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Lent: A History of Fasting and Feasting

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In 604 AD, Pope Gregory the Great decreed that during the 40 days of Lent preceding Easter, Christians would follow a strict dietary code as a form of penance. In a letter to the archbishop of Canterbury, Gregory wrote, "We abstain from flesh meat and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese, butter and eggs".

Fish then became the primary source of protein for everyone in Christendom and in places where a fresh catch was not available, dried salted fish was used, especially cod and herring. Preparing appetizing meals without using forbidden foods was a cook's greatest challenge. Every ethnic group then developed its own culinary means of coping with the Lenten edict.

Green Thursday

In central Europe, it became traditional to eat green food on the day before Easter. Many "Green Thursday" menus featured soup made from leafy greens, herbs and potatoes. A similar custom emerged in 18th century Louisiana, where Creole cooks were famous for their spicy stews known as gumbos. Seven different leafy greens (one for each day of the week) stirred into a thick brown roux, simmered together with as many herbs after which they used them to serve over rice. Gumbo Z'herbes became so popular that it is still served in many devout homes on Fridays, a traditional fast day throughout the year.

The Creation of the Humble Pretzel

Easter Basket In 610 AD, at a remote northern Italian monastery, the baker was making a special bread from only flour, water and salt because fat, eggs and milk were forbidden. Throwing food away ran contrary to the monastic vow of poverty that forbade waste of any kind. The frugal monk rolled the scraps of leftover dough into ropes and twisted each rope into a three-part loop. The three holes symbolized the divine Trinity; Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

The Christian Trinity Symbolized by a Pretzel

The twisted center portion resembled how the monks prayed - with their arms folded across their chest - and served as a reminder to all that Lent is a season of penance. The monk distributed the crisp breads to local children as a reward for learning their prayers and called them bracallae, which is Latin for "little arms". As the tradition spread from monastery to monastery and over the Alps into Germany, the word bracellae was corrupted into brezel, then bretzel and finally to our very own pretzel.

Black Fast Days

Christians strictly observed Ash Wednesday and Good Friday as "Black fast" days. Frequently babies cried three times before given milk. In Ireland, one notable exemption from Pope Gregory's dictum was March 17, the Feast of St. Patrick. Then everyone had a bit of meat for dinner and all food restrictions were suspended. Men who had sworn off alcohol as penance could have a sip from Patrick's Pot.

In the late Middle Ages, a tradition called Mothering Sunday developed in England. On the third, Sunday of Lent, boys and girls who lived away from home as apprentices and servants, could visit the "mother" church where they where their baptism took place. After Mass, the youths visited their mothers bearing bouquets of wildflowers and spicy, raisin-studded fruitcakes encased in a layer of marzipan and topped with 12 marzipan balls to represent the 12 Apostles.

Mothering Sunday

Rolls Holy week meals were extremely austere. In England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, breakfast consisted of dry bread and tea; dinner was boiled potatoes and salt; and for supper, there was black tea and more dry bread.

On Good Friday, if anyone ate at all, the single meal consisted of barley bread, plain cress and water. While most people spent the whole day in church and work was discouraged, they believed Good Friday was a lucky day for planting crops so farmers made it a point to sow a little grain or a few potatoes. Considering the austerity of most Good Friday traditions, it is surprising that England celebrated the day by eating hot cross buns, studded with currants and bits of candied fruit.

History suggests that the sweet rolls originated in 1361 AD at St. Alban's Abbey where the monks distributed them as alms to the poor, but the cross-shaped sugar icing dates from pre-Christian times.

At Druid spring festivals celebrating the longer, sun-filled days of the planting season, the symbol of the sun was a circle bisected by two lines into four quarters that represented the four seasons. Hot cross buns were believed to be impervious to mold and decay and powerful talismans against danger. People kept some all year, using them as medicine or wearing them as charms against disease, lightning and shipwreck.

The Easter Egg

Although a hardship, albeit an easy one, It was easy to follow Pope Gregory's dictate, but no one could keep hens from laying their eggs. As Lent dragged by, the piles of eggs grew higher. On Easter, the stockpiled ova headlined the day's feast. While waiting for Easter to arrive, people colored and decorated the eggs.

On Easter morning, everyone ate a huge portion of eggs for luck. During the day, egg hunts and egg-rolling contests kept the children amused while the women prepared a feast. Cooks whipped the eggs into cakes, stirred them into puddings, folded them into pies and tucked them into breads, such as Easter Crown Bread. Every household, no matter how poor, celebrated the end of the long Lenten fast with eggs.

Today, Lenten fasting is a voluntary practice rather than a papal mandate, but Lenten foods and traditions survive. Corned beef and cabbage appear as a featured menu selection nearly everywhere on St. Patrick's Day. Thousands of the aforementioned fruitcakes sell in England for Mothering Sunday. In the United States, millions of egg-dying kits entertain modern youngsters. Cooks bake hot cross buns by the ton throughout the season. Last but certainly not least, we could not hope for a less sinful snack food that the humble, low-fat pretzel!

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