This Holiday Season, Eat — Nevermind

Springtime religious holidays such as Lent, Passover and Ramadan alter culinary customs, provide new foods to help members bide time

Although winter festivities seem like recent memories, we’ve already entered a new season of holidays. Lent, Passover and Ramadan all have one trait in common — food. Through fasting, giving up fat or sugar, or abstaining from risen starch, each of these holidays changes students’ usual eating habits. From now through June, they will all establish a presence in Shaker Heights.

Lent Marks Time to Change

Lent is a 40-day-long Christian holiday that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on the Holy Saturday before Easter Sunday, this year beginning Wednesday, Feb. 18 and ending Thursday, April 22. Primarily observed by Catholics, Lent is considered a time to repent past misdeeds and take moments to appreciate loved ones.

“The word ‘Lent’ literally means ‘springtime’ . . . a time to change, or turn to God. The 40 days mirror the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert before beginning his public ministry,” said Reverend Tom Fanta, pastor of St. Dominic’s Catholic Church in Shaker Heights.

Although sophomore Luke Milgram does not find as much spiritual meaning in the holiday, he appreciates it. “I just think of Lent as a time to solidify my faith and a time to repent from my sins,” he said.

Traditionally, people observing Lent spend around 30 minutes per day in silence, to help them focus on their religious selves instead of outer distractions. However, more significantly, Christians practicing Lent must give up something meaningful of their choice during the 40 days, such as electronics, sweets, fatty foods, fast foods and even coffee or soft drinks. Reflecting and abstaining from food or comfort are intended to strengthen people’s relationship with God by exemplifying Jesus’ sacrifice.

“I prefer to give up something that’s bad for you, such as a few years ago I gave up ice cream for Lent,” said freshman Andrew Frye.

“As a family we don’t give up anything,” said Milgram. “We give up items individually. This year, I gave up candy, my sister and brother both gave up video games, my older brother gave up chocolate, and both my parents gave up sweets and are only drinking black coffee.”

The word ‘Lent’ literally means ‘springtime’ . . . a time to change, or turn to God. The 40 days mirror the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert before beginning his public ministry.

— Tom Fanta

However, some Christians take different approaches to the holiday. “I traditionally do not ‘give up’ things during Lent . . . I prefer to do extra things,” said Fanta. “One year, I tried to write three letters a week to people who have supported me in life, as a way of thanking them for their friendship. Another year I did ‘40 bags in 40 days’ . . . trying to declutter my life and giving clothes, shoes, et cetera to the poor.”

This year, in fact, the Pope spoke about Lent during a speech, saying that instead of giving up, to give back, according to the Huffington Post. Fanta’s outlook on the tradition mirrors the Pope’s suggestion.

To prepare to sacrifice during Lent, many Christians celebrate Mardi Gras the day before Ash Wednesday. On Mardi Gras, which means “Fat Tuesday” in French and occurred Feb. 17 this year, feasts, parties and parades are common. The extravagance also lets Christians use up certain household commodities, such as sugar and alcohol, before Lent begins. Mardi Gras is often associated with New Orleans, where it is arguably most celebrated. Mardi Gras meals often feature such cajun and creole dishes as gumbo, a hearty spicy stew, jambalaya, a meat and vegetable filled rice dish, and muffuletta, a sandwich with olives, capers, and other salty ingredients. King Cake, a brightly-colored circular cake with a cinnamon or almond paste filling and purple, green and gold sugar on top, holds a toy Baby Jesus inside, the discovery of which is used to determine who will have good luck in the coming year.

On Ash Wednesday, Christians share another tradition. “Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, and is named because Catholics will have ashes marked in the sign of the cross on their foreheads to show their willingness to die to old ways of living and rise to new ways of being like Jesus,” Fanta said. Another common tradition during Lent is giving up meat on Friday. This is a mainly Catholic tradition, and some Christians who practice Lent do not follow it.

“I give up meat on Fridays and I eat other foods, such as fish,” said Frye. “One food tradition is eating fish on Fridays, and in fact a lot of churches and restaurants will hold fish fries on Fridays during Lent.”

As Frye mentioned, many restaurants offer a fish special on Fridays during Lent, including Yours Truly and Wexler’s Tavern and Eatery. The Academy Tavern offers a Friday fish-based soup special, and Wexler’s and Yours Truly offers fish on Ash Wednesday and every Friday.

