Ignore detox season — get back to basics the Dark Ages way, by making your own bread and butter
“Study for Woman Churning Butter”, 1855, by Jean-François Millet
It seems unlikely that the Standpoint demographic is familiar with the eccentric children’s cartoon Adventure Time. There is a supporting character, Lumpy Space Princess (known as LSP for short) — a purple, floating being shaped like a child’s drawing of a cloud. She has, ordinarily, rock-solid confidence: extremely proud of her lumps, disdainful of “smooth posers”. But when the Nice King (the villainous Ice King in disguise) calls her “too loud and lumpy . . . I like smooth princesses,” she cries out. “I can be smooth! Punch out my lumps! . . . I can be whatever he wants! I can change!” and proceeds to punch herself into a perfect sphere. The next time we see her she has popped back to her normal lumpy shape.
I think of LSP whenever the “detox” season rolls around — suddenly, in January, we are too loud and lumpy. On Instagram, the Kardashian-Jenners continually promote “FitTea”, a detox tea, which promises to reduce “bloating”; Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle website Goop provides a “detox” plan which does sounds like real food — this year’s has roasted kabocha squash soup, halibut with lentils, buckwheat soba noodle salad, kale with salsa verde — but which is based around large and sometimes arbitrary-seeming restrictions: “just say no to: alcohol, caffeine, added sugar, gluten, dairy, soy, corn, and nightshades (white, blue, red, and yellow potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant).”
Goop sometimes seems rather in favour of eating things which really aren’t food: the site sells subscriptions to vitamin supplements at $75 per month; an article on nontoxic hair dye describes a male stylist taking a scoop of it and eating it “as if it were chocolate pudding.” “It isn’t . . . delicious, but it’s not bad,” he says. “That it’s non-toxic enough to stave off lunch for a few hours was amazing,” says our author.
So many things on Goop are “amazing”, “a f*%king [sic] miracle” (minced oaths are everywhere), “potent”, etc. I once bought soap recommended on Goop which was said to be inspired by “the modern-day female shamans of Korea”.
It’s hard to shake the impression that you’re meant to be guilty about eating at all. A terrific pastiche of Goop came from Mary Cella at the website The Hairpin (which announced it was closing down last month): “The worst possible thing you could ever do for your body is eat food. You see, the concept of food was actually created by Western medicine . . . A good rule of thumb for something like olive oil is that it’s perfectly healthy as long as you don’t enjoy it.”
In the Dark Ages, fasting was symbiotic with feasting. Ann Hagen’s A Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food: Processing and Consumption (1994) shows that for Anglo-Saxons fasting and feasting “gave an eating rhythm to the week and the year”. Rather than indulge and then punish yourself, you fasted the day before a feast, and longer periods of fasting were followed by longer feasts. (Fasting could mean eating no meat, eating only bread and herbs, or limiting food to one meal a day.) Feasts were of social and ritual importance — the king was a “provider of feasts”; he created harmony and plenty; anyone who ate at his feast was affirming their obligations to him.
Hagen notes that ecclesiastical writers were concerned about the gluttony of feasts and that “England as a whole had a reputation for heavy eating and drinking all over the continent.” Aethelwold was appointed Bishop of Winchester in 963, and “clerics given over to gluttony and drunkenness attempted to poison him when he introduced a more austere regime”. Aethelred the Unready “specifically outlawed overeating and overdrinking”. Saints, however, “observed fasts more strictly than ordained . . . no doubt fasting was also used as a demonstration of moral superiority, and to try to influence opinion”. So not unlike Instagram today.
To detox from reading about detox I made butter — unlike FitTea, a staple for thousands of years. In Ireland, butter was buried in peat bogs to keep from spoiling; in 2013, a turf cutter in County Offaly found a keg of bog butter thought to be 5,000 years old. I’m not keen on most butter yet fresh homemade butter is something I love — it’s sweeter, softer, almost more like cream than butter.
Start with cream (double or whipping — crème fraîche works for a tangier style of butter) — 600ml makes about 300g butter. Stick it in a blender (food processor) — keep going, past the point at which it’s whipped. It will suddenly break and collapse into soft butter granules and white liquid buttermilk. Pour out the buttermilk and cover the butter with cold water. Blend again with the water — it may seem counterintuitive but this is called “washing” the butter and every milkmaid in history has done it; you need to rinse off the buttermilk to stop the butter going off. Strain it again, then take the butter, plunge it in a mixing bowl of cold water, and sort of mash it — knead it by hand. When the water runs clear you can take the butter out and try to form it into a log shape. (Mix in salt now if wanted — unsalted fresh butter doesn’t keep very long.) Wrap it in greaseproof paper or smush it into a container and stick it in the fridge.
The buttermilk you’ve made can go into the world’s easiest bread, soda bread, in which almost every ingredient is forbidden by detox rules: take 500g wholemeal flour, a teaspoon of salt, a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda, and 400ml buttermilk, a spoonful of honey or molasses, mix together, shape roughly into a circle, and bake at 200 degrees for around 50 minutes. Bread, butter — add some herbs and you have the eighth-century detox. Milkmaids were always famous for their good skin.