Category Archives: Ash Wednesday

Pancakes Tonight!

It’s a bit sobering to think that Carnevale, at this time last year, was probably the last large gathering of people on a grand scale on this planet since February of 2020. Health concerns keep us keeping our distance. This year’s Carnevale festivities in Italy have been much more subdued… probably just as they were in times of plague in ages past.

Carnevale, or Carnival, began on the 30th of January this year in Venice. In English speaking countries, the season is better known as Shrovetide: the time of merry making before Lent begins. And Shrove Tuesday is today: the very last of it, capping off the celebration. Tomorrow will bring Ash Wednesday and a decidedly more solemn time: Lent, forty days of fasting and penance and reflection. Which is perhaps something we need every now and then. Certainly once a year, it was thought, and why not now, when the larders were getting empty. Back in the days when food was not as plentiful and easily procured as it is now, Lent was not just a season in the church calendar; it was a crucial time of fasting to help get everyone through until fresh food could be gathered again in the spring.

There are many traditions in foodways for Shrove Tuesday, known also as Mardi Gras. I’m not so crazy about the King Cakes that are in bakeries and grocery stores this time of year––they’re a bit too sweet for my tastes, with all that purple and green and yellow sugar. But the Polish bakeries will have pączki today, a rich filled doughnut, and the Swedish bakeries will have cream filled buns called semla. If they’re doing things right they’ll be selling them today but definitely not tomorrow and not again until next Shrovetide. In Germany, it is Fasnacht, and folks will be making doughnuts for the occasion this night (nacht) before the fast.

Seth and I, we’ll be making pancakes for our supper, and that is an old delicious tradition, one designed for times when Lent was much more restrictive than it is now. Nowadays all that the church asks of you is to pass up on meat on Fridays, but in ages past, folks had to give up meat for all forty days, and also eggs and all kinds of things we take for granted now. Making pancakes for supper on Shrove Tuesday was a way to use up all the eggs, all the milk, and all the sugar before the next day’s dawning brought Lent. We eat our pancakes with festivity and celebration. (Pancakes for supper? Of course they’ll be eaten with festivity and celebration!)

In the morning we awake to Ash Wednesday. I think a lot of us will choose to stay home this year, but typically, the churches are open, and if we have it in us, we go, and we approach that altar to have ashes smeared on our foreheads with the spoken reminder: Remember man that thou are dust and to dust you shall return. Something we’ve pondered, in one way or another, most all of this past circle around the sun. We are made of the stuff of this earth and we shall return to it. But the stuff of this earth is made of the stuff of the stars, too, and that is something greater to ponder. If nothing else, these forty days that follow tonight’s pancake supper will hopefully remind us that life is short, and we would do well to live the time we have with compassion and kindness for our fellow human beings (and all sentient beings, as Seth’s mom says), and to love each day, and, as we like to say here, to live the ceremony of each day, too.

Image: “Shrovetide,” a painting by Igor Novikov, 2013. No pancakes or semla or pączki to be found in the picture, but it’s ok; I do love the painting. Used with gratitude through Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons.

MASK UP SALE! We’ve begun a brand new sale at Convivio Bookworks today! Buy any four or more of our beautiful triple layer embroidered face masks and you’ll automatically save 24% plus free shipping! It’s practically like getting one mask free (and all of them shipped to you for free, too). And if you need us to ship to destinations outside the US, email us first and we can make arrangements to ship for just $1 per mask. These triple layer masks are made by an extended family of artisans in Chiapas, Mexico, who truly appreciate every sale. So please throw a little transactional support their way if you can, while helping to keep yourself and those around you safe so we can gather again someday without thinking twice about it. We’re calling this one the Mask Up Sale. Click here to start shopping!

Click on the picture to see a full size version of it! The masks pictured here are the floral ones, but we also have other designs featuring calaveras, Frida Kahlo, Maria Bonita, Our Lady of Guadalupe, sugar skulls, Otomi-inspired flora and fauna, mandalas, and maybe even another one or two that I can’t remember off the top of my head.

 

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Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday

Shrovetide is the time we’ve been in in recent weeks: the time of merry making before Lent begins. And Shrove Tuesday is today: the very last of it. Tomorrow will bring Ash Wednesday and a decidedly not merry time: Lent, forty days of fasting and penance and reflection. Which is perhaps something we need every now and then. Well certainly once a year, it was thought, and why not now, when the larders were getting empty. Back in the days when food was not as plentiful and easily procured as it is now, Lent was crucial to help get everyone through to spring and renewal.

There are many traditions in foodways for Shrove Tuesday, known also as Mardi Gras. I’m not so crazy about the King Cakes that are in grocery stores this time of year––they’re a bit too sweet and insipid for my tastes, with all that purple and green and yellow sugar. But the Polish bakeries will have pączki today, a rich filled doughnut, and the Swedish bakeries will have cream filled buns called semla. If they’re doing things right they’ll be selling them today but definitely not tomorrow and not again until next Shrovetide. In Germany, it is Fasnacht, and folks will be making doughnuts for the occasion this night (nacht) before the fast.

