Lenten Kitchens

Do your Lenten traditions include a spring cleaning of your kitchen?  For our Catholic ancestors, spring cleaning meant emptying the house of sugary treats to prepare for Lenten fasting.  They used up their supplies of butter and sugar by baking desserts to eat during Shrovetide, the week before Lent.  Traditional Shrovetide foods include pancakes with lots of butter and syrup as well as fasnachts and paczki. 

Fasnachts are a square-shaped fried pastry.  Authentic fasnachts are made with potatoes and never have frosting or sprinkles.  Unlike donuts, fasnachts do not have holes.  The name fasnachts comes from a German word that means fast night or the night before the fast. 

Paczki are jelly-filled buns that are a special treat for Catholics of Polish descent. In Poland, paczki are eaten on Thusty Czwartek (Fat Thursday) which is the Thursday before Ash Wednesday.   In the United States, paczki are usually enjoyed on the Tuesday before Lent to coincide with other pre-Lenten observances.

If Catholics give up desserts during Lent, how do they satisfy their cravings?   

According to legend, pretzels, a popular snack food, were developed by a monk circa 610 AD to help Catholics keep their Lenten fast.  The monk took scraps of bread dough and twisted it into the shape of a prayer position, two arms crossed over the chest with hands touching the shoulders.  Since the only ingredients were water, flour, and salt, and because of its prayerful shape, the pretzel soon became the perfect food to eat during Lent. 

For a time, it had been customary in Europe to only sell pretzels from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. Today they are sold throughout the year but there are still many customs associated with pretzels and Lent.  Catholics in Luxemburg celebrate Pretzel Sunday, Bretzelsonndeg, on the third Sunday of Lent.  On Pretzel Sunday, a boy gives a pretzel to a girl that he likes.  If the girl returns his affection, he is invited to visit her home on Easter Sunday to receive a gifted of decorated eggs.   During leap years, the custom is reversed so that girls give pretzels to boys, and boys decorate eggs for the girls.    

Hot cross buns are a Lenten food with a visible reminder to pray.  According to legend, a 12th century monk blessed the bread he was making by using a knife to trace a cross in the dough before it was baked.  Small buns marked by a cross became a popular food eaten throughout Lent and especially at 3:00 PM on Good Friday.  Hot cross buns are made with water rather than milk in keeping with Lenten fasting customs. 

To discourage Catholic practices after the Protestant Reformation, Queen Elizabeth I of England issued a decree in 1592 stating that hot cross buns could only be eaten on Good Friday and Christmas or as part of a meal after a funeral.  Any English subjects who were caught baking or eating them at other times had to give their remaining supply to the poor. 

Fish is one of the most popular choices for fasting days such as Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.   Throughout history, however, church leaders have had to specific exactly which creatures were classified as fish.  In the Middle Ages, beaver tail was considered fish because it had scales but the body was classified as meat and could not be consumed when fasting.

In 2010, Rev. Gregory Aymond, Archbishop of New Orleans, assured Louisiana’s Catholics that they could eat alligator during Lent.  Other suitable fare included turtles, snakes, and capybaras. 1

McDonald’s, the world’s largest chain of fast food restaurants, responded to their customers’ needs when they added a filet-of-fish sandwich to their menu.  In 1959, Lou Groen opened the first McDonald’s franchise in Monfort Heights, Ohio.  Business was especially slow on Fridays because 87% of the area’s population were Catholics who fasted from meat on that day.

 Groen developed a fish sandwich to lure Catholics but Ray Kroc, McDonald’s founder, said, “I don’t want my stores stunk up with the smell of fish!” 2.  Kroc’s alternative was a grilled pineapple and cheese sandwich that he called the Hula Burger. 

On Good Friday, 1962, both the Filet-O-Fish sandwich and the Hula Burger were offered in a few restaurants to determine which the public preferred.  The Filet-O-Fish sandwich was the customers’ overwhelming favorite and became a staple of the McDonald’s menu. 

Theories abound as to how fish became the go-to food for Catholics.  Perhaps it is because ancient Jewish laws permitted fish on days of abstinence.  Some believe it is because, in many cultures, fish is considered a poor man’s meal.  In that spirit, Catholics who are fasting are reminded to have only a simple meal rather than indulge with elegance from the sea such as lobster or caviar.

Prayerful intentions, local resources, and ingenuity have led to recipes and messages to fast and pray during Lent.  Lenten foods such as fish, fasnachts, paczki, pretzels, and hot cross buns remind us to cleanse our palates and our souls as we reflect and prepare to celebrate Christ’s resurrection at Easter. 


1. Carl Bunderson, “Alligator OK to Eat on Lenten Fridays, Archbishop Clarifies”, Catholic News Agency, February 15, 2013, https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/26593/alligator-ok-to-eat-on-lenten-fridays-archbishop-clarifies

2.  K. Annabelle Smith, “The Fishy History of the McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish Sandwich,” Smithsonian Magazine, March 1, 2013, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-fishy-history-of-the-mcdonalds-filet-o-fish-sandwich-2912/.

Photo by Maddi Bazzocco on Unsplash

This article is excerpted from Catholicism Everywhere: From Hail Mary Passes to Cappuccinos: How the Catholic Faith Is Infused in Culture, available from Sophia Institute Press.

Avatar photo


Dr. Helen Hoffner is the author of Catholicism Everywhere and Catholic Traditions and Treasures, available from Sophia Press. She is an Associate Professor at Holy Family University where she directs the program leading to reading specialist certification. Her role in the university's reading clinic enables her to work collaboratively with faculty colleagues and graduate students to develop effective literacy remediation plans. Dr. Hoffner's research interests include investigations of educational technology such as electronic books and the use of captioned and visually described television and film to improve literacy. She serves as an educational consultant for 20th Century Fox/MGM Entertainment Corporation and has developed a series of captioned films to help children and adults improve their reading ability. In addition to writing many journal articles and instructional manuals, Dr. Hoffner has written several books for teachers including, Literacy Lessons K-8, The Elementary Teacher's Digital Toolbox, Reading and Writing Mysteries in Grades 4 to 8, A Look at Realistic Fiction, and Learning Disabilities: What Research Tells Us.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage