Ash Wednesday, not a day for feasting, but rather for fasting and contemplating the fleetingness of life and all its pleasures.
In the seventeenth-century Netherlands, a remarkable style of painting arose, still-life, the most intriguing in some ways being that of the vanitas still-life. Usually artists portrayed a skull surrounded by the gifts (as they saw it) of a blessed life. Food, books, tobacco, flowers, everything that helped to make life worth living. These object helped the artists get their message across: “Vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas“: vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” (From Ecclesiastes in the Latin Bible.)
The following gallery of paintings reflects this artistic preoccupation, which in many ways resembles the altars formed by celebrants of the Mexican Day of the Dead:
In Celebrating Italy, a book about feasts and food festivals throughout Italy, Carol Field throws in a charming digression into the “Pranzo del Pugartorio,” held on Ash Wednesday in Gradoli, Italy. Cooks prepare food for up to 2,000 people. You’d never know it was a fasting day, since the people gorge on six different fish dishes, including fish soup unique to Gradoli, braised pike, and baccalà in bianco.
Serves 4 – 6
2 T. extra virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow onion
1 garlic clove, peeled and minced
3 large russet potatoes, peeled and cut into small dice
1 bay leaf
1/2 t. fresh marjoram
Pinch of crushed fennel seeds
3 cups whole milk
1 1/2 t. sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Chopped fresh parsley for garnish
Sauté the onion in the oil until translucent, add the garlic and cook another 30 seconds. Add the bay leaf, marjoram, fennel, and milk. Simmer over low heat for about 30 minutes. Add the potatoes and salt; simmer until tender. Season with pepper and top each serving with some of the chopped parsley. Serve with crusty bread.
© 2010 C. Bertelsen