Lent, According to American Cookery, the Magazine, That is

Photo credit: Matt LeBlanc

Lent can be a really interesting time of the year.

For some of us living in the Northern Hemisphere, a mere glimpse outside our windows forces the introspection and reflection behind the whole idea of Lent. Who wants to walk around out there in that howling wind and blowing snow? Better to stay inside and contemplate life’s meaning. (Or whatever.)

And, as we’ve talked about before, Lent comes at a time where food used to be rather scarce and so fasting made good sense.

Anyway, just in case you’re curious about it, the English word for Lent comes from the German word lenz (or long, as in days getting longer) for “spring.”

The concept of Lent first appeared in Catholic literature after the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., referred to as quadragesima (a translation of the original Greek tessarakoste, meaning “fortieth day before Easter”).  Like so many practices, those associated with Lent evolved over the centuries, and different areas practiced different customs, including some interesting food-related ones.

Pope Gregory I

For example, Pope St. Gregory (d. 604), in a letter to St. Augustine of Canterbury, said, “We abstain from flesh, meat, and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese and eggs.”

No matter, Lent took deep root and even after the Reformation (began in 1517 with Luther’s 95 theses hammered onto the church door in Wittenburg) , some Protestant groups continued to observe Lent.

Fannie Merritt Farmer

And so entrenched was the idea of meatless eating that even in the United States, for both religious and economic reasons (think commercial fishing), in the early twentieth century Fannie Merritt Farmer’s Boston Cooking School magazine featured Lenten menus and recipes in its pages.

Later called American Cookery, this magazine first appeared in print in 1896 and foretold the myriad cooking and housekeeping magazines that later took hold in American culture. Gourmet magazine, which began in 1941 (now defunct), probably did more to elbow out American Cookery than anything else, as a matter of fact. American Cookery ceased publishing in 1947.

In the March 1915 issue, Jessamine Chapman Williams shares ways for women to brighten the Lenten period with entertaining friends for breakfast:

A yellow color-scheme, using daffodils, yellow crocuses or hyacinths, will accent the brightness of spring and Lent, which should not mean sadness and gloom but the opposite. A yellow color-scheme is easily carried out both in table decorations and in the food served. Use the bare table with Cluny lace doilies, or an inexpensive, yet equally attractive, plan is to use paper sets with a yellow decoration.

A soufflé looking like this one might be OK. (Photo credit: Sharon Mollerus)

Her menu for this yellow breakfast?

Rings of pineapple and sections of orange, arranged around a mold of powdered sugar
Cornmeal mush (cooked in milk and beaten very light)
Grated Maple Sugar and Cream
Fish Soufflé in chafing dish
Hollandaise Sauce
French-fried Potatoes
Golden Wheat Muffins
Orange Marmalade Coffee

The astonishing thing about this article, and the whole magazine, lies in the following excerpt:

While the guests are enjoying the cereal, the maid will bring in the fish soufflé, which has been cooked in the chafing dish and is steaming hot. This is deposited on a small stand placed at the left of the host, the burner remaining lighted to keep the contents hot when ready to serve. The maid will bring in the warm breakfast plates, also, and place them on the side table, and the coffee pot she places at the right of the hostess.

That one word, maid, speaks volumes about the changes that have occurred in American society. It’s not for nothing that Julia Child aimed her work, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, at the “servantless American housewife.”

One Lenten recipe that Fannie and Jessamine would not likely have recognized is the following spinach stew from Africa. And yet it falls right into the stringent rules that Pope Gregory laid down, with nary a drop of anything remotely fleshy.

Perfect. A bit of sun, as it were.

Serves 6

3 medium sweet potatoes, peeled, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 T. peanut oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
1 green bell pepper, roughly chopped
2 medium tomatoes, peeled and sliced
1 lb. fresh spinach, chopped
1 t. salt
2 serrano peppers, seeded and sliced
¼ cup (4 T.) peanut butter
6 cups rice, cooked

Cook the sweet potatoes in lightly salted water until just tender. Set aside.

In heavy skillet or stew pot over medium-high heat, sauté onion and green pepper in oil until onion is translucent and slightly golden. Stir in garlic, cook for 30 seconds, stirring constantly. Add the tomatoes and cook about 2 minutes. Add spinach, salt, and chili peppers. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 5 minutes.

Stir several tablespoons warm water into the peanut butter to create a smooth paste. Add peanut butter and sweet potatoes to the ingredients in the pot and cook covered for 10 to 15 minutes. Stir frequently, adding small amounts of water, if necessary, to prevent sticking. Serve with fufu or rice, fried plantains, and fish.

© 2010 C. Bertelsen

2 thoughts on “Lent, According to American Cookery, the Magazine, That is

  1. Kathryn, I think the way of eating, for us, certainly would be healthier than not. But for people of medieval times, the edge between just plain hunger and outright starvation was mighty thin. So the fasting served two purposes, you could say: 1) to keep hunger at bay as much as possible and 2) to prevent outright starvation.

  2. Great post Cynthia. I’m not religious, but a few years ago I started keeping the Medieval rules of Lent every year as a respite from the indulgences of the holiday season. As you mention, it also makes a lot of sense from a seasonal eating point of view. I wrote about it on my blog and I’m posting at least one lenten recipe every week.

    That “yellow breakfast” is quite something. I wish I had a maid and could have souffle for breakfast.

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