A public service announcement: Carnivale or Meatfare Sunday

by Bernard Brandt

Those three or four people who actually read this silly weblog of mine will perhaps by now have noticed that I am an Eastern Catholic. And thus, from time to time, I may happen to relate our quaint and curious customs. This is one of those times. 

Now, in the West, so I am told, while you used to have all sorts of wonderful customs, like Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, or Carnivale (so called because it was a ‘farewell to the pleasures of the flesh’, like beef, or veal, or lamb, or ham (oh my!)), or even what the Irish of bygone centuries used to call “The Black Fast” (so called because during Lent they would drink their tea without milk, in accord with their Orthodox brethren), it seems that these days, like all secular holidays, Mardi Gras and Carnival seem to have been reduced to opportunities for throwing really profligate parties.

I must rush forward to say that while I have no objection to throwing parties, even profligate ones, it might be good to have some balance. If you keep throwing those parties, but without occasionally refraining from partying, you are going to have a world of hurt in your bodies. Which will, of course, interfere with those parties.

So permit me to offer an alternative, that has been tested for centuries, and which seems to work pretty well for all concerned. We start by fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays, throughout most of the year. This means that we do two things: 1) we reduce the amount of food that we eat on those days, and 2) we cut out certain things. Meat, for starters. Dairy, for the more venturesome (and this means, no milk or egg products, like cream or creme fraiche or butter or…), and, for those whom my late and sainted brother-in-law Charlie used to call the ‘full metal Orthodox’, we cut out fish, wine and oil. We’re talking vegan here. I’m told that this is an apostolic practice, laid out in the Didache, and that really full metal Orthodox fast on Mondays as well.

And then, there are the times that one really wants to party down, like Christmas and Easter and the Dormition of the Theotokos, and… But first, one must balance them with an appropriate period of fasting, if only better to enjoy the feast when it comes.

I’m given to understand that youze guyz have this thing called Advent, where you do or do not do certain things for four weeks before Christmas. I’m also given to understand that you also do something like that for the forty days before Pascha. Like not eat meat on Fridays. Or give up chocolate, or something.

Slackers. Wusses. And, while I’m tempted to add the Australian version of the latter epithet, I’m unwilling to lose that possible one reader who is of the feminine persuasion.

Let us just say that, as the Apostle Paul has remarked, there is a more excellent way available. I offer it to the real men and women among my readers.

The way that we do it in the East is this: we start by saying, on the Sunday before what youze guyz call Lent, we say: “After sundown tonight, we’re going to stop eating meat.” It’s called Carnivale or Meatfare Sunday. And then we do so. Then, the next Sunday, we do the same thing as regards eggs and dairy. And fish, oil and wine (in short, no fish, no olive oil or other oils, and no alcohol). Then we get down to the other things that matter: prayer, and helping our neighbors. I believe you call it ‘almsgiving’.

Of course, on Saturdays and Sundays, one can still eat fish and oil, and drink wine. After all, these are the days of the Resurrection, and when the Bridegroom is among us, how can we fast then?

And of course, on those last days before we say ‘bye-bye’ to meat and to dairy, we party hearty, Marty. Meatfare is one of my personal favorites. So is ‘Cheesefare’, which is not quite as evocative as the Russian ‘Maslanitza’, or ‘Butter Festival’.

And in that context, may I suggest this recipe, which I found because, for Eastern Catholics on the Western Calendar, Carnivale is tomorrow. And, quite coincidentally, so is St. Andrew Church’s post liturgical luncheon. This is a local custom, where, on the last Sunday of the month, we have a pot luck lunch, we ask people to contribute, and we give the proceeds to a charity which we choose. So, of course, I had to choose something special to bring to the party.

Basically, a Greek Stifado is a beef and shallots stew, stewed in a braise of wine, cognac, tomatoes and tomato paste, and spices (laurel and allspice). It is not unlike that brilliant contribution of classic French cooking, Boeuf Bourgignon, for which (at least as far as I am concerned), the canonical recipe was imparted by St. Julia Child, here, here, and here.

And, having done that recipe any number of times, including for Pascha at St. Andrew’s last year, and for my late wife’s funeral (together with Coq au Vin, God help me), I wanted to do something differently, and with a bit more ‘bang for the buck’. I think that I may have found it with this recipe.

Of course, as with most recipes, one has to modify things somewhat. I didn’t have allspice, alas, but I replaced it with a half teaspoon of whole pepper. I didn’t have cognac, and so I used simple brandy. Hell, next time, I’m going Metaxa: it’s better, and more authentic. I used roughly equal parts of beef (chuck roast) and shallots: three pounds each.

And, as an aside, in part of the world I live in, or at least, the supermarkets, if I were to try that without some thought, it would not happen. In that world, three pounds of beef equals twenty dollars (at least). And three pounds of shallots equals around fifty bucks. Even at Trader Joe’s.

What I did instead is to shop around. Cambodian, Vietnamese, and other Indochinese markets sell shallots, not at a buck an ounce, but at around $0.79 for the pound. That’s less than three bucks for three pounds of shallots. And, at least in L.A., if you shop at Mexican marts, or those that los indocumentados favor, you can get good meat at 3-4 dollars the pound. And sometimes, for much less. In this case, though, it cost me $13.00 or so for the meat. So this meal cost me only twenty bucks to make. And you freaking hipsters couldn’t get that, not at any price. I’m going full metal Anthony Bourdain on your sorry backsides.

Sorry for the digression. But if you wanna party hearty, Marty, my suggestion is with starting with this. It seems to work. Your scheme does not.