What Are You (Not) Eating During Lent?

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Growing up, I associated Lent with culinary abstention. I was socially conditioned, less by family and more by Sunday school peers, that this period before Easter should involve giving up certain foods. I remember my religion teacher declaring with more than a minimal degree of self-satisfaction that she was giving up pizza. What in holy name are you going to eat on Fridays? I thought to my six-year-old self, for pizza and fish sticks were the only acceptable supper I could imagine on days in which meat was forbidden.

But I followed convention and gave up ice cream, Snickers, and McDonald's alternate years. I didn't cheat on Sundays, but I certainly made such sacrifices easier on myself by imposing strict definitions of the foregone foods. "Ice cream," for example, was only "ice cream" if it was labeled as such on the carton, a requirement that paved the way for indulging in soft-serve yogurt, sorbet, frozen custard, and iced milk.

As I grew older, the food categories became broader as competition between my siblings for the most abstemious Lenten experience intensified. I tried and succeeded in not eating any chocolate one year, while my sister once refrained from all forms of eggs (her cholesterol dropped, like, 50 points). My parents reminded us that such denial was worthless unless it was truly done in the spirit of Christian hardship and not as a means of narcissistic self-elevation.

Yeah, we didn't listen. My senior year in high school I attempted to give up white sugar, certainly a challenge to an incurable baked goods addict. Two weeks into this deprivation diet, my boyfriend threatened to break up me because I was so grumpy. My parents wondered what the hell I was so unhappy about, considering that a month prior I had gotten in early to the college of my choice. Ballet rehearsals, once a pleasure, were now exhausting and painful. Clearly, it was time to pump up the jam, and I do mean strawberry. End of the no-white-sugar Lenten experiment.

Since that fiasco, I've "given up giving up" certain foods for Lent but rather attempt to do something pro-active daily, i.e., complete a good deed, write an email to a friend with whom I've lost contact, devote a moment in the morning moment to prayer or meditation. This is not to say I think self-denial is intrinsically inappropriate for Lent; some year I'm going to take a 40-day respite from Facebook. Maybe even one Lent I'll give up booze. I won't be surprised if either of those years I double my writing output or cut my mile time by half.

Readers, how do you feel about the practice of culinary self-restraint during Lent? Do you plan on staying away from your favorite dishes in the spirit of the holiday, or do you consider such "sacrifices" self-indulgence in disguise? And what do you think of this guy?

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