The Catholic Table’s Guide to a Guilt-Free Thanksgiving, Part 1

Despite the fact that most of my kitchen is currently packed away in about 464 different boxes, I’m still planning on cooking this Thursday. Not the whole shebang, mind you. Just some of the shebang: sausage and apple stuffing, creamy garlic mashed potatoes, and winter spiced cranberry chutney.

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I’ll then tote those delights over to my mother-in-law’s house, where the rest of the shebang is being cooked. These are some of my favorite dishes I cook all year, and I’m not letting some pain-in-the-rear move keep me from happiness.

Moves, however, aren’t the thing keeping many a person from happiness at Thanksgiving. For many of us, it’s guilt…and anxiety..and poorly cooked Brussels sprouts. The devil is always at work, and he loves to turn what’s supposed to be a merry feast into an occasion for sin and fear.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. It is possible to navigate both seasons of feasting and seasons of fasting with peace, freedom, and ample amounts of tasty treats.

In Chapter 9 of The Catholic Table: Finding Joy Where Food and Faith Meet, I talk about how I do that. Here’s a small “taste” of my thoughts on the subject.

From The Catholic Table: Finding Joy Where Food and Faith Meet

Chapter 9: Table Lessons—Eating and the Virtues

 The Church’s call to feast and the Church’s command to fast are, at least in my world, two of her greatest gifts. When done rightly and done well, feasting and fasting bring the whole person—body and soul—into the liturgical rhythms of the Church. They make the liturgical seasons incarnate in our homes and communities. They also help form communities, uniting rich and poor, young and old, married and single in a common practice: eating…or not eating as the case may be.

From the first months of my return to the Catholic Faith I recognized this. It didn’t require a great deal of thinking or work on my part to see the value of feasting and fasting. But what did require thinking and work was doing it right.

I am a creature of extremes. I blame it on my red hair. My tendency, like many a ginger, is all or nothing. Balance, moderation, temperance—they don’t come naturally to me. My approach to fasting and feasting was no exception. Remember the Lent of the crashing, burning, vegan, Mormon celiac? That’s pure Emily.

Feasting was trickier still. There were just so many Feast Days. Was I supposed to eat cheesecake on all of them? If so, how much cheesecake? Was the Church cool with two pieces? What about three? Four definitely seemed like too much, but where did feasting end and gluttony begin? How did one draw the line?

I had similar queries about all the days in between the fasting and feasting— what the Church calls Ordinary Time. How, without my strict diet to guide me, was I supposed to navigate all the choices presented to me by our consumer culture? I wanted to appreciate the abundance of creation. I wanted to nourish my body and soul with God’s great gift of food. I just wasn’t sure how to find the right balance.

I didn’t find the solution to that dilemma overnight. There were no “bolt from the blue” revelations in churches or bookstores. I just plowed ahead, sometimes eating too much, sometimes eating too little, but always trying to approach feasting, fasting, and ordinary eating with an eye to what God wanted from me in that particular moment. And slowly, gradually, I came to see that my trying was what God wanted from me. Eating itself offered me the opportunity to learn balance.

For years, I’d thought of eating as an opportunity for vice—for gluttony or greed. But what I failed to grasp is that eating is also an opportunity for virtue. It’s a daily invitation to flex our spiritual muscles and grow in justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude. It’s also a chance to demonstrate faith, hope, and charity.

Going to Extremes

Our consumer culture doesn’t see eating this way. It wants to encourage the inner redhead in all of us and tempt us to extremes. Social media testifies to this in spades.

For example, come December, my various newsfeeds are glutted with pictures of savory sides and tasty treats. Recipes for peppermint shortbread cookies, hot buttered rum, and sausage-cranberry meatballs abound. Then, in January, it’s all “Whole 30 this” and “Paleo that.” The same phenomenon happens at Easter. One day, people are waxing rhapsodic about coconut raspberry scones; the next, everyone is condemning gluten like it’s the second coming of the Black Death.

Note: some people have legitimate problems with certain foods. I’m one of them. Peanuts make me stop breathing. It’s exceptionally annoying and often inconvenient. Food allergies and serious sensitivities always have my sympathy. But a good many of the people in my newsfeed, who post close-ups of chocolate almond puff pastry one day and sing the praises of eating like cavemen the next, struggle more with temperance than they do with dietary sensitivities.

I get the struggle. It’s mine too. We live in a culture of abundance, where bottomless baskets of breadsticks welcome us in every restaurant, 468 different kinds of breakfast cereal line the supermarket shelves, and thousands of food blogs tempt us daily with tasty treats.

That abundance has made some of us sick. It’s made others among us a bit rounder than we’d like to be. Accordingly, the appeal of extreme diets, which promise good health and slim waistlines in exchange for eliminating whole categories of food, is understandable. Sometimes, the way of total abstinence just seems easier…and safer.

Which it may be. But it’s also rarely sustainable. Or enjoyable. That’s why “diets” almost always fail and why my “Whole 30” loving friends are back to making cupcakes the day after their 30 days of “clean eating” end. Most of us don’t want to live in a world without donuts or pizza or dirty martinis. Nor, every time we eat outside our house, do we want to be a total pain in the rear, demanding special treatment from friends hosting us for dinner or restaurants cooking us dinner.

This is why exercising virtue when we eat matters so much…

More from Chapter 9 tomorrow…or buy it all now: 

4 thoughts on “The Catholic Table’s Guide to a Guilt-Free Thanksgiving, Part 1

  1. Ellen Johnson says:

    Ugh. Going gluten free or paleo for reasons other than allergies or other serious health issues (and dragging one’s kids along for the ride!) is my personal pet peeve! So, thank you.

    Like

  2. LW says:

    So good! When I was in religious life we learned about virtue and moderation in eating, which I had never ever thought of. The sister in charge of formation suggested we ask God about our eating habits too see where maybe we were fasting too much and where we were feasting too much and why — I had never thought of that before!

    Like

  3. Sanjeet Veen says:

    Do we ‘Eat to Live, or Live to Eat’? – a quote attributed variously, it seems, to Benjamin Franklin, Cicero, Socrates or Moliere. Considering the centuries that have elapsed since Socrates was philosophising around 300-400BC, it is intriguing that we still spend a lot of thought and energy on analysing the human experience with food. You see, for us humans, eating is not simply about feeding – life giving, sustenance, nutrition, energy and survival. Sure this is part of the package, but what sets us apart from the animal world is that we enjoy our food, we take pleasure in what we choose to eat, we savour taste, texture, smell.

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