Joe Kotran, manager of Yours Truly, which offers a Friday fish fries throughout the whole year, appreciates them. “It’s something the company has been doing for a very long time,” he said.

Kotran celebrates Lent, and therefore understands the want for them. “We have people who come in every Friday for the fish fries,” said Kotran.

Unlike Frye, Milgram and his family do not give up meat. “Although giving up meat is customary during this holiday, my family and I do not participate in this tradition,” he said.

“Every ethnic tradition has certain foods that they share in during Lent. This came out of the practice of giving up meat on Fridays. As a parish, we have a fish fry every Friday,” Fanta said.

Spring dishes, such as peas, asparagus, leg of lamb, and egg-themed desserts are served on Easter, after Lent, according to Food and Wine Magazine.

Despite Lent’s time-specific traditions, “anybody can practice the season of Lent,” said Fanta. “Although we should try all year to become more like Jesus, the 40 days really helps Christians to focus on their faith and those in need around them.”

Passover Honors Enslaved Ancestors

Beginning Friday, April 3 and ending Saturday, April 11 this year, Passover is a Jewish holiday celebrating the Jewish slaves’ biblical Exodus from Egypt. Judaism has a different calendar, so this holiday can be observed at different times during the year. During Passover, called Pesach (pay-sah) in Hebrew, Jews usually give up risen starch, such as bread, couscous, baked goods, and most foods with flour. The definition of which varies depending on whether Jews practice reform, conservative or Orthodox Judaism, and whether they hail from Sephardic or Ashkenazi ancestry. For instance, different Jewish families and branches decide whether or not to eat rice, as views vary on whether it counts as a risen grain.

Rabbi Joshua Caruso of Fairmount Temple in Beachwood believes that most branches of Judaism celebrate Passover similarly . “I think we all, pretty much, embrace those large broad concepts of Passover: freedom and justice,” he said.

Jews refrain from eating leavened grains during Passover to remember their ancestors fleeing slavery from Egypt. According to the Book of Exodus, the Jews fled Egypt so rapidly after the Pharaoh finally gave them permission to leave that their bread could not fully rise. As such, on their journey to the Promised Land, the Jews ate crunchy, unleavened bread called matzah instead. Matzah is one of the few grains that Jewish people can eat during Passover, as it has not risen.

Matzah Brei, a traditional Jewish dish served during Passover, sits next to Passover symbols representing the Ten Plagues and food on the seder plate, as well as Matzah.
Andrew Boyle
Matzah Brei, a traditional Jewish dish served during Passover, sits next to Passover symbols representing the Ten Plagues and food on the seder plate, as well as Matzah.

Freshman Emma Duhamel, an active Jew in her temple, finds eating restrictions on Passover frustrating. “I love bread a lot, and not being able to eat it is super difficult,” she said.

Conservative and Orthodox Judaism usually advise to not even eat corn syrup, as it counts as a starch. The rule against corn syrup is especially hard to follow today, because most snack foods include it.

Duhamel is particularly matzah-averse. “I hate matzah. It tastes like what would happen if you burned cardboard,” Duhamel said.

Other food-related Passover rituals exist as well. More conservative Jews follow a tradition to “sell your chametz,” Caruso said. Chametz refers to the bread and grains Jews keep before Passover. Some people “sell” the chametz in their pantry to a non-Jewish friend. Then, after Passover, the Jew takes the money and the chametz back into their possession, to simulate selling off the starch. However, this tradition is uncommon: most families hide their chametz in sealed containers until Passover ends or ignore the chametz in their pantries.

Families and friends gather the first night of Passover to hold a Seder, a long meal and service that recognizes the history of the holiday with stories, songs and prayer. Some families celebrate Seders the second or third nights of Passover as well, depending on their religious traditions.

During the Seder, different family members recite parts of the story in different ways. For example, the youngest child is always supposed to recite the “Four Questions.”

“I never enjoyed reading the four questions since I was almost always the youngest,” said senior Simon Brown.

Throughout the entire meal, a symbolic Seder plate sits in the middle of the table. Parsley, for simplicity and pain; egg, for long life; a shank bone, or inedible piece of meat, for sacrifice; and horseradish, for bitterness of slavery, fill the Seder plate.

Practices at the Seder also remember the Ten Plagues God sent unto the Egyptian people, such as frogs, lice and the Nile turning to blood, to make the Pharaoh free the Jews.

“We have a kit with toys to represent the Ten Plagues. When we read the plagues during the Seder, we pass around each toy,” Duhamel said. Many Jewish families employ this tradition or similar ones.

