On the Return of Dessert

I backed into my Lent discipline this year. Caroline suggested we give up dessert for Lent as a family, then she changed her mind five days in. As Caroline goes, so go the siblings. But Robert and I stuck with it.

Many of my past Lent disciplines have provided a straight path from practice to benefit:
Giving up Facebook –> more incarnational time with family and friends.
Regular devotional reading –> new insights into the biblical story.

But a dessert fast is more circuitously beneficial, if it’s beneficial at all. I suspect I lost weight much more slowly during Lent than I would have had I not taken on this practice. Sundays were feast days, and while I don’t feel like I feasted all that much, I think my body got very confused and yo-yo’ed a bit.

But Lent disciplines aren’t really about self-improvement, are they? They are deeper than a reboot of the New Year’s resolution. They are about a relationship with God—a connecting with the Holy that is within and without.

Giving something up means acquainting oneself with deprivation and sacrifice, even if the sacrifice is small in the scheme of things. We don’t do enough of that in our culture. In my case, No Dessert was a string tied around my finger, a chance to pause, remember, reflect. Each time I craved something sweet, I tried to think about the sweet things in my life that are always in abundance, things I take for granted. A fantastic spouse. Hugs from children. Dates with friends over coffee. Satisfying work that pays the bills. The chance to write. I also became more mindful about the stuff I was eating. I thought about my body. I thought about what it means to hunger.

I also admit—and I hang my head as I do so—that giving up dessert was hard. Very hard.

I went to a mainline Protestant seminary with predominantly white and economically advantaged people. If you’re familiar with such places, you know that we talked about privilege.

A lot.

I like to think I am pretty tuned in to my own privilege. But my cravings for cookies and ice cream were enormous and sad and reminded me just how privileged I am. I hungered, strongly and several times a day, for something that is completely superfluous for survival. Sure, sweets make life a little more fun and, well, sweet, but they are not necessary. And yet it’s probably not a big exaggeration to say that I despaired over the lack of them.

I don’t say this to beat myself up. I say this to encourage people to push themselves with their Lent disciplines every so often. This was one of the most interesting, thought-provoking things I’ve done. If I can get so wound up craving dessert, what other wants do I try and turn into needs? To paraphrase the title of that cute little self-help book: what other small stuff am I sweating?

Robert and I broke the fast on Saturday night—OK sue me, I didn’t wait until Easter—while we were cabin-camping with our kids (more on that trip another time). We ate s’mores roasted over the fire, with Special Dark chocolate bars. They were little pillowy sandwiches of joy. The next day, I had bought a small pie at Trader Joe’s that we ate with our Easter picnic, and it was… just OK. Same with the cheap, ubiquitous Easter candy I’d been thinking about for seven weeks. It wasn’t very satisfying.

As it happens, Robert had brought Food Rules with him on our getaway, so I was reading it at the time. Pollan talks in the book about eating the “good” stuff, but doing so less often—this method of indulgence can be more satisfying than submitting to our every craving. Turns out he may be right. I normally adore Reese’s peanut-butter cups and can eat them by the fistful. But the Reese’s egg I pilfered from my kid’s basket wasn’t that great. Whereas the marshmallow, toasted on a stick that Caroline had whittled and assembled into a s’more by my husband, was heavenly.

Image is by Maira Kalman, from the Illustrated Food Rules. “When you eat real food, you don’t need rules.”

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7 thoughts on “On the Return of Dessert

  1. Grace says:

    This is fascinating, MA. My whole family gave up all sweets, all of Lent (except Sundays), every Lent, when I was a kid. It was just what I did, and I kept it up until 2008, when my son was due five days after Ash Wednesday (he ended up arriving five days before Ash Wednesday). Hungry, cranky, sweets-deprived Grace trying to establish breastfeeding = So Not Even Happening. That Lent, I gave up sleep. πŸ™‚ I also gave up giving up dessert, because it had been increasingly clear to me for several years that the cold-turkey fast was not a useful spiritual practice. It had become something I did out of habit, not reflectively, and it made me very difficult to live with. Plus I was losing 5 lbs or so over the 40 days that I really couldn’t afford to lose – for me, sweets really do seem to serve an actual nutritional purpose, in that they help give my ridiculously fast metabolism sufficient fuel to keep me going.

    That said, I know what you mean about realizing that cheap candy isn’t really all that great. In the last few years I’ve increasingly restricted my daily chocolate consumption to the really good, fair-trade, organic stuff (Green & Black’s, in my case) and I’ve found my tolerance for crappy chocolate has gotten a lot lower.

    I have continued to give up all sweets during Holy Week – I just can’t bring myself to do otherwise – and it does make the breaking of the fast on Saturday night post-Easter Vigil, well, sweet. πŸ™‚

    • MaryAnn says:

      I love that your whole family did this! I did not do enough up-front work with the kids about the meaning behind a fast like this… maybe another year.

  2. Suzy Meyer says:

    My husband and I gave up soda, which is our major vice, with two consequences.

    The second Saturday in Lent, we had dinner with good friends and the husband revealed that he had given up drinking soda too, but only before noon. Why had I not realized that was an option? I felt doubly deprived and intensely ticked off.

    We had pledged not to drink soda until after worship on Easter, and naturally fellowship time went on and on, and then we’d been invited out for Easter brunch. I hope no one knew that I was imagining their faces as Dr Pepper caps. But when I finally broke my fast, my experience mirrored yours. Soda really wasn’t all that good. Its absence was much more profound than its presence β€” which isn’t to say that I didn’t fall right back into the habit of drinking soda.

    Best to you!

  3. “real” you don’t need rules may have broader application – with the Relationship(s), too – [ Love is like – flatus, pardon me – if you have to force it, then it probably is — auto-correct, stop changing my c*rs* w*rds, you piece of shut ]

  4. A few months ago, I’ve decided that one of my goals is to spend more money on fewer things of greater value. I have so many things in my house, my life, that I like. It’s fascinating seeing what a difference it is starting to make, deliberately separating out the “likes” from the “truly loves.” I still have quite a ways to go….

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