Pretzel Logic and Lenten Fasting

Fasting and Abstinence Should Draw Us Close to Christ

(photo: Shutterstock image)

WASHINGTON — The 40 days of preparation that contemporary Christians call Lent have historical roots in the Old Testament — Moses preparing to meet God on Mount Sinai; Israel’s 40 years of wandering in the desert — but must ultimately be understood in light of Christ, who fasted for 40 days in preparation to contend with the devil.

“Those who prepare properly during the 40-day fast, like the Lord, will be granted freedom from the dominion of the devil and, like Moses on Sinai, behold the Lord face-to-face,” explained Deacon Sabatino Carnazzo, executive director of the Institute of Catholic Culture in McLean, Va.

But how should U.S. Catholics “prepare properly” with respect to their Lenten dining habits? After all, the Church does not expect anyone to emulate Jesus to the point of eating nothing at all throughout the Church’s penitential season.

Of the three Lenten principles — prayer, fasting and almsgiving — fasting seems to have taken on special significance. Most Christians, especially Catholics, focus on that aspect of Lent’s 40 days by fasting from a specific food or beverage.

“Fasting is the practice of either abstaining from food altogether or eating less than a normal portion,” said John Cuddeback, a philosophy professor at Christendom College in Front Royal, Va.

During the required fasts of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, people may eat only one full meal and two smaller portions that do not equal a full meal. These must contain no meat. No between-meal snacking is allowed on these days of fasting, but fluids may be consumed at any time. This rule applies to all Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59.

Fasting does not mean that food is evil or bad for you, said Father Edward Hathaway, pastor of St. Mary Catholic Church in Alexandria, Va. That interpretation is a misunderstanding of what fasting means.

“There is no sinful food,” he said. “But during our life, we become addicted to wanting the material. If we are hungry, we eat; thirsty, we drink; bored, get entertainment. Rather than reflecting on the true end for us, we focus on desires of the body for material goods. Lent is the time to say, ‘No,’ because there is something better for us than the material world.” 

In an effort to focus on the spirit rather than the body, some Catholics fast or abstain from material goods — television, the Internet and even emails — during Lent, Father Hathaway said. “It is a time of self-denial, fasting from vices. Lent is a time to step back, reorder life and put the most important things first.”

Such voluntary acts of fasting should be distinguished from Lenten abstinence. As described by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), abstinence is the obligation to refrain from certain foods, specifically meat, on particular days. Under the USCCB guidelines, this means the flesh of animals, such as chickens, cows, pigs, sheep or any other land-based animal.

These guidelines for abstinence have been relaxed from the more stringent fast to which Catholics submitted for centuries throughout Lent, when, in addition to meat, they could not consume eggs, milk or cheese.

“Lenten rules forbade the eating of any meat or meat product, and that applied to every day of Lent,” said Father Dennis Kleinmann, pastor of St. Veronica Catholic Church in Chantilly, Va. “Catholics lost lots of weight — no eggs, milk or cheese. It was very restrictive.”

There is no decree that on days of abstinence — officially every Friday during Lent — Catholics must eat fish (on Fridays outside of Lent, the faithful are permitted to substitute a different penitential practice). Yet seafood in all its varieties has been a traditional Lenten — and non-Lenten — Friday meal.

Fish fries get much publicity during Lent. Although, several years ago, a parish in Ohio decided to serve healthier fare, such as grilled salmon, shrimp and fresh tuna, that idea does not seem to have been picked up nationally. What does seems to have spread? Fast-food restaurants have picked up on the fish-Friday theme by offering fish sandwiches. Apparently, a McDonald’s franchise owner back in the early 1960s, in an effort to appeal to his Catholic base, created the Filet-o-Fish sandwich, still seen on today’s national menus.

Of course, eating fish or shellfish does not mean one should splurge at a seafood buffet or order lobster Thermidor — that would not be a penitential practice. Fish used to be considered food for the poor.

