Digby Anderson on abstinence rules as a means of reinforcing Catholic identity and their practical and positive implications for the British kitchen

As Lent approaches, it’s time to hink of fish. It’s time in a broader sense too. As courageous and wise Benedict reviews the long list of post-Vatican II idiocies due for reversal, it’s time to review the liberal subversion of abstinence rules. Theologians might not think such subversion important, compared, for instance, to the corruption and infantilization of the liturgy. But sociologically, it was perhaps the most stupid of all.

Abstinence defined what it meant to be a Catholic. It was publicly observable. It set Catholics apart and they sensed their apartness from non-Catholics. It thus reinforced their togetherness, their Catholic identity. The old rules were imposed on Catholics from above and routinized by tradition. The liberals replaced them by an invitation for each individual to think for himself what he might do on Fridays and in Lent. A do-as-you-like innovation immediately resulted in a few enthusiasts eating powdered tomato soup together and giving paltry sums to the famine of fashion until, as usual, doing anything ended in doing nothing.

French recipes

I lived in France for a while, before the subversion, and recall Fridays then and there. When I think of them, it is not the English stench of boiled cats’ whiting in the Fifties that I think of, but the perfume of bourride, monkfishpoached with chopped leeks, thyme, parsley and bay leaves in stock from the head, the bouillon amalgamated with aioli and served with bread fried in olive oil (there are disputes about the inclusion of the liver), the whole main course preceded by little anchovy turnovers in pastry.

Then there was brandade of salted cod blended with milk, olive oil, garlic and a little potato, or scallop shells filled with filleted grey mullet and mussels in a fish stock sauce with breadcrumbs finished under the grill so they bubbled as they came to the table, or a first course of oysters, crab, sea snails and prawns with shallots in vinegar.

A vast selection

There are some fifty very good fish available in England, though not ail in the same season. There are anchovies, angler (monk), baccala (salt cod), bass (not farmed), various bream (again not farmed gilt-heads), calamari (squid), carp, various clams, cockles, cod, conger, cuttlefish, dogfish, eels, flounder, garfish, grey mullet, gurnard (grey and red), haddock, hake, halibut, John Dory, kippers, limpets, lobsters, mackerel, mussels, octopus, oysters, perch, pike and ail the rest of the alphabet.

For each fish there are half a dozen first-class recipes from France, Spain, Italy. -at is three hundred different courses. With a little doubling up, this offers enough to cover all the Fridays of the year plus Mondays and Wednesdays in Lent.

So when the Supreme Pontiff gets us back to abstinence, let’s go back to French not English abstinence, with a little help from the other Mediterranean countries and the far east. I will be told this diet is notmiserable enough for puritans or even Jansenists. Indeed it isn’t. Misery was not the point.

My sort of Lent may taste good but it requires thought and effort – self-discipline. Additional effort is needed in acquiring ingredients now the English neglect of fish has closed most of the country’s good fishmongers. One has to drive even further to find live eels than to hear a decently sung Gospel. the real reason it will be rejected by the English is that it involves too much thought and hard work both in getting hold of the ingredients and preparing them.

Role in family life

There are moral qualities to good home-produced food, good domestic virtues of planning, acquiring, a respect for culinary tradition, self-discipline, hard work and hospitality their opposites are the vices that ruin food: laziness, self-indulgence, extravagance and waste, showing off, a fascination with novelty – all the vices that characterize modern English cooking in so many contemporary homes. I am aware this will not be a popular reproof since, the odd ‘New Man’ apart, it applies particularly to those who are still mostly responsible for running the home and kitchen, women. One is not, of course, supposed to criticize them, but this lack of necessary and loud criticism is, itself, a key reason for the decline of the English home.

The celebrity chefs tell you the secret of good food is their new recipe, or this new short cut or magic ingredient or technique. Nonsense. Good cooking is a moral enterprise and its morals are deeply conservative. Good food is possible in the humblest modern home if it embraces this morality. Such a home is also the start on the way back to proper family life. So let it be back to abstinence in Lent and on Fridays through the year, back to a traditional domestic morality, and back, of course, to bourridee. ND