Matzah also features heavily into the Seder, as Seder attendees use it to sandwich haroset, eat it on its own, and use it for a child’s game. Adults hide this portion of matzah — the afikoman — somewhere in the house for children to find. The child who finds the afikoman receives a prize.

“Searching for the afikoman is a way of keeping the seder interesting for the kids,” Caruso said.

Caruso thinks Passover interests Jews in a way unique from other holidays. “For lots of Jews who are not necessarily observant, Passover has this sacrosanct quality to it,” he said. “There’s something about Passover that people get very connected to.”

“I find that I have congregants who ask ‘Is this kosher for Passover?’ and ‘When can we eat bread again?’” Caruso said.

For lots of Jews who are not necessarily observant, Passover has this sacrosanct quality to it.

— Josh Caruso

Although Jews must give up risen starch during Passover, the holiday highlights many under appreciated foods. Even matzah, despite its hard, often stale texture and appearance, can be used in appetizing ways. It holds spreads such as jam, peanut butter and cream cheese well, and when ground into Matzah meal often replaces flour in desserts and other foods.

A popular use of matzah is in a dish called matzah brei, a replacement for French toast. To make matzah brei, the chef crumbles matzah and soaks it in a mixture of beaten eggs, milk and spices before cooking the mixture with butter. Here, tactics diverge. Some matzah brei devotees cook it like scrambled eggs, while others cook the dish like a large pancake or souffle and slice it into pie-like pieces.

“I make sure I really soak the matzah to make it nice and soft because I find it makes a better matzah brei,” said Caruso, who prefers the scrambled version.

Other popular foods at Passover Seders include lamb, chicken, brisket or the famous Matzah Ball soup. Lamb dishes relate to another part of the Passover story: when Jews spread lamb blood over their doors so that God would pass over them during His tenth plague, the death of all first-born Egyptians. The holiday’s name stems from this event. Additionally, preference for “sinkers” or “floaters,” referring to the buoyancy of the matzah balls, provides a common meal time debate.

“I like both. I usually get two, one sinker and one floater,” Brown said.

However, some Jews do not even know of the difference between the two, such as Duhamel.

Preferences also abound regarding people’s favorite Passover Seder foods. Brown favors brisket, while Duhamel loves the gluten-free pies often served. “I’m really a big fan of the Kosher for Passover desserts,” she said. “I’ve never been too keen on the main courses, but I’m always up for a Passover pie.”

For Duhamel, and most other Jewish students, eating grainless lunches at school provides the bigger problem.

AVI sources could not respond to questions in time for publication.

Brown exchanges the no-risen starch Passover rule for convenience. “I usually just end up eating the school lunch,” he said.

“I find [lunch during Passover] really hard. Usually, I pack a lunch on Passover, but I’ve been able to find food before,” Duhamel said.

Ramadan Recalls Less Fortunate

The Muslim holiday of Ramadan lasts a full month, from Wednesday, June 17 until Friday, July 17 this year. Because Islam follows a lunar calendar, Ramadan falls at different points every year, sometimes occurring during school and other years not. Muslims practicing Ramadan abstain from food and drink from dawn to sunset every day of the month, except for a large meal before dawn, called “suhoor,” and a sumptuous, late meal after sunset called “iftar.” The practice is followed to simulates how the prophet Muhammad fasted, letting Muslims feel less fortunate people’s plights.

Even Imam Mohamed Magid, of All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS), and founder and chairman of International Interfaith Peace Corps, says fasting can be hard. The IIPC is a new organization geared towards bridging the gap between different religions, consisting of bishops, imams, rabbis, and other religious officials.

Fasting is easier in the winter for most Muslims because of the shorter days, but in the summer, when Ramadan occurs this year, Muslims must fast from 4 a.m. until 8:30 p.m.

“When I was young, the first time I fasted, it was in Sudan and it is very hot there,” said Magid. “We didn’t have electricity, we didn’t have air conditioning. But still, we were able to do it.”

Magid’s younger child attends a Muslim school, but his oldest goes to a regular high school and faces culinary temptations there, especially during lunch. Many congregants often ask Magid for help fasting. His tip: go to the library or some other non-food related place during lunch, instead of the tempting cafeteria.

“I have been tempted [to break the fast] before, and I just think, ‘Only blank many hours until I can eat,’” sophomore Muizz Hassanali said.

