When Foodies Fast

An interfaith panel of culinary experts sheds light on a time-honored spiritual practice.

Illustration by Addison Eaton

In strict observance of the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, which begins tonight, many Jews around the world will not eat or drink for a full 25 hours. Fasting is a time-honored tradition that unites religions and spiritual practices all over the world and across millennia. But why? What is it about abstaining from food that brings us closer to our spiritual sides? Why should something so mundane as skipping breakfast, lunch, and dinner go so far as recalibrate our very sense of place and time? Figuring no one is better positioned to tell us what it means to forgo food than someone who’s very identity revolves around consuming food, we curated an interfaith dialogue of chefs, food writers, and culinary experts to share what religious fasting means to them.

Jeff Young, New Orleans

The Catholic Foodie

Fast: Lent

“I love pizza, it’s my favorite food in the whole world, but there’s an appreciation there that wouldn’t be there otherwise. It’s not just all one way. Fasting helps me understand that all the food that we love to eat—and I love to cook, I love to eat—ultimately isn’t going to be really satisfying without it. For me, fasting helps me and my family keep in mind what food is really all about.”

Yvonne Maffei, Chicago

My Halal Kitchen and author, Summer Ramadan Cooking

Fast: Ramadan

“All the foodie-ness comes out at Ramadan. Writing about food is kind of a solitary experience a lot of times—I’m always thinking about it in my head—but during Ramadan, you’re not alone. The experience is shared. The conversation is almost always ‘what are we having,’ or ‘that was really good.’ Ramadan is the one time of year I feel part of something bigger. I have to make sure I have new and interesting recipes online each year.”

Leah Koenig, New York City

Author, Modern Jewish Cookbook

Fast: Yom Kippur (and Tisha B’Av)

“Growing up, my family would go out for corned beef at a local deli after Yom Kippur morning services. My mom was a devout non-faster. Thinking back on it, I think that eating a Jewish food was her way of connecting. It wouldn’t have felt right to eat, say, chicken wings on Yom Kippur—but corned beef was somehow fitting… [Now, fasting] adds a spiritual depth and weight to the holidays. I am compelled by the idea that mourning and repentance should be physical acts, not just verbal ones.”

Preena Chauhan, Toronto

Hindu cooking teacher and co-founder of Arvinda’s Spice Blends

Fast: Weekly

“In India, observing a fast is a common practice amongst Hindus and is also an ancient tradition. It is said fasting helps purify the mind, detoxifies the body, and clears one’s self of impurities—both on a physical and mental level. For me personally, on the weekly fast, I feel light and energetic and it almost feels like a weekly renewal. I do this every Monday, so I use the fast day as an opportunity to acknowledge, observe and reflect on the past week and to start the new week with a fresh slate. Perhaps because of my connection to food professionally, I appreciate all the abundance of food I have and see this as a weekly opportunity to acknowledge that appreciation. The fasting rituals remind me of all the things I appreciate about food. … This gives you the opportunity to focus or channel positive energy towards a particular goal.”

Christy Spackman, New York City

Doctoral Candidate in NYU’s Food Studies program

Fast: (Mormon) First Sundays

“I love food, I think about food probably 24/7, I study food, I am a baker, I teach other people how to cook, and so for me, the opportunity to step away from food as this all encompassing thing has become very powerful in my adult life because it allows me to start thinking about needs that go beyond nourishment and start thinking about spiritual needs but also what it means to feel hunger. And I see hunger as existing on multiple levels: There’s that acknowledgment, ‘oh I’d like to eat,’ and then there’s a spiritual hunger for a deeper connection with God, or a deeper connection with the spirit.”