This year, Feb. 21 isn’t simply another Tuesday in New Orleans: It’s Mardi Gras. And while the prevalence of bead-related nudity is exaggerated, the sheer amount of food and drink celebrants will consume is not.
In Louisiana, the traditional Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, sweet is the king cake, covered in icing and decorated, commonly, with purple, green and gold sugars. But Mardi Gras is just one of many varied and memorable celebrations happening around the world on the day before Lent, including pancake races in Buckinghamshire, England; orange-throwing wars in Binche, Belgium; and the boisterous Carnival in Rio de Janeiro.
The day is known elsewhere as Shrove Tuesday, Pancake Day, Maslenitsa and Fastnacht, but the common thread is that rich foods play an important role as Christians would historically attempt to exhaust their supplies of animal products, like butter and eggs, before those foods became forbidden during the 40-day Lenten fast.
Recipe: Buttery Pancakes With Lemon and Sugar
The British and the Irish eat pancakes with lemon and sugar while the Italians eat sweet dough balls called castagnole or deep fried cookies called cenci. The Polish have pączki, the French have beignets and the Germans have fastnacht — all members of the doughnut family.
In Iceland, the day is called Sprengidagur, or Bursting Day, and in Slavic countries like Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, the Maslenitsa festival is often referred to as Butter Week or Cheesefare Week. For Christians in India, the day before Lent is spent eating colorful, coconut-filled crepes known as Goan pancakes or madakasan depending on the region.
Recipe: Coconut Stuffed Pancakes
“In the Northern Hemisphere, Lent was typically a time of food scarcity,” said Neil Buttery, a food historian and host of the podcast “British Food: A History.” “The meat you saved for winter was running low or threatening to spoil, and the crops you planted for spring hadn’t yet produced food.
“The feast before Lent was a final chance to have some fun, get your fill and put on a few pounds before a difficult but natural period of want,” he added.
In fact, the broader Carnival season that precedes Lent comes from the Latin term carnevale, meaning “remove meat.” But it wasn’t just meat people were removing from their diets, it was also animal byproducts. This may explain, Mr. Buttery said, why so many of the dishes eaten before Lent feature butter and eggs.
Each of these traditions has Christian ties but, as Sharon Hudgins, a University of Maryland professor and the author of “T-Bone Whacks and Caviar Snacks,” explained, the tradition of raucous feasts this time of year predates Christianity.
In Russia, for example, costumed revelers spend the festival before Lent celebrating the sun’s return by eating blini and burning an effigy of the “Old Witch of Winter,” Ms. Hudgins said. It’s a tradition that can be traced to the early Slavic people, who also feasted on round, pancakelike snacks.
Recipe: Semlor (Cardamom Cream Buns)
But, for most, pre-Lenten treats no longer conjure thoughts of the sun’s battle with winter spirits — or even of fasting during a season of food scarcity. Whether in New Orleans or Paris, Warsaw or Kerala, India, they evoke memories of family and centuries of tradition.
Ingrid Schatz, the owner of Axelsdotter, a bakery in Richmond, Va., said that her cream-filled semlor, traditional to Sweden, are a special source of nostalgia for her customers, many of whom say they remember eating semlor with their parents.
“The whole day is special,” she said. “That so many different cultures take part in this tradition of using their fatty foods, and that they’ve all come up with super delicious ways to do it. I’m proud to be part of it.”
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