The freezer door opened with a swirl of fog, the rattle of ice disturbed from its static life. Inside there was a popcicle mold, a bag of frozen blueberries, several varieties of meat, and, I hoped, the answer to my question—what to cook? We had dinner guests coming and no time for grocery stores. I needed something that would make a meal that would satisfy but also stretch to fill enough plates. The two packages of Grass Roots Coop ground beef and the canned tomatoes in our pantry came together in a chorus that said: chili! Chili was something that could go around. Chili was something that with a few more vegetables or a little more stock could be spread to fill the bowls of as many people as showed up.
Had it been a weekend or a smaller gathering, I might have opted for a roast chicken or perhaps some kabobs. But this was a week night meal with friends that was meant to be a simple get together. It was a time—not for a feast—but for a ferial meal.
Ferial–its an old word that has fallen out of use, but needs to be recovered. I learned it from the wise and joyful book The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection by Robert Farrar Capon. The book is a mix of philosophy, cultural criticism, and culinary guidance that is written in the kind of engaging prose that is hard to put down. At the center of the book is a recipe for leg of lamb for eight people, eight times. The narrative is then also a kind of mystery, like watching a magic trick–how will he do it?
Key to such a feat is a re-framing of how we think of food. Capon laments that many of us in the contemporary West have come to see food only as festal. We eat in such a way that a leg of lamb disappears in one sitting–nothing is stretched, re-purposed, or combined to last. Festal eating is fine and good in Capon’s view, as long as it is honoring a feast, but when we eat like this everyday we are disturbing our own health and the health of the world. Instead, Capon calls us back to an older tradition which he calls ferial eating. This is the kind of everyday eating our grandparents would have known. It is the kind of cooking and eating that can make a leg of lamb feed eight people eight times.
Ferial cooking is the kind of cooking that takes left overs or vegetables going bad and makes a caserol. It is the source of sour milk pancakes or banana bread. It is a kind of cooking and eating that adheres to the old saying: waste not, want not. It is therefor an economic mode as much as it is a culinary one.
Part of our food crisis comes from food that is out of step with any rational economy. We are tempted into festal eating everyday because meat is made cheap through agricultural subsidies that go into the corn and soybeans that make up the feed of livestock raised on factory farms. But ferial eating is a form of respecting the real value of food. We spread the leg of lamb over eight meals because it was both the leg of living animal whose life was taken for the nourishment of our own lives and because it costs us something. We all know that cheap products, whether they are meat or housewares or toys, are easily wasted and disposed of. Things that we value, however, we try to extend and use fully.
The chili fed us all and there were even some left overs. A little bone broth will make it soup for another night. We all enjoyed the food and we valued it. We recognized in that value the animal whose life made our meal possible and the farmer who spent nearly a year husbanding the animal so that we could enjoy its nourishment for a couple of nights. It was good all around.