper crop—of having a plenty that is staggering in its wondrousness. And that plenty required us to feast: to glory in the tomatoes’ very tomato-ness for as long as they lasted.

After the first frost, our magnanimous tomato plants withered and died. Tomato season was officially over, and we didn’t want to buy them from the store after enjoying the fresh ones we had grown in our backyard. So we ate the tomatoes we had canned, the salsa in our freezer, and waited, waited for the next summer, the next opportunity to gather the plenty.

Feasting does not have to be gluttonous—but it can be, and this is (at least in part) why I think seasonal feasting matters. There ought to be limits on how, whether, and when we feast. Our current fad-based eating culture tends toward excessive fixation on one food item for a certain amount of time, be it almonds or cauliflower or kale, which can sometimes result in unsustainable growing habits. There’s little moderation in the way we eat meat in America today, or in the way we waste food.

But seasonal feasting, in contrast, requires self-control, humility, and patience—as well as an awe and gratitude that are absent from acts of gluttony. It necessarily involves integration: a knowledge of the plants, animals, and people surrounding us. Wendell Berry has said that healthy eating is necessarily an act of connection—and that the more disconnected our eating becomes, the less healthy it is.

But limitation and humility do not have to result in a dour asceticism—quite the opposite. “Eating with the fullest pleasure—pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance—is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world,” Berry argues. “In this pleasure we experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend.”

The last couple of weeks, we’ve had lettuce up to our eyeballs in the garden. My three-year-old daughter and her cousin went out a few days ago and started picking lettuce leaves and eating them like rabbits (one of the many benefits of not spraying your garden: children discover vegetables they might not otherwise enjoy, and eat them whenever they get the chance).

We are giving the leafy greens away, because they are ripe and ready to eat, and should be eaten now, when they are at their best. These greens won’t keep, won’t pickle or preserve, and so we are required to share them for as long as we have them. And in this effort, I’m realizing that the surprising grace of the garden tends to spread outwards, calling others to join in the act of feasting. It is an abundance that calls us to charity. And this, too, separates feasting from gluttony. Because the fruit of this earth is impossible for us to hoard—it requires us to give it away.

My family doesn’t farm in Idaho any longer, and thus we don’t participate in the rhythms of agricultural harvest as we once did. But my husband and I still garden, in the hope of embracing and preserving many of the same rhythms: to deepen our connection to the earth and become better stewards of what we own. Every garden activity—planting seeds and tending them, composting and mulching—is geared toward the hope of greater rootedness.

That said, I never expected our gardening efforts to result in feasting. Perhaps I was treating the garden the way I once treated my faith: as a strenuous act of perseverance, not a wondrous display of grace. Thus, the bounty of the garden and its fruit surprised me. It still does. I never expect seeds to result in bounty on our plates. I never expect us to have enough to go around, let alone to have such an astounding extra. It is an unexpected gift that can stun us, an invitation to feast—even in seasons of ordinary time.

Gracy Olmstead is a writer whose work has appeared in The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe Weekly Standard, and elsewhere. She was a 2015 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow and is currently writing a book about the Idaho farming community where she grew up. This article was supported by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The contents of this publication are solely the responsibility of the authors.