However, freshman Adnan Reddy said fasting is not such a problem. “You get used it,” he said.

Only sick, elderly and pregnant Muslims are exempted from fasting during Ramadan. “People who break their fast must make it up another time,” said Magid. “If a person is very old or has a sickness and cannot fast at all, they must feed another person who is needy every day for a month.”

Hassanali’s family observes different hours for the holiday, to make it easier to fast in the modern day. “We fast from 6:00 to 6:00, not sunrise to sunset, and in Cleveland it is a little harder to follow that than it is in Saudi Arabia,” he said.

While Ramadan emphasizes self-control, it also encourages good deeds, devotion and community. Magid says that chapter two of the Quran, the holy book of Islam, states that Muslims should fast from dawn until sunset for a month. The holiday includes a substantial amount of prayer, including before and after meals.

One billion people around the world celebrated the holiday in 2014, according to Colorado State University.

“The purpose of [Ramadan] is to feel how poor people feel, without food or water,” Reddy said.

However, unlike the impoverished, Muslims can break their fasts at night. When they do, they share one universal tradition. “Muslims break the fast by eating dates,” Magid said, to follow in the steps of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. According to legend, Muhammad ate dates to break his fast as well.

Egyptian Lentil soup, a common dish in Imam Mohamed Magid’s homeland of Sudan, among Ramadan’s most prominent symbols, including dates and a crescent moon and star cut out of green paper.  Muslims break the fast by eating dates to recall the Islamic prophet Muhammed, who practiced the same tradition, according to Muslim texts. Green is considered a holy color due to Muhammad as well: it was supposedly the prophet’s favorite hue, and the Quran references it often.
Andrew Boyle
Egyptian Lentil soup, a common dish in Imam Mohamed Magid’s homeland of Sudan, among Ramadan’s most prominent symbols, including dates and a crescent moon and star cut out of green paper. Muslims break the fast by eating dates to recall the Islamic prophet Muhammed, who practiced the same tradition, according to Muslim texts. Green is considered a holy color due to Muhammad as well: it was supposedly the prophet’s favorite hue, and the Quran references it often.

Hassanali offered another reason. “Your body is not ready for a big meal after fasting all day, so dates are good for your body as they are high in sugar,” he said.

But after the dates, meals vary. Some Muslims eat regular food that they would eat on any weekday, while others enjoy traditional Mediterranean dishes. Some of these include flat bread, meat skewers, hummus, fava beans, soup and tabbouleh, a salad of parsley, tomato and bulgur. Sawine, a cooling vermicelli pudding, is a common dessert. Spicy chickpea or vegetable soups are traditional in Moroccan culture, while a lentil soup is popular for families from Sudan or Egypt.

In Magid’s homeland of steamy Sudan, families would take their food outside on large trays, he said. When a person passed by, families would try to convince them to sit and eat with them, to build community connections. Afterwards, families returned inside their houses for tea, coffee and to do Jarwih (jar-we).

Jarwih is a routine, nightly prayer during Ramadan. There are 30 parts to the Quran, and Muslims are supposed to read a part each night. By the end of Ramadan, Muslims will have read the entire book of Quran.

“Muslims are always looking forward to breaking the fast,” Magid said. After the 30 days of fasting, a very large celebration takes place, called Eid-al-Fitr. During the three-day holiday, families visit other relatives, get and give gifts, and eat copious amounts of food.

“There are special foods for Eid,” said Hassanali. “Everyone buys new clothes, and there are parties.”

But during this feasting holiday, Muslims do not stray from the central idea. During Eid-al-Fitr, all Muslims are encouraged to donate to the poor as well.

Although culinary practices vary among religions, most religions include some kind of dietary guidance. Customs such as fasting and abstaining from meat, for example, occur in more than one faith and could have emerged for practical rather than initially spiritual reasons, such as famine. Other practices, such as avoiding certain foods, may have health at their root. In the days before food preservation and refrigeration, certain foods spoiled quickly and thus may have been forbidden for the sake of people’s health.

Over time, however, practical dietary customs developed deep, spiritual significance.

Said Magid, “Fasting gives you a feeling of what other people feel if they don’t have food.”

This article appears in Volume 85, Issue 4 of The Shakerite on pages 27-31, along with holiday recipes. The print version of this article referred to “reformed Judaism.” This has been changed to “reform,” the correct term. Also, the International Interfaith Peace Corps was mentioned as the “IICP” in the print article, and has now been corrected to its regular acronym: IIPC.

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