Lent food traditions and history

Three-bean chili (Provided photo — Yvona Fast)

Lent is a 40-day season of prayer, fasting and giving. This year, it began on March 2 and will end on April 14– the day before Good Friday and Passover.

The practice of the Lenten fast began in the fourth century and reached its height during the Middle Ages. All meat products were forbidden — including eggs and dairy — although fish and seafood were allowed. Today, such a fast would be close to a vegan diet (though vegans don’t eat fish or seafood). Theaters, amusements and civil law courts were also closed during Lent to provide a time of sacrifice and concentrate on the trials of Jesus.

For the medieval farm-based economy, Lent made a virtue out of necessity. In February, March and April, stores of last years’ root crops ­– carrots, beets, leeks, turnips and parsnips — are low, while new crops are yet to be planted. The diet consisted of peas, lentils and fava beans; grain like barley, oats, millet and wheat; and nuts like pistachios, walnuts and almonds. Sundays offered a reprieve, when eggs, dairy and meat could be consumed. By the 15th century, restrictions were eased and the fast became vegetarian rather than vegan — only meat was forbidden.

If one were to practice this medieval fast today, many more food options would be available. Even modern vegans have a much wider variety of food to choose from. There are more grains, like quinoa, farro and sorghum, more varieties of nuts and beans, and more soy products like tofu, miso and tempeh. There are peanuts and peanut butter, potatoes and vegetables like squash, tomatoes, peppers and corn that were unknown in Europe before the discovery of America. Fresh veggies are shipped in from California, and fruit from warmer climates, like pineapple, oranges and bananas, are stocked in our modern supermarkets.

The term “Lent” originates from the Germanic word for spring — a time of renewal, cleansing, and inventory. The fasting and self-denial are meant to restore simplicity and renew spiritual growth.

Lent is a time to be grateful for the gifts we have. It reminds us of God’s gift to man as well as sacrifice and austerity.

Today, though many people give up things for Lent, few keep a strict Lenten fast like that practiced in Medieval Europe. Fish meals are common during Lent, and many people abstain from consuming meat on Fridays.

Limitations bring inspiration, ingenuity and creativity. Cooking with only a few restricted ingredients challenges our creativity. In this way, deprivation leads to blessings, opening our minds to new ideas. Lenten dishes can transform a simple meal symbolizing denial into something delicious.

What will you serve during Lent?

Here are a couple of ideas.

Easy Lenten Vegan Three-Bean Chili


1 sweet potato

1 medium onion

2 garlic cloves

2 teaspoons olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup vegetable stock

1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes

1 tablespoon chili powder (or to taste)

1 teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon cumin

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 15 oz. can black beans

1 15 oz. can kidney beans

1 15 oz. can pinto beans

1 15 oz. can sweet corn


Peel and dice sweet potato. Peel and dice the onion. Peel and mince the garlic.

Heat oil in a large kettle. Add sweet potato, onion, and garlic. Sprinkle with salt. Cover, and cook on medium-low for 10 minutes.

Add vegetable stock and tomatoes. Stir in the seasonings – chili powder, paprika, oregano, cumin and cayenne. Continue cooking for another 10 minutes.

Drain and rinse the beans, and add. Drain the corn, and add.

Stir and cook another 10 minutes to blend flavors.

Taste and adjust seasonings.

Serves 6.

Option: To make in a slow cooker, combine everything; stir; cook on high for 4 hours or on low for 8 hours.

Pasta with Cabbage and Apples


8 oz. pasta of your choice (linguini, ziti, egg noodles, etc.)

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 onion,

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 head cabbage (about 4 cups, shredded)

Optional veggies: 1 to 2 cups shredded: 2 or 3 small beets or 1 or 2 larger ones, or an equal amount of sweet potatoes or Butternut squash

1 or 2 tart apples, peeled, cored and diced, optional

1 cup walnuts


Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain and set aside, reserving a cup of the pasta cooking water.

Heat oil in a large skillet with a tight-fitting lid.

Peel and dice the onion; add, sprinkle with salt, cover, and cook on medium-low for 5 minutes.

Chop or shred cabbage. Peel and shred any optional veggies you’re adding. Add to skillet, cover, and cook another 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add pasta cooking water and/or apple juice, if using. Add the walnuts and apples. Cook until all vegetables are tender, 5 – 10 more minutes.

Stir in pasta, and serve.

Serves 3 to 4.


Author of the award-winning cookbook “Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market,” Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be found at www.yvonafast.com and reached at yvonawrite@yahoo.com or on Facebook at Words Are My World.


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