Better sober?

Better sober?

Aylin Öney Tan -
Better sober

Revelers wave balloons during the annual New Year's Eve celebration in Times Square on Thursday, Dec. 31, 2015, in New York. (AP Photo/Kevin Hagen)

Dry January seems to be the buzzing trend nowadays. Abstaining from alcohol for the whole month of January appeals to many, especially to those who overdid the feasting and boozing during the festive season before New Year’s. Dry January, as a term, was registered in 2014 in the United Kingdom by Alcohol Concern, an advocacy group that initiated the first campaign in January 2013. Each year there is an increasing number of followers; some very keen, some just pretending to be so, some utilizing the opportunity as a sort of detox, or as a jump-start for a healthier life. In any case, it is a step for the good, as staying sober is better, even if for a mere one-twelfth of the year. 

Suggested sobriety for January is in reality not a new phenomenon. It has been promoted before; the Finnish government had such a campaign back in 1942, naming it Sober January. The idea of giving the body a break is a good one, though not a new one. Actually, mankind’s effort to abstain from the pleasures of life, including the intoxicating and bewildering alcohol, is a very old struggle dating back to the creation of religions. In every religion there is a period of abstention or fasting, like the Lenten period in Christianity, when you have to forego seductive things including alcohol. 

Some faiths like Islam and Bahaism totally reject alcoholic consumption, which is tough in practice, as we all know that religion is open to discussion, especially when it comes to enjoying a glass or two. Some people in Turkey take Ramadan as their dry month, whether they are religious or not, or fast or not. Their real reason might just be that they really need time off and the holy month seems to be an appropriate time – a period very justifiable socially in a country where 99 percent of the population is Muslim. Many of my female friends who really enjoy their multiple glasses of wine do this annually just to slim down – perhaps with just a hint of conscience-cleaning remaining from their upbringing. Anyway, the truth is that everybody who enjoys drinking also enjoys a break from imbibing from time to time. 

Lent is all about abstaining after the carnivorous and excessive carnival, and before the joyous Easter, it is a period of calming down, dedicating oneself to spirituality. One painful, hard-to-observe, and undoubtedly the driest period of all is Medz Bahk, the Armenian Lenten fast. Going dry for Orthodox Armenians lasts for seven weeks, during which they have to abstain from worldly pleasures and forego all animal products, that is, meat, poultry, milk, cheese, yogurt, dairy and eggs. Only plant-based oils are allowed such as olive oil, sesame oil, or better than the latter, tahini. Fish can only be eaten on Sundays, with the condition that there is no trace of blood whatsoever in the flesh of the fish. Sugar and honey is allowed, but any dessert containing dairy, cream, milk, eggs or butter is not permissible, leaving little choice for sweets. Still, there are always alternative choices, one of the best making use of tahini. To my theory, the very typical Istanbul habit of eating tahini helva after a fish course stems from this limiting Lenten practice. 

Medz Bahk, in other words, is about going vegan and dry at the same time, for a full 48 days; a true detoxing period indeed. The first 40 days of abstaining is followed by another week of fasting, which adds up to seven weeks in total. It is not easy to keep track of those weeks of agony, so a funny trick was applied in Armenian houses. In each house there is that symbolic onion “Mırmıras” hung as a reminder. The onion is preferably a purplish red onion pricked with seven feathers all stuck around the equator of the onion, creating a cheerful spin wheel, with a tail of a hot red pepper hung below. The onion bears the name Mırmıras, probably after Mormoros, a name given to grumpy old men. It represents those fasting involuntarily, utterly unhappy at abstaining from all the good things in life. The seven feathers stand for the seven Lenten weeks; also representing the seven sins that one has to get rid of: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth. The red hot pepper is to remind one of the suffering and pain awaiting one if the Lent is not observed properly. After each week of vegan dryness, one feather is pulled off the onion; at the same time supposedly one gets rid of one sin a week as well. 

Oh well; but sins are tempting, especially lust and gluttony, so intertwined with a good glass of joy… but maybe not in January! If you’ve stayed away from sipping a drink since New Year, keep doing so the rest of the month, or punish yourself by starting to practice Medz Bahk in February… 

Bite of the Week

Cork of the Week:
When going dry, what you need are good substitutes. My personal choice is all kinds of specialty green teas, but how many cups of tea can one have? Sometimes we just want to hear that tingling of ice in our glasses. One option in Turkey is to go for traditional sherbets; alas, most of those at the market are cloyingly sweet. One exception is Erenköy Şerbet which comes in a wide range of flavors: herbal and flowery lavender; rose; fruity quince, pomegranate; mandarin; spicy lohusa; or exotic tangy tamarind. Call creator/owner Mustafa Pektaş +90 533 712 0169 for orders. Another grapey but non-alcoholic choice comes from the island of Tenedos/Bozcaada. Bozcaadalı Veli Dede is a family brand that produces top-notch organic grape juice, and for a sourer taste, verjuice from unripe grapes. Check their website for