Yesterday was Ash Wednesday. Lent is upon us. And here’s an idea for a book someone should do: a Lenten cookbook, featuring and celebrating traditional recipes from across the Christian world. Even if Lenten observance per se is not as common as it once was, vegetarianism surely is, and they are about the same thing. And I do expect Lent to make a comeback as well; it’s time.
Did you know that the classic foods of many lands in fact began as Lenten foods? Consider the pretzel: the idea was to bake a bread without eggs or butter, both then prohibited during Lent as animal products. The classic design is supposed to represent two arms folded in prayer.
How about falafel, tabbouleh, hummus? Considered the ultimate Arab - Muslim foods, they in fact were adopted from pre-existing Christian cultures of the Hellenic Levant. They were, and still are, in Greece, Egypt and Lebanon, traditional Lenten foods.
From the Orthodox world: borscht, kasha, potato pirogues, cabbage rolls.
It all illustrates a wider point: the best foods in most cultures tend to be the ordinary foods of the poorest folk: pizza and pasta in Italy, German sausages, nasi goring in Indonesia, bibimbap (“rice with whatever”) in Korea.
This is because necessity is the mother of invention; because in this world the cream does not regularly rise to the top, and there are far more poor than rich cooks; and because, in the end, God is good. Being good, he has made all the best things as common and cheap as dandelions. Had we but ears to hear, and tongues to taste.
This, no doubt, is one of the lessons of Lent.