The Pleasures of Denial

As Ruth Reichl informs us in her weekly missive, the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery recently announced this year’s theme: Food and Morality. This annual conference on food history involves readings and presentations by various academics, writers, and chefs who gather to unleash their intellects on all things culinary.

As is to be expected, some of the papers do seem esoteric (“Food, Morality, and Politics: The Spectacle of Dog-Eating Igorots at
the 1904 St. Louis World Fair”? Ah, Oxford.). But get past the titles and they’re action-packed. Witness “To Eat or Not to Eat: The Ideology of Fasting in the Reformation Era.”

Reformers sought, on the basis of scriptural authority, to re-examine the nature and utility of fasting in general. Humanists and garden variety anti-clerical types weighed in on the value of fasting, and in particular extreme forms of self-abnegation and asceticism. Could it be considered a moral act, or a good work to deny the body its necessary sustenance? Do such acts of penance earn our salvation, as it was popularly believed?

Surely a relevant discussion today, when even the most amorphously “spiritual” types seem to embrace fasting as a way to “detox” body and spirit.

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