[This entry is cross posted at ordinary-times.com]
I had a theory about Lenten fasting that was described by someone whose opinion I value as “the stupidest damn thing I’ve ever heard.” He added something along the lines of “Where do you get this nonsense?” but I thought there was something to it so I’m going to share with you here.
I saw a map of the olive oil-butter line; the dividing line between areas of Europe that primarily use olive oil and those that primarily use butter as cooking fat. Now the EU has super-fast trains and Ferraris to carry goods from one region to another, but that wasn’t always the case. Until recently, you shopped locally without needing to be told to do so by a t-shirt. If you lived below the line you cooked with olive oil. Above, with butter. I remember looking at that map years ago during Lent and realizing the countries to the north of the line were mostly protestant.
The Catholic Church used to have a much larger appetite for fasting. By some accounts nearly half the days of the year were designated as preparation for feast days or days of remembrance or were part of a holy season. All of those were subject to dietary restrictions. If you’re an Italian Catholic in 1516 enjoying a nice dish of turbot sauteed with zucchini in olive oil and one of your dining companions reminds you that the next day, as the first Wednesday after the Feast of Santa Lucia and thus an Ember Day, was a fasting day, you might check the stores to be sure you had more turbot, zucchini, and olive oil to cook them in for tomorrow because the rules likely made no difference to you. The Mediterranean diet was such that you had to be sure and only inject lamb, pork, or beef into your regimen three times a week, which is likely two or three times more often that you were used.
If you lived north of the olive oil-butter divide, fasting was a damnable hassle. The rules of The Church didn’t require adherents to not eat meat on certain days. That’s how we think of it now. The rules required abstaining from terrestrial animal products entirely: no meat or poultry or anything that comes from them. Dairy and eggs were out. To be a Catholic in medieval Germany or England meant trying to avoid being made a vegan for half the year and as everyone around you was a Catholic there was nothing special about your enlightened diet so the smug satisfaction of the modern vegan was a yet unheard of comfort. Not only was there no jerky or nearly spoiled dog meat (they probably didn’t eat spoiled dog meat but I have modern conceptions of the unclean past to deal with) on the menu, there was no fat to cook the fish you were allowed to eat unless you paid outrageous amounts for lampante, olive oil of such low quality it was best suited as fuel for lamps. You could also pay outrageous amounts for indulgences from The Church for exemption from fasting. Most medieval European Yankees made do with dried or salted fish and offered up exhaustion as butter wasn’t just a convenience. It was a major source of calories.
When explaining this to the person of trusted opinions who thought it was the stupidest damn thing they’d ever heard I was suggesting that the difference in diet may have had a minor impact on the success of The Reformation. I wasn’t saying that it was a major reason people abandoned Rome, at least at the time. I am now.
I suspect I’m not alone in that when someone vehemently rejects a thought of mine I go back to the source of that thought, look for more information both supporting and contrary, and fixate on the idea in a way I never would have before someone called me a stupid head. I figured that no one would say they were going Popeless just because they were hungry but if somebody heard about a religious movement and his friends were all doing it he might consider going along with them so long as they promised that he still got to follow scripture and didn’t have to go to hell. If, while he was debating whether it was righteous rebellion against an institution that lost its way, heresy, or Heresy to be a part of this new movement, his friends mentioned that the new church leaders, while not yet wearing turtlenecks and playing guitar, were cool or “down with” eating butter whenever the urge took you that might nudge him in the protestant direction. It was just a thought I had. When I defiantly looked into it I found this:
“For at Rome they themselves laugh at the fasts, making us foreigners eat the oil with which they would not grease their shoes, and afterwards selling us liberty to eat butter and all sorts of other things … thinking it is a greater sin to eat butter is a greater sin than to lie, to swear, or even to live unchastely.”
That was from Martin Luther’s 1520 address “To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation.” He mentions butter in that address six or so times. In the book Butter: A Rich History, food historian Elaine Khosrova writes “It seems hardly a coincidence that most of the dairy-rich countries producing and using butter were the same nations that broke away from the Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth century.”
Far from being “nonsense,” my errant little theory was in line with a body of thought so developed that someone has beaten me to the “Spread of Protestantism” pun. I can taste the vindication.
Again, these days delicacies from all over the world are sold in a market a few miles away from most of us. Fasting isn’t as hard as it used to be to the non-Mediterranean. Modern Catholic fasting rules allow eggs, so even the pasta in today’s recipe is Vatican approved. For those not in communion with Rome, this is a wonderful dish despite the penitential nod. No food promises to make me as happy as tomato sauce over pasta.
There was an impressive chef in Birmingham who was known for his particularity when encouraging his kitchen staff’s creativity by letting them propose ideas for the day’s specials. “Good, but too many ingredients,” was his refrain. His people quickly learned that five was the magic number. “Keep it simple.” This sauce has eight ingredients. Salt and olive oil never count. It’s almost simple.
Tomato Sauce with Smoked Trout and Lemon
- 4 oz. filet smoked trout
- 6 Roma tomatoes diced with seeds in and skin on
- 1 shallot, diced
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 1 tbsp. tomato paste
- handful flatleaf parsley
- red pepper flakes, to taste
- salt, to taste
- olive oil
- 1 lb. spaghetti
Start with a few glugs of olive oil in a sauce pan over medium heat and add the shallots and red pepper flakes. Sauté until aromatic – three or four minutes.
Add the garlic and continue cooking for one minute, stirring as needed to keep from browning and then add the tomatoes with a small pinch of salt. Stir to mix and cook another five minutes or so to soften the tomatoes.
Next pour in the wine and the parsley and mix together. Turn up the heat to high, bring to a quick boil, and then reduce to a simmer.
Let simmer at least ten minutes. Add tomato paste to thicken and stir.
Break the trout into bite sized pieces. I had two filets of 4 oz. each in the picture but in the end only one of them was needed. Both would be overkill.
Add the fish to the sauce about five minutes before serving.
Right before serving stir in lemon zest, about a loose half tsp.
Taste, correct for salt and lemon zest and serve over pasta with grated Parmesan or Romano standing by.
Hope you enjoy it, and have a Happy, but appropriately austere, Lent.
Quick note on the olive oil-butter line: It’s true that Ireland stayed Catholic despite their butter climate but there was a choice between hunger pains and agreeing with the English.