Lenten fodder

Yesterday was Shrove Tuesday, so today is the first day of Lent, a forty day fast that takes us right up to Easter. It came about because Jesus fasted for 40 days as he walked the wilderness prior to his death on the crucifix. Foods like meat, eggs, cheese and milk were decadent and therefore they were right out during Lent. In fact there was abstinence from any activity considered decadent, and the further back in time, the stricter were the rules. In the early days of Christian Britain some people ate only bread, whilst others ate herbaceous vegetables too. As time went on to the Middle Ages, the rules became a little slacker and fish were allowed into the diet. Thomas Aquinas was a main instigator of this move.

“By Jove, look at all the tucker Jesus has got, chaps!”

The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes

Fish was chosen for several reasons: It was fare that could be eaten by all classes, so in effect everyone would be eating the same types of food, nor was is associated with power, strength, hotness and richness like meat was; indeed fish were both humble  and meagre. Most importantly, it was strongly associated with Jesus himself. The 40-day long fast also symbolised a cycle of ‘purification and regeneration’ and fish were considered pure. People always find loopholes however – the rich still ate large grand dishes like roast pike. Indeed anything even closely associated with water was considered fair game during Lent: beaver, seal, porpoise, heron, even sheep found drinking from streams were eaten!

Fair game: the beever

By Tudor times, the rules had slackened even further to include fish and game, but not red or white meat (i.e. poultry). This meant one could eat bustard, curlew, pheasant, quail and red deer. Strangley, root vegetables were off the menu because they came from the soil and were a little too close to Hell for comfort for some.

In France during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there were sometimes no difference between Lenten meals and regular ones, at least for the aristocracy. People would simply find excuses not to fast, complaining, according to the great French gastronome Brillat-Savarin “it irritated them, gave them headache, and prevented them from sleeping. All the troubles associated with the spring were put down to the score of the fast, so that one did not fast because he thought he was poorly, another because he had been, and a third because he feared to be.”

The late, great Brillat-Savarin

Most of the time it was enforced, though not for reasons of piety, but for economical ones. For example on a typical day, the French Royal Family in the Palace of Versailles, France, went through 900 pullets, 350 braces of pigeons and 86 goslings!

The Palace at Versailles

These days, people give up one vice for Lent, and although I am an atheist, I do see the spiritual worth in giving up something. Back in the day, when I used to smoke, I would try and forego cigarettes but without much success. These days I don’t bother, so I suppose I’m going straight to Hell; at least there’ll be plenty of parsnips and carrots down there to roast by the fire and brimstone…

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Filed under Festivals, food, French Cookery, General, history, Uncategorized

10 responses to “Lenten fodder

  1. I’ve learned a few things today! It certainly is the nature of man to stretch the rules to the maximum allowance – and yet, in our efforts to obey, we miss the whole point of the exercise. Lent seems to me a very small way to try and appreciate the suffering of the Son of God in my behalf. His willing sacrifice of his own comfort to provide forgiveness of my sin, when I was His enemy, humbles me to my core. I think Lent provides a means to practice gratefulness, that Christ reached out to me, even when I didn’t want to be reached.


    • buttery77

      I think that Lent is a good thing to do even if you’re not Christian. Everyonr needs reminding that we take a land of plenty for granted, whether there’s someone looking down on us or not…


  2. All our annual celebratory periods go way back beyond the upsurge of Christianity, a religious movement in the western world that usurped the old fiestas and gave the people piety and sanctimony in their place. Could it be that what we call ‘Lent’ used to be a time when food, after a long winter, was scarce and ‘fasting’ was not a matter of choice. It would also have been a time when work on the land would have been especially hard, and the spring solstice (what became ‘Easter’) was eagerly awaited because it was known that food would then begin to become more abundant – of course with hard work, diligence, cooperation and natural human goodness – all things worth celebrating.


    • Of course, I mean equinox not solstice . . . .


    • buttery77

      Yes I had made thatr assumption too, though curiously didn’t find any sources saying that’s how Lent came about. I follow every ‘Christian’ festival, not because i am Christian (for I am not), but because they all predate Christianity itself…


      • The period we call Lent was the clever Christian rationale for the time of year when food was at its scarcest. It didn’t slot in to an existing pagan celebratory rite as it did for the periods of equinox and solstice. For the so called pagans there was nothing to celebrate at this difficult time of the year so the Christian message of ‘hope through sacrifice’ presumably helped people to adopt a certain stoicism regarding their lot. And it caught on . . .
        I think Carnival though was all our own rather clever idea . . . .


      • buttery77

        Yes Carnival was indeed a clever thing. i didn’t have time to blog about this year. I shall next year though…


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