For a meatless Lenten snack, pretzels should be in first place. These are, after all, reputedly a Christian food with Lenten appeal that was created by a monk (or monks) in the early 600s. In those days, the faithful kept a very strict fast all through Lent, never partaking of any milk, butter, eggs, cream, cheese or meat. As the story goes, this monk created soft bread out of flour, water and salt and shaped it into crossed arms to resemble the way people then prayed. These little breads were called bracellae, a Latin word meaning “little arms,” which the Germans later translated as “pretzel.” So, as a preferred Lenten food, pretzels remind us to pray.

So do hot cross buns, another popular Lenten and Easter season snack. According to Tradition, these are baked and eaten throughout Lent, though originally they were served only on Good Friday. The icing or dough cross-marked on the top of each bun serves to remind the faithful of Christ’s ordeal on the cross.

More recently, the culinary world has created a plethora of meatless meals, from stir-fried tofu with veggies or refried beans with salsa to cheese enchiladas and numerous pasta offerings. Any cooks still puzzled about what to serve on meatless Fridays should look at other customs and cultures.

In the United States, some Catholic areas observe some unusual “meatless” meals. For example, a 2002 document from the Archdiocese of Detroit confirmed a long-standing dispensation that Catholics south of Detroit are allowed to eat muskrat during days of abstinence. And in 2010, Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans wrote a letter stating that since alligators are part of the fish family, they are permissible fare during Lent.

Home cooks can also borrow native traditions from other countries. In Mexico, for instance, favorite Lenten foods include dried shrimp cakes and cactus salad. And Mexicans serve a special dessert called capirotada, a sweet-savory bread pudding with cheese, tomatoes, onions, raisins and a cinnamon-sugar syrup.

Other examples would include the countless pasta dishes from Italy; perhaps cabbage soup or the renowned beet soup, borscht, from Poland and Russia; Greece’s beloved honey puffs, or loukoumades; and spicy fish cooked with vinegar from India’s Catholic state of Goa.

But as Lent and its days of fasting and abstinence are approaching, Father Hathaway offered some sage advice for Catholics who want to successfully follow the principles of Lent during these 40 days.

“Unite yourself with Jesus on the cross, who died for us on Good Friday,” he said. “Fasting helps us to unite ourselves with Christ, and Lent is not a time for us to say, ‘Look what I did.’”

Alexandra Greeley writes from northern Virginia.


Three Sisters Stew

Serves 4 to 6


According to legend, this recipe evolved as a way to use the three vegetables — beans, corn and squash — that the early Iroquois or Cherokee tribes planted and grew together. When combined in soup or stew, they provide a harmonious and sustaining meal, qualifying as a “Three Sisters” dish. Besides these three vegetable staples, cooks can use any other vegetable or vegetables that are in season and that families like.


2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, peeled and diced

3 or more cloves garlic, minced

2 teaspoons taco seasoning, plus extra

1 teaspoon cumin seeds, or more, to taste

4 cups vegetable broth, or more, as needed

2 to 3 cups cubed butternut squash

2 cups corn kernels

1 can hominy, drained

1 can kidney or pinto beans, drained and rinsed

2 Roma tomatoes, diced

1/2 pound green beans, trimmed

1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced

Ground cumin to taste

Ground coriander to taste

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 bunch cilantro, chopped (optional), for garnish

Toasted pumpkin seeds, for garnish


Heat the olive oil in a large stockpot over medium heat, and sauté the onion, garlic, taco seasoning, ground coriander and cumin seeds until the onions turn golden, about 5 minutes. Add the broth, squash, corn, hominy beans, tomatoes, green beans and red bell pepper. Bring the mixture to a boil, and reduce the heat to low. Let the mixture simmer until the vegetables are tender; add more vegetable broth if needed. Stir in the salt and pepper. Adjust seasonings, adding more taco seasoning as desired. Serve hot, and garnish with chopped cilantro, if desired, and pumpkin seeds.

Alexandra Greeley

Duccio’s ‘Pentecost’ (1308)

Pray the Pentecost Novena

The prayer recalls and invites Catholics to participate in the nine days that the Blessed Virgin Mary and the apostles spent in prayer after Christ ascended into heaven.