Festal/ferial, fattening/dietetic

One or two final comments on the distinction between the ferial and the festal cuisine. First, the excellence and exquisiteness of the dishes is in no way involved. It is not that festal cooking is best and ferial second-best. Some of the most discerning palates in history have pronounced a good boeuf Bourguignon or tripe Niçoise the full equal of any steak in the world. Many, many of the dishes that now rest secure in the haute cuisine are simply worthy specimens of ferial cooking at its best.

Even more important, however, the distinction must never be thought of as depending on the “richness” or fattening qualities of the foods involved—as if the festal ones were full of calories and the ferial ones dietetic. The calorie approach is the work of the devil. He has persuaded otherwise sane men that festal eating should not alternate with ferial eating at all, but with dieting—an activity which, while it uses food, hopes that it can keep food from having anything significant to do with us. The modern diet victim sees his life at the table not as a delightful alternation between pearls of great price and dishes of lesser cost, but as a grim sentence which condemns him to pay for every fattening repast (even the sleaziest) with a meal of carrot sticks and celery. Not that there is anything wrong with raw vegetables, or with eating less if you want to—but to allow such considerations to become the rule of man’s eating is simply the death of dining.

In fact, of course, the insane distinction of fattening/dietetic cannot be squared with the rational one of festal/ferial. The first fastens its attention, not on food, but on little invisible spooks called calories; only the second honestly addresses the real matter at hand. Consequently, the dieter has no way of distinguishing good food from bad. Take éclairs, for example. The world is full of them, mostly awful. Any true eater, ferial or festal, will be able to give you an accurate judgment as to which of them are worth meeting and which should be avoided. The dieter, however, has lost all criteria for judgment. That éclairs are fattening is his sole piece of information. If he is in a mood to diet, he will pass up the best éclair in the world without even a backward look; and if he is in a mood to eat, he will devour a corner-bakery, cardboard-and-corn-starch monstrosity as if it were something out of Brillat-Savarin. He is a man who, for all practical purposes, has lost his taste. He will choose tough steak in the presence of elegant stew, and canned stringed beans when he might have dined on mashed parsnips drenched in butter. All because he has fabricated a set of distinctions which has nothing to do with the subject.

–Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection