February 12, 2013
Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, the traditional season of penance and spiritual housecleaning that leads to Easter. Where I come from, central Pennsylvania, today is “Fat Tuesday,” and, in keeping with local foodways, it is marked chiefly by the making and consuming of fastnachts, yeast cakes in a donut shape that are traditionally fried in lard, although they are probably all done in vegetable oil now. The idea was to use up animal fat that one might have on hand, since the consumption of meat and meat products was so restricted for the ensuing forty days.
I grew up in the 1950s, before the reforms of Vatican II addressed many outdated practices, including the fairly complicated dietary restrictions mandated for the faithful for Lent. According to some site I stumbled upon from a Google search on “Lenten dietary rules 1950s,”
Everyone over the age of seven was to observe the Roman Catholic Lent with
complete abstinence on all Fridays, Ash Wednesday, and Holy Saturday Morning.
During these times, meat and soup, or gravy made from meat, could not be used.
During days of partial abstinence, which included the Saturdays in Lent (except
the last one), meat and soup, or gravy made from soup, could be taken only once
a day during the main meal. For those over twenty-one and under fifty-nine, only
one full meal per day was allowed during the weekdays of Lent. Other meatless
meals were allowed only to maintain strength, but could not equal another full
meal. Eating between meals was not permitted, except for liquids, but those
people whose health or ability to work were seriously affected by fasting could
be excused from the regimen. Acts of charity and of self-denial (such as
abstaining from alcoholic drinks and amusements) and daily attendance at mass
That’s about how I remember it. By the time I was 21, not only had the rules changed, I wasn’t paying much attention to them anyway. When I look at the rules now, in light of modern ideas of good nutrition and the demands of differing metabolisms, I wonder what a “partial meal” is. And what sacrifice did vegatarians make? I recall an excercize from the Baltimore Catechism that we used in fourth or fifth grade. It asked what might constitute adherence to the “partial meal” provision for a secretary who “sits at a desk and types documents all day” and a construction worker. Would the requirements be the same? The “types documents all day” line is the one that has stayed with me. (Hint: the secretary got less to eat.)
I don’t eat fastnachts, not becuase they’re high in fat or sugar (I could plan for them in my Weight Watchers protocol) nor becuase I don’t like them (oh I do, I do!), but because food like that gives me a carbohydrate hangover (postprandial hyperinsulinemia is the very fancy name for the effect). But today did call for something special. And so I went in search of a traditional seven-segment Tootsie Roll.
There is an eating scene or a reference to food in nearly every piece of fiction I write, and in much of my nonfiction as well. In an unfinished personal essay called (currently) “Three Scenes from a Life with Food,” I write:
It is 1957. I have just turned ten, my sister is going on seven, and we are in the kitchen after school on a late winter day. My fingers grasp the cold chrome edge of our kitchen table and I fix my eyes on the gray Formica patterned with yellow and white boomerangs. The boomerangs are gray and white on the yellow plastic that covers the chairs. My sister is kneeling on one of the chairs, and I can hear the bare skin of her knees peel off the seat as she shifts to get a closer look.
My mother has unwrapped a Tootsie Roll and laid it on a plate. The cylinder of chocolate taffy, glossy in the sunlight, is molded into seven segments, each still attached to the next but designed to break off easily in a single bite. She takes a paring knife and positions it at the center of the middle segment of the Tootsie Roll. She saws carefully, three, maybe four times, until the knife splits the soft candy and hits the plate with a clink.
I raise myself on my toes and look down on the top of the now-split segment. My sister shifts again on the chair and bends so that she is at eye level with the Tootsie Roll. We are watching to make sure that the division is absolutely even, so that each of us has exactly the same portion of Tootsie Roll.
Ordinarily, the disposition of that seventh segment of Tootsie Roll is not a problem. My mother simply breaks off three segments for me, three segments for Rosie, and eats the odd one herself. But this is Lent, and my mother is forbidden by the rules of the Catholic church regarding fasting and abstinence during this penitential season from eating between meals. My grandmother, who is beyond the age of persons to whom the rules apply, is, according to this complicated family protocol, the alternative Lenten receiver of the seventh segment, but she is visiting a cousin in Florida. Thus my mother is left to devise a method by which she can avoid favoritism in candy distribution and also stay in the state of grace regarding her own obedience to the will of God as her church hierarchy has interpreted it.
It has probably not occurred to her to offer a more easily-divided snack. She cannot even imagine allowing each girl her own complete Tootsie Roll.
When I read an early version of this piece at a writers’ conference, I displayed a Tootsie Roll on a plate with a serrated knife stuck in the center segment, and I passed out midget-sized TRs to the audience. I’m not sure they went well with the Beaujolais the organizers of the reading had provided.
I couldn’t find a traditional, full-size Tootsie Roll today, only a bag of the midgets. Like the shapers of the Lenten dietary guidelines, the candy industry has addressed the changing ways people consume food now. So I had a “serving” of Tootsie Rolls, as defined on the package, and I thought of my mother and her sincere efforts to comply with a set of regulations that now seem arbitrary and not very useful for promoting spiritual wholeness.
And I wish my sister could have been with me, so we could cut that seventh segment together.