I’ll admit it’s difficult to eat seasonally in the Northeastern US or Northern Europe in winter. You must cultivate a love for root vegetables and make the acquaintance of farmers with large green houses. But just imagine if your religion required you to give up most animal products during that same time. For Medieval Christians that’s exactly what was expected.
Lent is a period during which Christians traditionally practice fasting and prayer, and give alms to the poor. The period begins on Ash Wednesday (which is today this year) and lasts for the 40 days leading up to Easter Sunday. I love learning about history through food, so a few years ago I did some reading about this tradition. It turns out that fasting in late-winter/early-spring is actually a pre-christian activity. If you think about the way the subsistence farming of that era worked it makes a lot of sense.
Lent is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word “lencten,” which means “spring,” and begins about one month before the Vernal Equinox. This is a time when even if you were forward-thinking like The Ant, you may be starting to run low on all of the provisions you dried, salted away and pickled during the abundance of harvest time. The English call this time “hungry gap,” the new crops aren’t growing yet; the ewes haven’t given birth; the cow, if you didn’t slaughter her for meat in the autumn, might be dry; the hens are laying much less frequently due to the weak winter sun; and the community still needs to eat.
I would imagine that ancient religious and political leaders quickly realized that if they didn’t do something to help their people get through this thin time, they would have food riots on their hands. So, they encouraged sacrifice for the greater good of the community. If people ate fewer animal products at the end of winter, there would be enough to go around until the asparagus was up and the lambs were dropped.
Nowadays of course, many of us (in the First World) don’t have to worry about not having enough food. On the one hand that’s wonderful because subsistence farming is back-breaking work, but on the other, our new abundance seems to have led to an epidemic of obesity in affluent countries. For the last few years I’ve been keeping the Medieval rules of Lent as a way of reminding myself that more is not always better.
The original rules of Lent, which observant Christians had to comply with on pain of Mortal Sin, forbade the consumption of meat (including poultry), animal fats, milk, or eggs from Ash Wednesday to Easter except Sundays. Yes, you read that right, except Sundays. The Church considers Sundays feast days so fasting or abstinence is not allowed. Leaving out Sundays is also how you get the figure of 40 days, if they are included then it adds up to 46. The modern church has eased these rules encouraging instead voluntary fasting and abstinence which it defines as eating one full meal per day and omitting meat and poultry on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays.
The first year we tried this in our house it was a little difficult to adjust. The ancients were wise to have it begin on a Wednesday, so you’ve only got four days to go before Sunday in that first week. After a while it becomes easier, it’s basically a vegan diet plus fish. Most cultures that are traditionally Christian have lenten recipes, if you look in Italian, Greek and Spanish cookbooks you’ll find things that either fit the rules or can be easily adapted. Most Asian cuisines are terrific too because they don’t use dairy. Some might see coconut milk as cheating, but boy is it tasty.
On the upside, you always remember to celebrate Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday; you really appreciate the meat, eggs, cheese, and butter you get to have on Sundays; and you might even lose a little weight. In particular, I find Lent a welcome respite from the holiday season, which while it technically runs from about Thanksgiving to New Year’s seems to stretch ever further with rich roasts and braises to combat the winter weather. By the end of Lent I’m dreaming of asparagus and fresh spring flowers.
For the next six weeks on Comestibles I’ll be featuring at least one lenten recipe per week. If you’d like an early start check out this very comprehensive list from blogger Peter Minakis. His recipes are geared towards the Greek Orthodox version of Lent which is very similar to the western Catholic Medieval tradition, except that fish is forbidden while shellfish is not. I’ll definitely be trying out some of these dishes this year.