For the past few years, it has been my personal tradition to go vegetarian for Lent. This is a slightly odd thing to do, because I am not, in fact, all that sure what I believe, religion-wise. I sing in a church choir, and there are some pieces of music which make me believe them, wholly and absolutely, whenever I sing them (just about anything by Orlando Gibbons falls into this category), but the rest of the time… I just don’t know. My thoughts and feelings around Christianity seem to change from moment to moment, and run the gamut from an almost mystical certainty to an intellectual fascination to a complete disconnect from the whole concept. (My brain does, thankfully, now seem to be doing all of these things pretty consistently around Christianity, so at least I’ve progressed to having a specific religion I’m not sure I believe in, as opposed to all of them, which is where I was a few years ago. It’s very disconcerting to have a head full of mutually incompatible belief systems, all of which seem to compel belief from time to time…)
Despite all this uncertainty, I like to go vegetarian for Lent for a few reasons. For one thing, I have a profound love of food-related traditions (Nobody is surprised by this). Be it the (old-school) religious tradition of eating no meat on Good Friday or Christmas Eve or the (Catherine-school) tradition of purchasing quinces, blood oranges, asparagus, and fresh raspberries whenever I see them iat a market, I am all over any chance to use food to mark the changing seasons, meteorological or liturgical as the case may be. Actually, I also have a (possibly strange) appreciation for religious dietary laws generally. The whole idea of kosher or halal food has always struck me as inspired, because brings the divine into the mundane and every day – if you have to be mindful of everything you put into your mouth, then you have this constant reminder in the things you live by of the things you believe. I love this. Though I might love it a lot less if I had to follow any of these laws myself.
Being vegetarian – at least as a habitual omnivore – requires a similar mindfulness and awareness of what I am doing and why. If I were doing Lent like a proper Anglican, the why would be about preparing for Easter. And I’m not saying that there is nothing of that in my tradition (after all, if it were just about going randomly vegetarian, I could do it any time), but the main reason is that while I find vegetarianism to be a good thing on environmental and compassionate grounds (and sometimes even health grounds), I’ve found so far that trying to be vegetarian in the long term hasn’t worked. Partly, I suspect, I haven’t quite got the nutritional aspects right. Partly, it’s just that I really do love the taste of meat. And partly, it’s because my repertoire of healthy, everyday vegetarian recipes that I can make quickly and without thinking is not yet wide enough.
So I go vegetarian for Lent because 40 days (47, really, because I continue up to Easter Sunday) is finite enough that I can generally get through it no matter how tired and stressed I am, but long enough that it is meaningful. And it has the added bonus of letting me see the world through vegetarian eyes (and get really irritated by the number of pubs and cafés who have precisely one vegetarian option, which is risotto, which I can make better and more cheaply at home).
Anyway. Some years this works better than others. Last year was dreadful – I was craving meat by the end of the first week, which is fairly pathetic given that we quite often go vegetarian for a week or so by chance (or economic necessity) without trying. And it didn’t help that I had all this bolognese sauce and pre-made rissoles and so forth stashed away in my freezer just calling to me on those nights when those grant applications were keeping me late at work. Worse still, I haven’t had occasion to eat out so often in years, and every single time I did, I was faced with menu choices that filled me with ire and despair.
This year is actually shaping up to be even more exhausting in the matter of grants and similar commitments, which means that if I want to have any chance of doing this right, I’m going to have to get organised. Lent starts in twelve days, and I have a three step plan for the next couple of weeks:
1. Use up all the meat currently residing in my fridge and freezer. Which is actually going to require more organisation than you might think, because we will have to eat meat every second day to get through it all.
2. Make at least one week’s worth of vegetarian meals and basics to freeze. At a minimum, I want to have a big batch of vegetarian chilli, a double batch of mushroom and cashew burgers, a batch or two of re-fried beans, a bean and vegetable stew of some kind, a couple of litres of vegetable stock, lots of pre-washed and blanched greens and, ideally, a batch of cooked black beans, since the tinned kind are hard to come by. Which means I need to organise the freezer, and we probably also need to eat a lot of ice-cream in the next week or two. Oh, the humanity…
3. Write myself a list of vegetarian meals that I can make in my sleep, and put it on the fridge. Ideally, put a list of ingredients next to each item so that I have a cheat-sheet for those tired days. And read through some of my favourite veggie cookbooks again for inspiration on the not tired days…
Looking at all this, I realise I’ve made it sound as though being vegetarian is really hard. Which, admittedly, it was last year, but it was dead easy the year before. I suspect that the thing which is hard is not vegetarianism but trying to change one’s food habits at a time of year when work is particularly prone to long and exhausting hours. If I get home from work after seven (or, indeed, after eight), I’m not going to want to cook adventurously – and if my default easy meals all have meat in them, then that’s a problem…