A traditional Lent treat that followed the rules

By Jamie Whalen | Special to The Compass | March 1, 2022


What does the pretzel have to do with Lent?


I have fond memories of enjoying a freshly- baked pretzel, dipped in mustard, at a baseball game. Even better was sharing the pretzel with my wife, who loved its contrast of spicy mustard, thick grains of salt on its surface and the chewy, somewhat sweet dough inside the brown, crispy shell.

Eager to replicate that experience, I recall trying a soft pretzel recipe at home. We wanted to share a warm, fresh pretzel with our children as a tasty Lenten treat and teaching tool.

What makes the pretzel a Lenten favorite? Pretzels have been around for well over a millennium. Most stories trace the pretzel back to monastery kitchens in Europe, where bakers used leftover dough formed into the shape of a person’s arms crossed in prayer. 

In earlier times, certain foods such as eggs, butter and lard, milk and, of course, meat, were prohibited to be eaten throughout the Lenten season. Pretzels contained none of these ingredients and were acceptable.

Monks called these treats pretiolas, from the Latin bracellae for “little rewards.” The pretzel has a Trinitarian significance since the twisted shape forms it into three parts with three holes —, reminders of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Pretzels have even been depicted in works of art — a notable example is the 16th-century oil painting “The Fight Between Carnival and Lent” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. It’s a delightful landscape of events, items and figures illustrating both Lent and the time directly preceding the season (carnival from the Latin carne vale, a “farewell” to meat required by the Lenten fast). The festivities and overindulgence of carnival contrast with the sober characters, activities, and even foods of the Lenten fast, including a pretzel seen placed near those marked with the cross of Ash Wednesday.

With a little effort, you can follow in the footsteps of the monks who, as the legend goes, gave the twisted, baked treats to children who were adept at memorizing their prayers. Typical ingredients for soft baked pretzels include yeast,; warm water and sugar to activate the yeast which helps the dough rise,; flour, oil and salt. (The traditional dry pretzel of Lent omitted the sugar and oil.) Try this recipe for soft pretzels, found at armagazine.com/3pmchS6.

How strictly you follow the traditional Lenten fast, and resulting recipe ingredients, is up to you. But before you share the pretzels with your family, consider asking the Lord to bless them as a sign of Lent, and for the courage to offer up Lenten sacrifices while remembering those who fast from food without choice, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Whalen is lay leader formation director for the Diocese of Green Bay. 

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