In one of his Lenten sermons, St Augustine extolled the importance of frugality. To avoid food all day and then eat a plate of delicacies is not fasting; eat in moderation, he said, but when you do eat make sure it is “ordinary” food “readily to hand”.
Frugality of this kind poses certain challenges to the modern household for which the simple and local have become luxury items. Is it more Lenten to warm a cheap tin of soup produced hundreds of miles away or to draw some good stock from a bird reared locally, even though it costs me seven times as much and produces considerable pleasure?
This sort of question is brought into particular relief during Lent, but it is one that perplexes the householder all year round. Modern cookery books now routinely remind readers that “traditional” cooking used few ingredients, but all of the best quality. “Simple” dishes, in this sense, were easily assembled, built from basic but full flavours, and were frugal in the Augustinian sense (drawing on materials easily available to the household: meat hand-reared and hand-slaughtered, herbs and vegetables grown in one’s own garden and grains harvested within a few square miles).
It would be near impossible for me to acquire such goods today. Yet today’s “simple” pre-cooked alternative contains ingredients whose names I do not recognise, whose provenance will remain unknown to me, and whose flavours could never be reproduced in my own kitchen. Opening a can is simple; trying to understand how it came to be so simple is difficult.
Few people have worried more about this problem than the Amish. The call to plain living is one every religious community knows. But only the Amish must ritually examine their daily frugality while also feeding large numbers of children. Happily, there are countless Amish cookbooks on the market, each celebrating the wisdom of “down home” simplicity: Lizzy’s Amish Cookbook, The Essential Amish Cookbook, The Homestyle Amish Cookbook, Amish Canning, Amish Pickling, Amish Home Economy, Plain Wisdom. And yet these books suggest that most Amish women have embraced the modern form of simple food: cheap, easily available and often downright nasty (powdered orange juice, frozen chips, whipped cream).
The jewel among these titles is The Amish Cook by the late Elizabeth Coblentz, an Old Order Amish woman from Indiana. Coblentz’s food, like her hard-working rural lifestyle, was simple, nourishing, and “forged through centuries of persecution and prayer”: German corn bread, bread pie (stale bread, milk and cinnamon in a pastry case) and shoo-fly pie, the extraordinary sugar content of which ensured it stayed fresh for the long sea journeys made by Swiss immigrants to America. This is food for a 16-hour day of manual labour: meat-rich breakfasts, garden-grown vegetables, dumplings boiled in ham-bone broth, hand-rolled noodles with cabbage. A cup of coffee is first poured over dry crackers or bread to improve its calorie content. Even Coblentz’s celebration dishes are designed for a healthy appetite and marked by the Amish love of simplicity: casseroles, whoopie pies, meatloaf and salad dressing cake.
All of Coblentz’s food was cooked on wood-fired stoves and without refrigeration. When food was plentiful, she and her eight children preserved it in jars that were stored in the basement. These pickled meats and vegetables were then brought upstairs when the community gathered for barn-raisings. Elizabeth mixed together (in a mangle) ham, cheese, pickles and mayonnaise: a sandwich-filler that could be quickly spread over hundreds of slices of home-baked bread, then fitted in “lunch baskets” with jars of berry press and fresh apples.
Coblentz lived through the deprivations of the mid-20th century and her book asserts the need for Amish cooks to continuously resist the creeping hand of modernity. Amish children, we are told, now prefer “store-bought” snacks while their predecessors were content with mere gravy soup and biscuits. The many dry-goods stores operating across Amish counties might be owned and run by Amish or Mennonite families, but their shelves are stocked with the same packaged foods that sit on my supermarket shelf, taunting me with their apparent simplicity as I prepare for Lent.
My solution to the simple/complex problem as it pertains to the Lenten kitchen is nettle soup. Nettles will be appearing again soon and grow wild everywhere, from inner-city parks to hedgerows. If you are feeling particularly penitent you can forgo the gardening gloves.
Pick the newest and best-looking nettles, avoiding those with thick stalks. Wash them, then sweat some onion in butter. Add a few big handfuls of nettles to the pan, a chopped potato and carrot and a litre of stock. Simmer until it is all soft, then blend it. Stir through salt, pepper, some crème fraîche and a pinch of dried chilli flakes.