Border Studies at EPCC
NW Library and EPCC Links
Other Local Libraries
We do NOT have the resources to assist with genealogical research.
For GENEALOGICAL RESEARCH please contact:
*El Paso Genealogical Society
Lenten Foods: From Fasting to Fabulous
Article first published in Vol. 9, 1991.
By Inez Caldwell
Many dishes that are unique to the Mexican-American culture have been created specifically to take the place of meat. The Mexican culture has close ties to the Roman Catholic church, and the Lenten period is of particular importance to Catholics. Because of this, the fusion of Lent and Mexican cooking has brought about some very interesting culinary delights.
Lent, meaning spring, is a forty-day period of self-examination and repentance in preparation for the Easter holidays. The number forty is in recognition of the forty days Moses spent on Mount Sinai, the forty days Jesus spent in the desert or the forty hours in the tomb.
These forty days are recognized by a period of fasting, self-denial, reflection and penitence. In the 1960s the Roman Catholic Church changed its fasting policy from eating only one meal a day during Lent to fasting only two days during the entire Lenten season -- on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
The purpose of fasting is to become more spiritual. Many people accomplish this by giving up something for Lent. Some may give up drinking alcohol; others maybe give up watching television. The Roman Catholic Church asks Christians not to eat red meat on Ash Wednesday and on every Friday during Lent. Since animals reproduce sexually, their flesh is considered impure to eat during this solemn time.
Fish is probably the most popular Lenten food, especially to those of us who live so far away from the ocean. Fish can be prepared in a variety of ways, from appetizer to the main course.
A vary tasty fish soup is caldo de pescado o caldo Michi. This is prepared with fish heads and red snapper or sea bass and many different vegetables. This soup can be served before the main dish or as the main dish.
A tasty and inexpensive second course might be tortitas de camaron. Tina Corral, who lived in Mexico for 50 years, says that this is traditionally known as a poor person's meal. Dehydrated powered shrimp is added to an egg batter similar to that used to prepared chiles rellenos. This batter is then poured on a hot, oiled griddle and the "dollar-sized pancakes" are cooked until golden brown on both sides. The patties are then covered with a red chile sauce.
The shrimp patties can also be served covered with pipián, another Lenten food. This sauce is made with pumpkin seeds, chile colorado (red chile) and many spices. Pipián is a traditional dish in the northern states of Mexico.
All vegetables can be eaten during Lent, but the most popular vegetable of the Lenten season is dried Italian squash. Ripe squash is sliced and placed on a cloth to completely dry in the sun. The dried rounds are then cooked by frying with onion, garlic and tomatoes. Once done, the dish is topped with cheese and covered until the cheese melted.
Other Lenten vegetables include nopalitos, young prickly pear cactus pads. They taste very similar to green beans when cooked. The nopalitos can be prepared with scrambled egg or covered with pipián. They also can be fried with onion, tomatoes and cilantro (coriander), served on a corn tortilla, folded and eaten like a taco. Other toppings, as well as hot sauce, can be added.
Another popular vegetable in Mexico City is romeritos. This green leaf is prepared with red chile sauce and powdered or whole shrimp. Abas (lima beans) are cooked as a main dish soup with tasty pieces of fish added. Traditional lentils, boiled like regular pinto beans and served with rice, are known as Moros con Cristianos (Moors with Christians).
Corn, the staple of the Mexican diet, also is prepared differently for Lent. Chacales, dried white corn broken into little pieces, is prepared like a soup. The Aztecs are thought to have originated this dish when they pounded corn on the metate.
Lenten desserts include empanadas de corpus and capirotada. Empanadas, light flaky turnovers filled with fruit preserves, are prepared in Oaxaca starting on Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter. Favorite flavors include blackberry, apricot-pear and plum-apple combinations. However, capirotada is probably the most well-known Lenten dessert.
Although most Mexican dishes differ from household to household, capirotada is the most diverse of all. One recipe calls for dipping toasted bolillo or French bread slices in an egg batter and frying until golden brown. The bread is drenched with syrup made from piloncillo (dark brown sugar), cinnamon sticks, clove anise and rum. Then this combination is covered with raisins, peanuts and almonds and sprinkled with grated cheese.
Another recipe for this Lenten bread pudding starts with toasted bread torn into a small pieces and layered in a baking dish. On top of the bread layer are spread peanuts, raisins and grated cheddar cheese. Additional layers are added depending on the number of portion desired. The final layer is a bread layer topped with more grated cheese and colored sugar balls (grajea) for decoration.
A syrup of piloncillo and water, plus cinnamon, cloves and anise to taste, is boiled until thickened and then poured over the entire dish to flavor and soak the bread. The capirotada is then baked in a medium oven with an additional dish of water placed on the rack beneath so that the pudding will steam. Once cooked it is moist and sweet with a surprising variety of flavorful surprises.
For those of us who are familiar with the Lenten foods of our Southwest area, it hardly seems like a sacrifice to enjoy these special dishes. The forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday are a season of great intensity: introspection, solemnity and abstinence. Although Lenten foods are meant to be plain, in Mexico and here on the border these foods are hardly ordinary and reflect the great diversity of its food customs.