Spaghetti al Lent with Tomatoes and Smoked Trout

[This entry is cross posted at]

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.

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