Meat-fast, egg-fast, dairy-fast, oil-fast and so-on and so-forth, Lent is a season of denial. It is a season of the mortification of the flesh. It is a season of fasting and of abstinence. Pray tell, how does one survive? Granted the regulations are not strict today but think to the centuries before. Little was allowed but bread and water. How does one cope, how does one survive? There are ways and some of these traditions still exist today.
The pretzel has its origins in medieval Lent. Tradition says that a young monk in seventh century Italy first prepared this Lenten bread. It consists of only of water, flour and salt. Dairy and animal products were not used because of the Lenten restrictions. Remember? To remind his fellow monks that Lent was a time of prayer, the baker rolled the dough into strips and twisted each strip in a distinctive pretzel shape . The design was inspired by the crossing the arms upon the chest during prayer.
Beer, and especially big beer (aka strong-beer, Doppelbock) has been associated with Lent since before the seventeenth century. A particularly noteworthy beer is produced by Paulaner brewery which had its origins with the monks of the same name. Their monistary is located at Neudeck ob der Au, Germany. The Paulaner monks are members of the religious order founded by Francis of Paola. Since the Lenten fast of the day was quite rigorous, and Paulaner monks already had a perpetual fast as part of their rule, the monastery brew master thought a dense and nutritious beer would help the monks survive the 40 days of Lent. The beer caries the name Salvator and is still brewed today.
History tells us that when the brew master created that beer he and the monks found the beer to be so delicious that they feared it would no longer be suitable for a season of repentance. Salvator is a penitential beer after all. Mortification should not be taken lightly. Unsure of what to do, they packed up a cask of the nutritiously hearty beer and carted it off to Rome to gain a pontifical blessing for its Lenten suitability. In those days travel was slow, the trip was long, and summers hot; refrigeration had yet to be invented and casked beer is particularly perishable. By the time the cask had reached Rome, and the Pope poured a tankard of the liquid bread, it had spoiled. Spoiled, what we call skunked! What was once delicious became disgusting and so the Pope blessed the liquid logger, a-plus suitable for Lent. It was penitential and somber and disagreeable and thoroughly unenjoyable. Perfectly unpalatable! With that the strong-beer became a blessed Lenten tradition. Too bad the pontiff didn’t enjoy a fresh glass. So sad. It is delicious, I do proclaim.
Fast forward to today.
On the grounds of that monastery (which is no longer a monastery), a strong-beer festival takes place every year. It begins Saint Josephs Day (always in Lent) and runs for seventeen days. The festival is associated with the traditional ‘Holy Father Feast’ on April 2, commemorating Francis of Paola, founder of the Paulaner religious order. The festival highlights strong beers such as Salvator. Beer and pretzels, a Lenten fasting tradition.
A couple of days ago I rambled on about an Irish Saint and an Irish-American celebration. Today is the feast of Saint Joseph, and a day that is particularly celebrated in Italy and by Italians worldwide. If I rambled about the national celebrations of Patrick in food and drink, Josephs day should be treated in the same regard. In Italy this is the Feast of San Guiseppe and the word that I think deserves some attention is FEAST. Feasts are celebrated. An interesting twist is that Josephs day always occurs in Lent but it has developed its celebration per that season. One of the highlights of this feast day is the Saint Joseph altars that are constructed, and they are filled with a combination of religious items such as statues and an abundance of food. The altars are tiered to represent the trinity with Joseph at the top. The rest of the altar consists of breads and pastries baked in shapes that highlight Christianity.
It is an altar of abundance, but it is an abundance of thanks to Saint Joseph for answering the prayers of the Sicilians during a great famine. The food gives thanks, it is also used to help feed those in need. It is a feast truly in the spirit of Christ. The altar also is a true altar, it is not simply a banquet. Tradition dictates that the altar be adorned with images of loved ones, and that it contains prayers of petition. The altar feeds both body and soul.
“Joseph, son of David,
do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.
For it is through the Holy Spirit
that this child has been conceived in her.
She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus,
because he will save his people from their sins.”
When Joseph awoke,
he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him
and took his wife into his home.
The Feast of Saint Joseph always occurs in Lent, and it is a food fest, but it is one that is respectful of the seasons fasts and abstinence. It also is an old celebration that dates to the middle ages, that is important because the Lenten season was considerably stricter centuries ago. While there is a copious amount of food on that altar, there is no meat. It is true to the season. Like Saint Patrick’s Day in America with its corned beef and cabbage, Saint Joseph’s feast day has a couple of food specialties of its own. The first acknowledges both the season of Lent and Josephs trade. That dish is Pasta con le Sarde, pasta with sardines. It features the fish to meet Lents requirements and is prepared with breadcrumbs. Breadcrumbs represent the sawdust of the carpenter, and they are highlighted on this feast day. The second part of the meal is the dessert, and Sicily is famous for their deserts. For his feast day Saint Joseph gets a special desert made in his honor, Zeppole di San Giuseppe!
Finally, this special day has one more food item associated with it, the fava bean. That was the bean that sustained the Sicilians, through the intercession of Saint Joseph, during that drought so many years ago. The beans are often packaged in little bags with holy card or medal to be given to the hosts guests. The reminder is that a house with fava beans in their cupboard will never go hungry.
Why did I outline this food celebration of Saint Joseph without discussing that blessed Saint so much? I think it is because it highlights the honored tradition of celebrating Saints in festive ways, and festive ways that involve food and drink. Saint Joseph’s feast day goes back centuries and is steeped in tradition. Saint Joseph is the patron saint of families and that should be remembered. Saint Patrick’s feast in America, even though it is only a memorial, only goes back a hundred years or so. Granted it tradition gets a little rowdy, but it still does fit in with tradition if the SAINT is honored. Feasts like the Feast of San Guiseppe should be celebrated as a feast. That’s important, it’s a just dessert.
I included the little quote from the Angel that spoke to Joseph as he slept, telling him not to be afraid to take Mary into his home and for him to accept the Child she was carrying. It gives reason for the celebration, Joseph was obedient to that Angel. He was obedient to the LORD, and accepted what the LORD had planned for him. In embracing Gods plan Joseph accepted bot the joy’s and the sorrow’s and even things he could not yet understand. He listen to, and placed his trust in the LORD. He was grateful for all the LORD had given him as the people of Sicily are grateful for Joseph’s intercession during a time of need. He helped turn a famine into a feast. Is their any greater reason to celebrate than that?
Solemnity of Saint Joseph, spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary