This past week marked the beginning of Lent for the Eastern Orthodox faithful. It runs for forty days and ends on the Friday before Palm Sunday. This year Greek Easter is April 15th, one week later than Easter will be celebrated by Protestants and Catholics in 2012. As I explained in an article around this same time last year (Is Easter Early This Year), Eastern Orthodox calculations of the events surrounding Easter are based on the Gregorian rather than Julian calendar.
So what does the beginning of Lent mean? For those of you looking for a liturgical or religious answer to that question, I can assure you this is not the place to find one. Yes, I know that for the Orthodox Lent begins not on an Ash Wednesday (as it does for others) but on “Clean Monday” (which actually begins the night before), that the reference to “clean” refers to leaving behind sinful attitudes and forbidden foods during Lent, and that the theme for Clean Monday is set out in an Old Testament reading from Isaiah 1:1-20, stating in part, “Wash yourselves and ye shall be clean.”
But that’s not what this piece is about. What the beginning of Lent means as far at this piece is concerned is one thing: FOOD.
In Greek the name is Kathara (clean) Deftera (Monday) and is a public holiday. It probably also is, or at least should be, a holiday for vegetarians around the world. That’s because Clean Monday generally does not permit the consumption of any animal with red blood or of anything derived from those animals. In other words, no meat, fish, milk, cheese, yogurt, eggs, etcetera. Many also exclude olive oil. You see, Lent is about fasting. If it’s starting to sound like a pretty boring feast day, trust me, you’re wrong.
But just to keep the interest of those unrepentant red meat lovers out there, the Greeks also have a day for you to circle on your calendars. It’s two Thursdays before Clean Monday. In Greek that day is called, Tsiknopempti, “pempti” meaning Thursday. Tsikno is hard to translate, though most settle on “burnt” and call it “Burnt Thursday,” or use the rest of Europe’s name for the day, “Fat Thursday.” To me, though, tsikno conjures up the engulfing smoke and scents of endless grills sizzling with meats.
Personally, I think a more appropriate name would be “Lipitor Thursday.”
As for Clean Monday, to Greeks it’s a time that is about a lot more than prayer and food. It’s regarded as the first day of Spring, a time to celebrate outdoors and picnic. Kite flying is a huge tradition, as is dancing and music, and thoughts of a new beginning ... please God.
But back to the food. No one is supposed to eat until noon, but once it’s here, kali orexi!
Unique to Clean Monday is lagana, a generally unleavened bread eaten only on that day which serves as the perfect compliment to the rest of the holiday table (and is far different from the “matzoh” familiar to many as another form of unleavened bread). Here’s just an example of what you might find to nibble on while you dream of that Big Mac.
Taramosalata, made of cod or carp roe, is sometimes called “the common man's caviar.” It’s one of the tastiest and most famous of all Greek dips.
A fava (split pea) puree.
Yigandes, giant kastoria beans (similar in look to lima beans) generally combined in a casserole with tomatoes, onions, herbs, and spices.
Salads of marouli (romaine lettuce), three beans (fassolia), or perhaps something more daring such as revitho (chickpea) salad with artichokes and sun-dried tomato.
Dolmades, the traditional grape leaves stuffed with rice and fresh herbs
Peppers stuffed with bulgar and herbs.
Calamari, squid prepared fried or in any number of other ways.
Octopus grilled as is, or dressed up with tomatoes, capers, and other special touches.
Cuttlefish in wine sauce with pearl onions.
Garides, giant shrimp grilled with oil and lemon
Stews of wild mushrooms, onions, and herbs.
Halvas (semolina pudding), loukoumathes (puffs of fried dough in sweet syrup sprinkled with cinnamon and walnuts), pasteli (sesame-honey candies) … and on and on.
Then, of course, there’s the ouzo, wine, and beer.
Some fast, huh? Gotta got run now. Suddenly, I’m very hungry.