Seth and I, we’ll be making pancakes for our supper, and that is an old delicious tradition, one designed for times when Lent was much more restrictive than it is now. Nowadays you’re golden if you pass up on meat on Fridays, but in ages past, folks had to give up meat for all forty days, and also eggs and all kinds of things we take for granted now. Making pancakes for supper on Shrove Tuesday was a way to use up all the eggs, all the milk, and all the sugar before the next day’s dawning brought Lent. We eat our pancakes with festivity and in good spirit, and in the morning, if we have it in us, we will approach that altar to have ashes smeared on our foreheads with the spoken reminder: Remember man that thou are dust and to dust you shall return. We are made of the stuff of this earth and we shall return to it. But the stuff of this earth is made of the stuff of the stars, too, and that is something to ponder. If nothing else, these forty days that follow tonight’s pancake supper will hopefully remind us that life is short, and we would do well to live the time we have with compassion and kindness for our fellow human beings, and to love each day, and, as we like to say here, to live the ceremony of each day, too.

Image: “Shrovetide,” a painting by Igor Novikov, 2013. No pancakes or semla or pączki to be found in the picture, but it’s ok; I do love the painting. Used with gratitude through Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Love & Lent

It’s Valentine’s Day and it’s also the first day of Lent. That’s one of the dangers of a February holiday like Valentine’s Day: sometimes it falls on a fasting day. A really nice dinner is a traditional part of many Valentine’s Day celebrations; sometimes, like this year, Lent shows up as an unwelcome guest at the table. Whether you fast or not is up to you. I certainly won’t say anything.

Nonetheless, with the passing of Fat Tuesday, the excess of Carnival is done. It’s now Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, a forty day journey of penitence, fasting, and almsgiving. The idea of abstaining from meat and things of the flesh (milk, cheese, eggs) during Lent was instituted by Pope Gregory in the late 6th century as a way of helping his flock prepare for Easter and the miracle of spring by mirroring Jesus’s forty days of fasting in the desert. But although it is a season of denial imposed by religious belief, the fact is that in earlier times this was a season of scarcity in general. Folks did their best each fall during harvest time to store away food and provisions to last through the winter, but by this time of year, these things were beginning to get scarce. The salted meat would be running low, the eggs running out. There’s not much to gather in the wild and not much is growing yet in the fields. In the Northern Hemisphere, we are just beginning at this point to spring out of winter. In times past, if you were lucky, you’d still have a decent quantity of flour in the barrel and a good store of dried beans, root vegetables, and dried fruits and nuts and hopefully some salted fish. Even without a decree from the Pope, some fasting would almost always be necessary to get your family through the remaining weeks of winter.

As I mentioned in the Book of Days chapter two days ago, titled “Fat Tuesday,” the traditional symbol of Carnevale in Italy is a plump man wearing a necklace of sausages about his neck. He is in stark contrast to the traditional symbol of Lent: a gaunt old woman, all skin and bones. She is known as La Vecchia. Her time gets the name Quaresima, which sounds so much more lovely than our stark English word Lent. Sometimes La Vecchia takes the form of a baked loaf of bread in the shape of a skinny old woman with seven legs. One leg is broken off with each passing Sunday of Lent, a calendar of sorts, marking the passage of this spare season.

Nowadays, most Catholics simply abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent. Restrictions have loosened a lot over the years, perhaps in direct proportion with our abilities to keep food on the table at all times of the year. The restrictions are mostly now just symbolic. But the custom we have of dyeing eggs at Easter comes directly out of the old ways of Lent: folks were so excited to welcome eggs back into their daily diet each spring, they celebrated by dyeing them with natural dyes like beetroot, chamomile flowers, red cabbage, and onion skins. I still like dyeing eggs with these things of nature.

Being a time of spare solemness, it is not surprising that there are not many celebratory foods that accompany Lent. There is one, however: The humble pretzel. At their most basic, pretzels are made with just three ingredients, all Lenten-friendly: flour, salt, and water. It is thought that the name “pretzel” is derived from the Latin bracellae: “little arms,” essentially, evoking the prayer posture of early Christians, who prayed with their arms crossed over the chest. Go ahead, try it right now, then look down at your chest: classic pretzel shape. This penitential bread––again, so common nowadays so as to be nothing special––has a history that goes back many many centuries. The first pretzels were thought to be made in the 6th century. Some historians think they go back three centuries more.

Connexions like these are, I think, so fascinating. That a common pretzel can have such interesting roots (and deep ones, at that) and mark our celebratory days (or penitential ones, in this case) is such a wonderful thing.

Love is at the heart of our table no matter the meal or the season, even in the humble dishes that make up our meals during Lent. Perhaps there is no better Valentine’s Day than one that falls on Ash Wednesday, when we are reminded that we are made from the earth and to earth we shall return. The time is short. Ash Wednesday is, at its core, a day to remember the brevity of things and to understand that we are here to love and to lift each other up. These forty days of Lent are a good time, I feel, to focus not on what we deprive ourselves, but on what we can do to enrich the lives of others. So go on: Love with all your might.

 

Image: “La Quaresima Saggia” by Giuseppe Maria Mitelli. Engraving, c.17th century. The haggard old woman of Lent, trodding upon the remnants of Carnevale, framed by the foods of her season: fish and snails, onions and other root crops, beans, and I’m pretty sure those are cardoon stalks at the top right.