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February 3 - 16, 2013

What foods make up your Lenten traditions?

Karen Callaway / Catholic New World

By Michelle Martin


Ash Wednesday is Feb. 13 this year. Do you have your Lenten shopping list ready?

Lent is a time of penance, when fasting and abstinence from meat are mandated on certain days and Catholics are encouraged to find other ways to atone for their sins, unite their suffering to Christ’s and express solidarity with the poor. Fasting, prayer and almsgiving are the three traditional emphases of Lent.

But for cooks who take a quick look online, or for fast-food diners who zip through the drive-through, know that when it comes to Lent, there’s plenty of focus on the food. Each year during Lent, some families have a tradition of making pretzels — whose shape recalls hands folded in prayer and whose three sections represent the Trinity. Others prepare seafood or vegetarian recipes that have been handed down for generations.

Take Father Dominic Grassi, pastor of St. Gertrude Parish, 1420 W. Granville Ave. A well-known cook who raises money for his parish by auctioning off eight-course dinners that he prepares, Grassi doesn’t need a lot of prompting to recall the special foods that his mother cooked during Lent.

She and his father were both immigrants from the Bari area of Italy, and ran a small grocery store in Chicago. During Lent, he said, she would cook baccala, a dried and salted cod.

“It looked like a 12-inch piece of dead flesh,” Grassi said. “It didn’t look like much to get excited about.”

But after she had soaked it in water and milk, it was sweeter and more tender and flaky than the cod fillets he prepares in similar style, lightly breading and baking them and topping them with a light, homemade marinara sauce.

Some of Grassi’s favorite food-related memories and family recipes are included in his book, “Bumping into God in the Kitchen” (Loyola Press, 2007).

Making pizza was a daylong process for his mother, who would be boiling potatoes for the dough when he and his brother left for school. The pizzas — with tomatoes and a sprinkling of cheese — would be ready by 6 p.m., when he and his brother would be dispatched to deliver one to someone in need in the neighborhood.

“That was always hard, because we wanted to eat it,” Grassi recalled.

He also recalled what he and his brother called “eggballs,” or meatless meatballs.

The thing to remember, he said, is that even though traditional Italian Lenten cuisine is meatless and lighter than meals eaten at other times of the year, it still is plentiful and filling.

“The thing about Italians is that we have this ‘Abondanza’ thing. The way we share our love is with food,” he said. “We share it around the table, with warmth and love. You take your time with it. During Lent, you’re not holding back on the love.”

That’s one of the lessons Catholic Relief Services hopes that people who participate in its Operation Rice Bowl fundraising and awareness program take from their participation.

While many Catholics are probably aware of Operation Rice Bowl from the cardboard “rice bowl” shaped banks distributed by parishes and schools during Lent, the program includes information and recipes from countries where CRS provides development aid. Participants are asked to return the money they saved at the end of Lent; 75 percent goes to CRS development efforts around the world and 25 percent supports anti-hunger programs in the dioceses where it is raised.

This year’s recipes include bean cakes from Burkina Faso, batar da’an from East Timor, pap with spicy vegetables from Lesotho, black bean soup from the Dominican Republic and mixed vegetable tihari from Pakistan.

“We offer the simple, meatless recipes to provide a global alternative to the typical fish sticks, grilled cheese and tomato soup,  or mac and cheese that make a common appearance in Catholic households on Fridays in Lent,” said Susan Walters of CRS. “Sharing these recipes is a great way to learn about other cultures, and experience a ‘taste’ of life from other countries.”

The recipes also give a glimpse of the good things that people in developing countries experience.

“We often hear about the hardships and struggles that too many people in our world face each day, but we don’t often get the chance to think about or experience the joys that exist in their lives as well, such as sharing a meal with family,” Walters said. “These recipes help us to experience their joys, while we learn about their struggles and take action to help them through our prayers and Lenten sacrificial donations.

Abstaining from meat on the Fridays of Lent is not sacrifice for its own sake, she said.

“Placing the rice bowl on the table is a reminder of our connection to those who are hungry and gives us an opportunity to see how the sacrifice of meat once a week and the giving of alms contributes to ending hunger,” she said. “What we give up for Lent is not to take away comforts or habits, but rather to turn our sacrifices into faithful actions that sustain life.”

Schools, campus ministries and Newman Centers also sometimes host meals using the recipes. The new tag line for CRS Rice Bowl, “For Lent, For Life” captures this concept well.

Parishes and schools often use the meals as an opportunity to gather staff, students and the community together during Lent. They will sometimes invite guest speakers or have a service before the shared meal.

Campus ministries, Newman Centers and others will hold simple meal suppers for students combined with readings or guest speakers.

Choosing the recipes can also be fun. This year, CRS staff in East Timor prepared several of their favorites recipes and brought them into the office for a taste test, Walters said, with the winner being the featured recipe. Then CRS staff at the Baltimore headquarters tests each recipe to make sure they are easy, ingredients are widely available and they will work for the average American cook.

For this year’s CRS recipes, see