''Farewell Mardis Gras… hello Lent.'' Today, 5 March, is Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day. Also known as Mardi Gras (French for Fat Tuesday), it is the last day of the carnival before Lent – named after the practice of eating richer, fatty foods before the fasting season.
By Jeremy Ryland
Mardi Gras (“Fat Tuesday”) or Shrove Tuesday is the beginning of the fast for Lent. Mardi Gras has now developed into a time of partying and extravagant celebration! This is followed by Lent – or Quadragesima – the 46 day period of penance between Ash Wednesday and Easter on the Christian calendar.
Lent is 46 days long but is designated to be 40, since Sundays do not count, as fasting is considered inappropriate on Sundays, as Sundays commemorate the resurrection of Jesus. Interestingly, 40 is a symbolic number for Christian events - Moses spent 40 days in the wilderness; Noah spent 40 days and 40 nights in the rain and the Hebrews spent 40 years seeking the Promised Land.
During Lent, Christians used to fast but these days usually try to give up their favourite food such as chocolate or an item dear to them – and not give into temptation. Lent is also supposed to be a time to avoid meat, eggs and dairy. True believers are permitted fish.
Food and eating are intimately linked with culture and religious ceremony, and there is a long list of foods with religious symbolism often associated with a particular date or season that have developed over centuries of civilisation. Pancakes, croissants, hot cross buns, pretzels (see below), baklava, matzo, Easter eggs, stollen, dumplings, plum pudding and many others all have special meanings and sometimes practical considerations.
Lent is the beginning of Spring in the Northern Hemisphere. Food was generally still in short supply from the winter period and many of the foods that were put away in Autumn may now be spoiling. So we would fast to cut down of perishables in advance of the new Spring crops.
Pancakes, of course, are a simple flatbread made for thousands of years – sometimes savoury, often sweet. Having a feast of pancakes on Pancake Day helped to use up the supplies of fat, butter, milk and eggs; dairy foods that may be going off and were forbidden during Lent.
The pretzel is another interesting survivor of early Christian Lenten fare. The Christians in the Roman Empire used to make a special dough consisting only of flour, salt and water, since fat, eggs and milk were forbidden.
They shaped it into the form of two arms crossed in prayer, to remind them that Lent was a season of penance and devotion, with the three holes representing the Holy Trinity. They called these breads "little arms" or "brezel" from which comes our word "pretzel." The oldest known picture of a pretzel can be seen in a manuscript from the fifth century in the Vatican.
In times gone by, pretzels were distributed to the poor during Lent and it was only during the last century that this German (but really, ancient Roman) bread was adopted as an all-year delicacy, with its Lenten significance all but forgotten.
Today, due in part to modern food preservation and year-round supply, many of our old traditions have disappeared, and like the pretzel, these foods have become available for widespread use. Hot cross buns, for example, which used to be only consumed on Good Friday, are now on the supermarket shelves just after Christmas. And dumplings, once the preserve of Chinese New Year, are widely available.
So, enjoy a pancake today and remember to fast tomorrow! And at the end of Lent (Easter) you of course “break the fast” – breakfast is an everyday event and is the first meal of the day, breaking the fast from overnight.
"All happiness depends on a leisurely breakfast."
"Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper."
Adelle Davis (1904-1974)
"Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast."