by Mary Ann Castronovo Fusco
communities the world over, the penitential period of Lent is known
as a time of fasting and abstinence from favorite foods. But the days
leading up to Lent and even the 40-day Lenten period itself are also
noted for special foods whose origins reflect the spirituality of the
season. right: from a painting by Jan van Bijlert, 18th century
fatty, and meant to be consumed in copious quantities, the fried ribbons
of dough typically eaten to celebrate the pre-Lenten carnival season
include the Italian galani, cenci, bugie, and chiacchiere, and the Polish
and Hungarian chruschiki. All descend from frictilia, sweets fried in
lard used to celebrate festivals in ancient Roman times. In the Middle
Ages when Lenten regulations were more stringent than they are now,
they also served a practical purpose. In those days, Christians were
called on to abstain not only from meat during Lent, but also from foods
containing fat and eggs. In the weeks preceding Ash Wednesday, the people
would literally fritter away their store of fats and dairy products.
France, it’s customary to use up those forbidden ingredients to make
all manner of crepes during the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras, or Fat
Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. And in England, Mardi Gras is
known not only as Shrove Tuesday, but also Pancake
to tradition, in 1445 when church bells calling parishioners to the
shriving service (confession) began to ring in the town of Olney in
Buckinghamshire, a townswoman was in the process of making pancakes.
Grabbing a head covering, which was required to enter church, she ran
off to make her confession, still wearing her apron and holding her
skillet with pancake in hand. In the years that followed, her neighbors
followed her hasty lead, racing with hotcake still in the pan to the
church each Shrove Tuesday to collect a prize — a kiss of peace from
the church’s bell ringer.
Pancake Race rules were formalized, and the event was copied in Liberal,
Kansas. Women from the two cities have been competing in a Pancake
Race on Shrove Tuesday ever since. Each contestant, who must wear a
head covering, a dress or skirt, and an apron, runs a 415-yard-long
winding course, skillet in hand, flipping her pancake at the starting
signal, and again after crossing the finish line.
aside, the main ingredients used to make these flat cakes are believed
to symbolize four crucial elements at Lent: eggs for creation; flour
for life; salt for wholesomeness; and milk for purity. According to
one superstition, if you eat pancakes before 8:00 p.m. on Shrove Tuesday,
you will not go without food during the coming year.
which also celebrates Pancake Day on Shrove Tuesday, pancakes are served
with molasses, and trinkets are sometimes mixed into the batter to foretell
the future of those who eat them. Tradition dictates that if a boy finds
an item representing a particular trade, he will enter that profession;
if a girl finds it, she will marry a person from that trade. The tokens
might include a piece of string to symbolize a fisherman’s net; a piece
of wood for a carpenter (watch out for splinters!), a wedding ring for
marriage; a button for bachelorhood; a penny for poverty; a nickel for
cook pancakes on a hot preheated surface. Test the heat by adding a
drop of water; if it sizzles for a second and then evaporates, the surface
is hot enough.
the right amount of the right fat. Brush a pan with a thin layer of
vegetable oil once the pan is hot. Whichever fat is chosen, it should
be minimal. Pancakes should be cooked on a fairly dry surface with just
enough fat to moisten them and keep them from sticking. Never use ordinary
butter to cook the pancakes, for the milk solids will burn. You can
use clarified butter, however.
rush to flip. Once bubbles appear on the surface, use the top of a wide
spatula to gently lift one side. If the bottom is evenly but lightly
browned, turn it and cook the other side until done.
hot cross bun is another English culinary icon for Lent. The English word
“bun” comes from the old French bugne, meaning “swelling,”
a reference to the sweet’s bulging shape, according to The Oxford
Companion to Food. Made from buttery dough seasoned with allspice,
cinnamon, nutmeg, or cloves, hot cross buns get their name from the mark
that’s scored on them before they’re baked or squiggled on them with fondant
icing once they come out of the oven.
the United States, bakers start selling hot cross buns on Ash Wednesday.
In England they’ve traditionally been served on Good Friday ever since
1361, when the monks of St. Albans Cathedral in Hertfordshire, north
of London, began sharing them with the poor in commemoration of that
holy day. Some hold that the dried fruit enfolded in the yeast-based
dough represents the nails of the Crucifixion.
the cross atop the bun is typically construed as a Christian symbol,
it has pagan roots, an early reference to the moon and its four quarters.
Some historians believe the buns descended from ancient pagan sacramental
cakes eaten by Anglo-Saxons in honor of Eostre, the goddess of spring
and fertility, whose name gave us our “Easter.” Other ancient
cultures offered up similarly marked small cakes to various deities
as well. Rather than get potential converts to give up their luscious
buns, early Christian preachers encouraged their use in commemorating
the Lenten season. Others maintain that the buns “derive from the
cross-marked Communion wafers consecrated on Good Friday, which Anglo-Saxon
priests are known to have kept as medicine for the sick,” wrote
Charles Kightly in The Customs and Ceremonies of Britain: An Encyclopaedia
of Living Traditions.
maintains that bread baked on Good Friday will never go moldy, and the
bittersweet tradition of the widow’s son allegedly proves this. According
to legend, when a widow baker’s son left the East End of London to go
off to sea in the 1800s, the mother vowed to bake her son a hot cross
bun each Good Friday to eat on his return. She kept her word, hanging
them in the window of her bakery. But her son never came back, and she
eventually died. In honor of her devotion, every year at midday on Good
Friday, a sailor from the British Royal Navy brings a freshly baked
hot cross bun to the Widow’s Son, a pub that now stands in place of
the widow’s bake shop, and hangs it with the others, still intact, placed
there by sailors every year for over a century.
A New Twist for Lent
sounds surprising, but the pretzel has a deep spiritual meaning for
Lent. In fact, it was the ancient Christian Lenten bread as far back
as the fifth century,” wrote Francis X. Weiser, a Jesuit priest,
in Religious Customs in the Family ($8), a book originally
published in 1956 and republished in 1998 by Tan Books and Publishers
of Rockford, Illinois.
the old Roman Empire, the faithful kept a very strict fast all through
Lent: no milk, no butter, no cheese, no eggs, no cream and, of course,
no meat. So they made small breads of water, flour, and salt,”
wrote Father Weiser. “To remind themselves that Lent was a time
of prayer, they shaped these breads in the form of arms crossed in prayer
(in those days they crossed their arms over the breast while praying).
Therefore, they called the breads little arms’ (bracellae).”
From this Latin word came the German word “bretzel,” which
ultimately became our “pretzel.” Father Weiser added that
the earliest picture and description of a pretzel, from the fifth century,
can be found in codex no. 3867 in the Vatican Library.
account of the pretzel’s hallowed history, published by the Snack Food
Association in Alexandria, Virginia, contends that it was developed
by a 7th-century monk in Southern France or Northern Italy,
who gave the treat to children as a reward for learning their prayers.
According to the SFA, he called it a “pretiola,” which later
became bretzel and pretzel.
See also: plants of lent