Happy Easter. Some 30 years ago, I would have ended that greeting with an exclamation point. Or three.
I grew up in a very Catholic family in the very Catholic city of St. Louis. In the Gateway City, there’s a gateway to Christ — aka a Catholic church — on every street corner. The colossal cathedral there makes Christ the King, the mother church for the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta, look like a chapel.
My mom, a former nun, led the charge in our family’s observing of Lent, the 40 days preceding Easter. Lent is supposed to be a time of self-examination and sacrifice. What I most remember is how Lent messed with my diet. I was hungry. I ate a lot of bad fish.
Quick rundown of the rules: For Catholics, there are two obligatory days of fasting and abstinence in Lent — Ash Wednesday (the day after Mardi Gras, for those who divide the year into party seasons) and Good Friday. In addition, all Fridays during Lent are days of abstinence.
When fasting, a person is allowed to eat one full meal, plus two smaller meals that together are not equal to a full meal. No snacking. Don’t even think about it. The only ones who don’t have to fast are those under the age of 18 and over the age of 59, unless they’ve got health issues or some other reason for a dispensation.
As for abstinence, that means not eating meat. Somehow, fish is OK, though I’ve never figured out that little loophole. Meat is meat, whether it comes from a creature of land or sea, if you ask me.
Anyway, if you’re Catholic, and you’re 14 or older, no meat for you on Ash Wednesday and every Friday during Lent.
As a product of the ’70s, that meant looking forward to Gorton’s frozen fish sticks and tartar sauce. Not bad. Well, at least, not as bad as the tasteless fish fillets that came in rectangular cartons from the frozen-food aisle.
We also didn’t get the Sunday dispensation that I hear some kids got. Like my husband. If he gave up candy or dessert for Lent, he was allowed to eat it on Sundays. My mom would have none of that. For us, Lent was whole hog or bust.
A particular puzzlement meal for me and my siblings during Lent was Holy Thursday, which is observed as the night of Christ’s Last Supper. My mom would always prepare a Passover Seder meal: matzo ball soup, hard boiled eggs with horseradish sauce, salt water to dip stuff into. It wasn’t a blow-out meal with lamb or gefilte fish or potato kugel.
My siblings and I were still hungry after that dinner. And we didn’t understand why we had to partake in this tradition, anyway. “We’re not Jewish,” we whispered to each other.
One thing my family didn’t get into was the Friday fish fry, a tradition — and fundraiser — for many Catholic churches. That was probably because my mom always cooked dinner. As an adult, I haven’t been a fish fry junkie, either, though I do get curious to check out churches that put on a fish fry so good they’ve built a reputation for it.
But, I have subjected my husband and sons to other Lenten food journeys. The one that stands out is the Lent that I challenged myself to go vegan. No meat. No dairy. No animal products or byproducts, to be precise.
Being that I cooked every meal at home, Joe and the kids also were pretty much forced into a vegan diet for 40 days. At the end, I commented that I could easily continue with a vegan diet. My “sacrifice,” Joe pointed out, really hadn’t been much of a sacrifice for me — just for him and the kids. Touché.
So, how did this year’s Lent go for me? Um, not so good on the food front. On occasion, I’ve had to make a restaurant review visit on a Friday. When meat was a focus of the menu, I didn’t avoid it. It is kind of my job to sample everything. I’ll admit, though, it’s poor editorial planning on my part.
There was also a Friday night a few weeks ago when I was too tired to cook. We went to Zesto on Piedmont, attracted by the retro feel of the place. Apparently, Zesto is known for burgers. We tried to be good Catholics, so we ordered every fish dish instead — tacos, burritos and a fish sandwich. (The tacos fared best, by the way.) Yet, going out to a restaurant on a Friday in Lent didn’t quite feel like a sacrifice.
Now, we’ve arrived at the big day, the day a bunch of folks will bring out the Easter ham. Alleluia.
I don’t know what I’ll be cooking Sunday. If I think about it too hard, I’ve missed the point of what this day is really all about.
So, let’s try again. For all of you who observe Easter, Happy Easter!!! And have fun figuring out what to do with all those leftover colorful hard-boiled Easter eggs.
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