Tomorrow marks the halfway point of Lent, a 40-day (not including Sundays) season of abstinence and religious devotion observed by Christians of all stripes.
Historically, the season preceding the anniversary of the death and resurrection of Jesus has not offered much in the way of food. Because the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church both stressed fasting during Lent (Protestant denominations rarely require parishioners to abstain from food), the foods associated with the Lenten season have generally been those eaten before or after Lent itself.
Traditionally, the day before the beginning of Lent has been the gastronomic highlight of the season. In the U.K., it is called Shrove Tuesday, a term that comes from verb �to shrive,� or to confess something and subsequently receive absolution from a religious authority. However, as pre-Ash Wednesday confession has become less common over the years, the other popular names for the day, Pancake Tuesday and Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras in French), have begun to seem much more descriptive.
This day was once intended to be a chance for families to consume all the rich foods they were not allowed to eat during Lent, and, even as dietary restrictions of old have waned, the pancakes have remained. So has the celebratory atmosphere, as evidenced by the annual Mardi Gras activities on Bourbon Street in New Orleans.
After Shrove Tuesday�s celebratory feasting, there has historically been little to look forward to in the way of food during Lent besides perhaps a feast on Easter Sunday.
Until the Protestant Reformation, all Christian groups fasted in some way or another during the season. Whether it was the consumption of one meal a day in the Catholic Church or the progressive imposition of stricter dietary restrictions in the Eastern Orthodox Church, all Christians were religiously obligated to watch what they ate over the course of Lent. The Reformation brought an end to fasting for some Christians, but even these young dissenter sects didn�t go out of their way to make particularly savory food during the season.
The Orthodox Church in America, however, continues the tradition of fasting during Lent. Members of this denomination fast for the duration of Lent, following a complex set of dietary guidelines limiting them to eating fruits and vegetables for most days of the week. Their fasting culminates in abstinence from food from the morning of Good Friday to the night of Holy Saturday.
The observance of fasting during Lent has been largely static among Orthodox and Protestant churches, but modern life has ultimately shifted the fasting habits of Catholics. In the 1960s, a series of reforms in the Roman Catholic Church did away with the requirement of fasting during Lent. Now, instead of subsisting on one meal per day for the entire season, Catholics must only abstain from meat on Fridays. Catholics had previously followed this practice of eating fish on Fridays throughout the entire year.
This change in the rules for the observance of Lent helped increase the popularity of one of Wisconsin�s most beloved traditions � the Friday fish fry.
Most scholars trace the roots of the fish fry back to Prohibition, when bar owners began to recruit patrons with breaded cod and haddock instead of beer and whiskey. However, the relaxation of Lenten restrictions helped to popularize the fish fry. Rather than just remaining an ordinary day in a week filled with fasting, Friday gained special significance as a day of abstinence from meat under the new regulations.
The free market was quick to respond to this adaptation, and McDonald�s introduced its Filet-o-Fish sandwich in 1962, partially as a response to the demand of Catholics to have a marine menu option on Fridays.
While adding special Lenten foods to the menu is relatively innocuous, one fast food chain took a bold and potentially exploitative step in its efforts to capitalize on the religiosity of its patrons last year. KFC actually asked the Pope to bless the Fish Snacker, a sandwich added to its menu during Lent. Shockingly, as The Badger Herald went to press this morning, the Holy See had not yet responded to the company�s 2007 request.
Lenten foods have undergone drastic changes since Christians were encouraged to abstain from a wide variety of foods during the season. In the United States, Lent has effectively become a period of fish fries and family time � one that, aside from the popular tradition of abstaining from one specific food during the season, does not involve profound gastronomic self-denial.
Jason Engelhart is a senior majoring in economics and history. Please direct all questions, comments, concerns, hate mail, treatises and papal bulls to [email protected]