Catholics living south of Detroit enjoy a longstanding informal dispensation to eat muskrat (the local pronunciation is MUSH-rat) on Fridays of Lent. A 2002 document from the Archdiocese of Detroit confirmed that “there is a long-standing permission—dating back to our missionary origins in the 1700s—to permit the consumption of muskrat on days of abstinence, including Fridays of Lent.” Bishop Kenneth Povish of Lansing described the practice as “immemorial custom” and said that “anyone who could eat muskrat was doing penance worthy of the greatest saints.” A 2002 effort to restrict private sale of muskrats caused a massive outcry: “I’ve never seen so many people upset about an issue,” said a state representative. “We had almost 500 people at the courthouse for hearings on muskrat legislation.”
Pretzels crossed arms are said to have been inspired by a position of prayer popular among early medieval monastics in which both arms were crossed over one’s chest. Thus the Latin word for little arms, bracellae, became the German bretzel and in time the English pretzel. The bread of the pretzel contains no butter, eggs, or milk, thus satisfying the strictest dietary requirements. Pretzels are depicted in the Abbess Herrad of Landsberg’s 1187 Hortus deliciarum as part of the offerings at a banquet attended by Queen Esther and King Ahasuerus (pictured above). The earliest known depiction of the pretzel appears in a manuscript in the Vatican Library (codex 3867) dating to the sixth century.
3. Barnacle Goose
“Barnacle geese” were once believed to be spontaneously generated rather than born and so were viewed by some as an acceptable Lenten dish. Gerald of Wales observed this practice in his Topographica Hiberniae of 1187: “Men in some parts of Ireland do not scruple to dine off these birds at the time of fasting. . . . But in so doing they are led into sin. For if anyone were to eat of the leg of our first parent (Adam) although he was not born of flesh, that person could not be adjudged innocent of eating meat.” Pope Innocent III agreed, condemning the practice at the Fourth Lateran Council. Still, Gerald of Wales hoped the bird would convince Jews of the Virgin Birth: “Blush, wretch, blush, and at least turn to nature, she . . . procreates and produces every day animals without either male or female.” They agreed with his science but not his theology, with prominent rabbis like Jacob Tam of Remeru holding that even though the barnacle goose had no birth, it was fowl, not fish, and should be slaughtered accordingly. The practice of eating barnacle geese during Lent persisted as late as 1914 in some parts of County Ulster.
Capybara, the largest member of the rodent family, are a popular lenten dish through much of South America. Padre Sojo, a famous Venezuelan priest, is held by one zoological text to have gone to Italy at the end of the eighteenth century and obtained a papal bull approving the capybara for lenten dining because of its amphibious habits. Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt wrote on capybara meat during his visit to Venezuela in the early 1800s: “The missionary monks do not hesitate to eat these hams during Lent. According to their zoological classification they place the armadillo, the thick-nosed tapir, and the manatee, near the tortoises; the first, because it is covered with a hard armour like a sort of shell; and the others because they are amphibious.”
5. Hot Cross Buns
A sweet, spiced bun made with currants or raisins, the hot cross bun is traditionally eaten on Good Friday. The cross etched over the bun’s top served to remind the hungry of Christ’s death and its spices of his entombment. The Oxford English Dictionary first attests the ditty “one a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns” in the year 1733, but we have records that by the year 1884 a Christian soul exhausted from his prayers had to pay as much as 50 cents for the his Good Friday bun. Today the British supermarket Tesco will sell you six for £1.30—and that’s online and year-round.
In the 17th Century, the theologians at Paris’s Sorbonne—the heirs of Abelard—turned their minds to a question posed by Francois de Laval, first bishop of Quebec. He asked on behalf of his flock whether it was permissible to eat beaver meat during Lent. The ruling of Paris’s theologians was yes, the opinion of the Vatican (eagerly sought by Venezuelans in the case of the capybara) apparently being unnecessary. In an 1858 paper, Professor Daniel Wilson of the University of Toronto—not, to all appearances, any great fan of Catholics—blamed this “convenient medieval creed” for massive declines in the beaver population. The much likelier story is that the fur trade drove the decline and that this dispensation—still taken advantage of in parts of Quebec—saved good meat from going to waste.
7. Simnel Cake
The fourth Sunday of Lent was once known as “Mothering Sunday,” a day for servants to visit their parents, usually bearing simnel cakes. The confections—made of fine flour, sugar, and fruit—are bound in cloth, brushed with egg, and boiled before finally being baked. They are then adorned with eleven marzipan balls representing the eleven faithful disciples. The cakes once were also stamped with the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but the practice decreased as English society grew more hostile to religious images of all sorts. In time, working people were increasingly able to visit their parents whenever they pleased, and so even the more human maternal elements of the tradition faded. The blessing once given by mothers to visiting children has faded away, but some Anglican churches still bless the cakes during mass on Lent’s fourth Sunday.
Bishop Gregory M. Aymond of New Orleans recently drew headlines for a 2010 letter confirming that “the alligator is considered in the fish family” and thus suitable for consumption during Lent. This is one of the least controversial animals on this list. As a cold-blooded animal, alligator—like frog and snail—is incontestable lenten fare. ”Salt and freshwater species of fish, amphibians, reptiles, (cold-blooded animals) and shellfish are permitted,” says the website of U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Now, should one find oneself in danger of being eaten by an alligator—during Lent or otherwise—one can take a cue from St. Margaret the Virgin. When Satan disguised as a large reptile swallowed Margaret, a cross she was wearing so irritated his innards that he was forced to disgorge the saint.
Rauchbier, or “smoke beer,” is made using malts that have been dried over fire—thus gaining the smoky taste of cured meats like ham and bacon. At one time all beers malts were produced over fire, but in medieval Bavaria beers of this type came to be associated with Lent when the rich, smoky tones of meat were dearly missed. There is, of course, an official blessing for beer (“Bless, O Lord, this creature beer . . . ”) which one may safely assume is more efficacious in the original Latin: “Benedic, Domine, creaturam istam cerevisiae, quam ex adipe frumenti producere dignatus es: ut sit remedium salutare humano generi, et praesta per invocationem nominis tui sancti; ut, quicumque ex ea biberint, sanitatem corpus et animae tutelam percipiant. Per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen.”
10. Skunk-Headed Coot
The legend of the barnacle goose gave rise to beliefs that a whole series of other birds were acceptable for lenten eating. The most widespread of these, the skunk-headed coot, shares with the barnacle goose a black and white appearance. It is from these birds, apparently, that we gain the phrase “more fish than fowl,” which was in use at least by 1889 but is likely much older. Edward A. Armstrong informs us that French man of science Isaac Cattier judged the skunk-headed coot (in French, marcreuse) quite fishlike in his 1651 Discourse de la Marcreuse. Some two hundred years later the French journalist Alphonse Karr observed the practice of its consumption during Lent. The Louisiana Bar Association suggests that coot (pouldeau to Cajuns) enjoys a Lenten dispensation in Louisiana. Perhaps the bishop of New Orleans can issue another letter of clarification?