In the Christian tradition, Lent is a time for fasting and from abstaining from meat, especially on Ash Wednesday and each Friday during the Lenten season. There are specific foods that many households have in common on the days of abstinence, such as split pea soup, lentil soup, frittatas, tuna sandwiches, and meat-free pizza from the local pizzeria. To keep a spirit of fasting, a family usually has one hearty meatless meal and two lighter meat-free meals, with no dessert, throughout Lent, excluding Sundays.
I remember Lent as a little girl, when my mom would make a hearty meatless Lentil soup on Friday nights, followed by English muffin pizzas. She’d top both halves of the muffin with tomato sauce and sliced mozzarella cheese, then place them in the toaster oven. A favorite of some children is fish cakes with spaghetti.
While the meatless Lenten fare varies, there are traditional foods specifically connected to Lent that remain unchanged. The Pretzel is one such food. It was considered to be a Lenten bread, more like a doughy pretzel, similar to those sold by street vendors, rather than the thin crispy kind sold in bags at the supermarkets.
During Lent, back in the fourth century, Christians were not allowed to eat meat nor anything that came from an animal, such as butter, eggs or milk. Stories tell us that a young monk in the early 600s in Italy is responsible for the first Lenten pretzels by preparing a special Lenten bread of water, flour and salt. He wanted the pretzels to depict that Lent was a time of prayer, and so formed the small breads to resemble arms crossed in prayer.
Although nearly all of us munch on crunchy pretzels throughout the year, there are a few places in Europe where pretzels are only eaten from Ash Wednesday to Easter, thus keeping up the ancient traditional meaning.
Hot Cross Buns are another popular traditional food during Lent and especially on Good Friday morning. They are sweet, soft, and slightly spiced, often with the addition of dried fruits. Legend has it that the buns were the only food allowed to be eaten on Good Friday by monks.
Hot Cross buns have been recorded to have been baked as early as 1733. Some think they were tied to pagan tradition with the cross representing the four quarters of the moon. In any event, they were easily adapted by Christianity with the iced cross on the top of the bun to be a symbol of the crucifixion of Jesus.
The availability of ready-to-eat pretzels and hot cross buns make it easy to include them as part of the Lenten tradition. Soft pretzels are often sold frozen and can be heated in the microwave or the toaster oven. Hot cross buns can be found in the bakery section, and there are many recipes available to make them fresh from the oven.
For a good hearty Lentil Soup to serve with warm doughy pretzels, try the following recipe:
Lenten Lentil Soup
1 cup lentils, rinsed.
4-5 cups water.
1 onion, chopped.
1 green pepper, chopped.
1 bay leaf.
¼ teaspoon of dried basil.
¼ teaspoon dried oregano.
1 teaspoon salt.
Pepper to taste.
2 tablespoons ketchup.
2 to 3 stalks of celery, sliced.
1 bag of mini baby carrots, washed and cut in half.
3 tablespoons olive oil.
3-4 vegetarian bacon strips, cooked and crumbled. (optional)
Combine ingredients and cook over low heat for about 40-45 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add more water during cooking if needed. Soup should be on the thick side rather than on the watery side. Remove bay leaf before serving. Enjoy with a bread pretzel.