Meditations and Prayers for Lent and Easter

About foods of the season
by Mary Ann Castronovo Fusco

In Christian 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

Sugared, 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.

In 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 Day.

According 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.

In 1950, 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.

Pancake races 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.

In Newfoundland, 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 wealth.

Pancake Pointers

Always 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.

Use 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.

Don’t 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.

The 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.

hot cross bunsIn 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.

Although 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.

English lore 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

“It 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.

“In 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.

An alternate 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


May the Passion of Jesus Christ Be Always in Our Hearts

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