A Primer, for the Uninitiated

What is Lent?

Lent is the Christian season of repentance and self-denial preceding Easter. It is commonly said to represent the forty days and nights that Jesus spent fasting in the desert. Until the 1960s, the Catholic Church had strict laws about what food could be eaten during Lent: all animal products, whether meat, eggs, butter, or cream, were forbidden.

Historically, this “meatless fast” was observed not only during Lent, but on every Friday of the year, as well as certain solemn holidays like Ash Wednesday. This played an important role in European history. It was a major point of contention between Rome (where olive oil was common) and northern Europe (where animal fats like butter were common). During Lent, countries like Germany would have to buy huge amounts of olive oil from Italy. (It’s not a coincidence that Germany and many other animal-fat-loving nations are now protestant.)

In medieval Europe there were ways around these fasts. The wealthy could buy dispensations from their local church, allowing them to eat animal products on fast days without divine retribution. The Church made a huge amount of money selling dispensations. The tallest tower of the Rouen Cathedral in Normandy (which was the tallest building in the world for a few years in the 19th century) is often called The Butter Tower, because its construction was paid for largely by the sale of such dispensations.[1]

The ban was not rooted in religious doctrine, per se, but rather Medieval ideas on the human diet, which were based on the ancient concept of the four humours.

Red meat was “hot” and therefore banned because it was associated with sex.  However, animals found in water … were deemed cool, and acceptable food for religious days.>[2]

Fish was therefore not considered meat in Catholic dietary law, and many a medieval European lived half his life on some form of gruel and salt cod.

Catholics continued to observe these laws until a papal decree in 1966 made Lenten fasting more or less optional. These days Catholics will voluntarily give something up for Lent, whether it be meat, alcohol, Jersey Shore, et c.  When I was little we usually gave up candy, which made the chocolate eggs and bunnies of Easter morning all the sweeter.

When is Lent?

Let’s work backwards. Easter is on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. In 2011 the equinox (ie. first day of spring) was on March 20. The first full moon after that was Monday, April 18, so Easter was the following Sunday, April 24.

Look at a calendar. Starting at Easter Sunday, go back exactly one week: that is Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week. Go forty days back from Palm Sunday and you should be on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.

Lent corresponds to one of two seasons traditionally associated with famine: early spring, when winter stores are running low and spring crops haven’t yet appeared.[3] Easter, at the end of Lent, occurs during the greatest time of rebirth in plants and animals. (Maybe not so much in Edmonton, but definitely in places like Rome and Avignon…)  The “spiritual seasons” of the Catholic Church mirror the natural seasons.

I have a special interest in this seasonality, because in our industrial food system there are no seasons, let alone seasons of scarcity. I have never in my entire life, for instance, been more than a few hours from my next meal.  The only seasonality in the supermarket is in prices: you can buy strawberries in January, but it will cost $20 a pint.

I have written some posts about the food I cook and eat during Lent, including an interesting tradition for Ash Wednesday.


1. Soyer, Alexis. The Pantropheon: or, a History of Food and its Preparation in Ancient Times. ©1977 Paddington Press.  Page 172.  There’s a copy of this book at Cameron Library on the U of A campus.
2.  Kurlansky, Mark.  Salt: A World History. ©2002 Mark Kurlansky.  Vintage Canada 2002 Edition.  Page 110.
3.  Civitello, Linda.  Cuisine and Culture, Second Edition. ©2008 John Wiley and Sons, Inc.  Pages 59-60.  The other famine-time is mid-summer, when the crops have been sown but aren’t ready to harvest.