by Adam Sobsey
The abstinence marches on...
A Brief History
What is Lent, anyway, and why abstain? A time of penance, sacrifice, discipline; like Ramadan in Islam. (Many, many cultures have such a rite.) "Lent" comes from a Teutonic word that just means "spring," and it's appropriate symbolically if not quite linguistically: The period actually leads up to spring rather than falling during that season. The idea seems to be a dark-before-dawn one, in which you volunteer some late-winter forbearance and renunciation in anticipation of the glorious blooms of April. (But to leave it tied only to natural cycles rather than heavenly obedience is rather pagan.) It's a kind of preemptive spiritual spring cleaning.
The 40 days of Lent coincide numerically with Jesus's time in the tomb and with Noah's flood, although the origins of Lent are not Biblical; the practice seems to have emerged in the first few hundred years A.D. (It's always a surprise to discover how many so-called "Biblical" things aren't actually in the Bible. Eve's apple? Not necessarily an apple. Just a "fruit.")
So you start on Ash Wednesday, which is easy to spot because it's the day after Mardi Gras (and you see people with the telltale sign on their foreheads), and you go for 40 days until Easter Sunday. But that looks like fuzzy math---40 days don't go as far as they used to, it seems---until you recall that you're supposed to skip Sundays, which are a celebration day; that makes it compute properly. Originally, Lent seems to have required total fasting, so you needed to eat on Sundays in order to survive. But the age of asceticism is long gone, so most people just swear off meat, or pick some other thing. (For the purposes of my experiment, I am including Sundays in my not-drinking. As a nonreligious person, it isn't important to me to break my abstinence once a week.)
For what it's worth, not every Lenten tradition goes 40 days. The Roman Catholics jump off the wagon on Maundy Thursday; the Eastern Orthodox tradition begins Lent on "Clean Monday" (the day before Mardi Gras). The Ethiopian Orthodox Lent lasts 56 days (it starts earlier). For the hoping-against-hope types, there is no apparent sign of traditions that end Lent on Palm Sunday, a week before Easter. Nor does Good Friday serve as a drop-off point. In any case, Easter itself seems to make the most sense. That holiday, like its seasonal cousin, the Jewish Passover, celebrates rebirth, life, feasting, redemption; and there, again, is that promise of spring. New shoots; mating season; Kabinett-level Riesling, with its sprightly verve and freshness. (The wine writer Oz Clarke once wrote that you should welcome the first signs of spring by popping and pouring a Kabinett-level Mosel Riesling. It's good for breaking Lenten teetotalling for another reason, too: only about 8% alcohol.)
A Cheaper Date
My SLF, Heather, is a real team player and is also not drinking in solidarity. She doesn't drink as much as I do and so this has been no big deal at all for her. When we go out to eat, the biggest deal is a good one: the bill is so much lower! I had forgotten, even though I sell people alcohol with their food on a regular basis and rely on it to make an adequate living, how expensive it is to drink in a restaurant. You can easily double your bill with a cocktail and a decent wine. (Sin tax in its full glory: the markups can be, in disreputable places, unconscionably excessive.) Our dinner the other night was only $44 plus tip in a restaurant where it's pretty easy to spend $100 if you find a wine you can't resist diving into.
But I haven't wanted to eat in restaurants much since Lent began, and not just because it's less fun to dine out when you aren't drinking. I've found that I crave less and less restaurant-type food. Meats, fats, salt---the hallmarks of most out-of-the-house food---lose appeal for me when there isn't alcohol to go with it. I've been craving vegetables, grains, and fish (all of which I generally prefer anyway) even more than usual. I am tempted to speculate that this has to do with the metabolic function of alcohol. Does it help break down the tougher fibers in animal proteins, or "cut" fat in some chemical way? Is my body losing interest in heavy-gauge food out of physical self-preservation?
Hard to know. In the mean time, I have found myself satisfying what deeper wine cravings I have by reading more about wine, thinking more about wine, even buying wine. Not long ago, I fell in love with Heidi Schrock's scrumptious, dare I say springlike Furmint from Rust, Austria, and ordered a case for the restaurant where I work. (Well, actually, half a case, as I'll be buying the other half.) I went into one of my favorite local liquid shops not long ago---for tea, I swear---and walked out not only with my indispensable long qing but also a bottle of Cinsault (all by itself? unblended? cool!) from Domaine Faillenc Ste. Marie, a wonderfully funky family winery in Corbieres down in the South of France. I'm excited to drink these. And I plan to check out an auction of old wines this Saturday. I really shouldn't go, but there's this 1989 Barolo...
I'm sorry there isn't more drama here: no night-sweats, no binges on rum raisin ice cream, no renting the movie Barfly and watching it 100 times in a row. But I think I have made a rather significant discovery. More on that next time.