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Grilled Cactus, Rice Soup, And Other Food For Lent


Now it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith, religion and spirituality. You may know that we are in the Lenten season. In the Christian tradition, it is the time of preparation before Easter, which is the observance leading up to the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. For many Christians around the world, it is a formal period of reflection and fasting. But Christians all over the world have different fasting traditions. Some hold off on meat, others cut out all animal products, including dairy.

Some people eat only raw food. We wanted to hear more about these traditions and how they develop, so we called Professor Frederick Douglass Opie. He is a historian at Babson College and he writes the food blog - sorry, the blog "Food As A Lens." And we are happy that he was able to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios. Professor Opie, thanks so much for joining us.

FREDERICK DOUGLASS OPIE: Thank you for inviting me, Michel.

MARTIN: Why do Christians fast during Lent?

OPIE: It's a way of remembering what Jesus Christ had done for humanity on the cross and coming in solidarity with a sacrifice that he made. So you're sacrificing something that might be a normal luxury in your diet.

MARTIN: And you were telling us and we were reading on the blog that there are all kinds of food traditions or fasting traditions. Could you just tell us just couple a couple of them?

OPIE: I'll give you a couple. Depending on where you are and what your topography is, what you have access to, I was looking at some sources from the Great Depression era and in New Mexico, you see that most of the people of Mexican descent will eat things like rice or like a soup made from rice. They'll eat bread made from bran. They'll do fish. They'll do beans. Now in New England, when you look at recipes - I was just looking at, again, some from the turn-of-the-century and there was an emphasis on soups that are more like ragus, more like stews, and they're all cream-based.

So if you think about, you know, the region where people are from. Cincinnati, in the area where there's a lot of rivers in that area, you see people also emphasizing fish - all kinds of fish. And you have somebody writing a column around 1910 talking about the fish in the local market, but then all the fish - also the fish that are imported to Cincinnati to the readers of the paper.

MARTIN: Speaking of fish, you know, fish looms large in my, you know, thinking about Lent. I mean, I don't know about you, but I grew up having fish on Fridays, specifically during Lent, but often throughout the year. Do you know how that got started?

OPIE: It's interesting.

MARTIN: And to be honest most of my neighbors did, too. I just didn't know any other way. Do you have any idea why that is or how that started?

OPIE: The historical record, when you look at the sources - newspaper sources - again, I looked at sources going all the way back to 1894, certainly there's earlier one, but I didn't have access to them. And what I found is that most people don't know how it got started - why fish? We just know it becomes a natural replacement and something that was sanctioned by the church as acceptable alternative to meat.

MARTIN: And is this like a Catholic thing, a Protestant thing, specific - a black thing, as it were? I remember just as African-America that, you know, looms large to as the thing that one did - does, even now.

OPIE: It transcends cultures. So you see it within the African-American church, you see it within the white community church, Catholic, Protestant. Certainly as African-Americans and people who originate from West and Central Africa, where we had fish culture as many of us grew up in the Niger River Valley - so that's probably a continuation of what we did before. But also when we were enslaved by people who came from, for example, British culture, French culture - it was part of their religious culture that was introduced to us.

MARTIN: One of the things you were also telling us is the fish tradition actually gave rise to a whole kind of economic empowerment opportunity. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?

OPIE: It's almost like a cottage industry around it. I think of a woman in New Orleans who was known as the Queen of Fish Fry. And in her community - and particularly New Orleans being a Catholic city - it's one of those things, as you also mentioned, where people every Friday, they ate fish, but during the Lenten season it's Wednesday and Friday. So there are women who set up cottage industry where they would sell food out of their house. You'd put your order in the morning, say, in New Orleans, go to work, show up on the way back and pick up this delicious meal for a very inexpensive amount of money that was great home-cooked food.

MARTIN: And this did what for the women who were running these fish fries? Were they able to increase their standing because of this? Or what did this do for them?

OPIE: They definitely had a standing. I'm thinking about the woman known as the Queen of Fish Fry - she was one of these people that if you needed to gain money, for example, bail for a loved one - you would go to her, you would provide her with the necessity to cook the fish, and then she would have you put on a party to raise money. Similarly, we see the same thing with rent parties in places like Harlem. So they function in that similar way.

MARTIN: And also you were telling us about - you highlighted on your blog that people with Mexican heritage eat something called - what - nopales (ph)...

OPIE: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Or cactus petals, during Lent? Can you tell us more about that

OPIE: Yeah. Nopales, again, as you mentioned, they are the cactus petals and they coincide with the Lenten season. So it's the thing that's, you know, in fruit it's blooming. So it's one of those things - I spent time in Mexico learning Spanish and one of those delicious dishes where you take some nopales, you cut them up and you'll be - put them like in a vinaigrette and they're really delicious. Most of us who have never had them say, you know, the idea of eating cactus is crazy, but it is a staple within Mexican culture and society.

MARTIN: Is there any through line to what you've seen about Lenten observances?

OPIE: Things that are consistent across borders...


OPIE: ...And across cultures?

MARTIN: Yeah. 'Cause it's interesting to me that some people actually eat cream or eat cream-based things. A lot of the people I grew up with - that's the opposite of what you do. In fact, I know a lot of people who - in this area - people who are from East Africa, like, remove all the dairy from their diets at this time.

OPIE: Well, you know, those of us of African descent - well, most of us are lactose intolerance. So that's where that comes from. But the consistency I see is that we're not going to eat meat. It's fish that's the biggest replacement. It's the consumption of a lot of soup during that particular period of time. And the whole ideal that's consistent before Lent is this whole ideal of Fat Tuesday - or what people call Shrove Tuesday or in England it was known as Pancake Tuesday. So there's some consistencies you see with the party before Ash Wednesday and the going to repentance and abstinence for the rest of the year until Easter and then that big meal on Easter Sunday.

MARTIN: Before we let you go - and I hope you don't mind getting personal - it seems a little incongruous to ask if you have any favorite recipes for a season of fasting, but in all of your travels I wonder if you do.

OPIE: No, absolutely. In the series I do - Looking at Lent Through the Lens of Food - I do provide, you know, recipes. And there's some traditional recipes that people eat no matter what their culture and I provide the vegan version of that so people can continue to eat and enjoy. But I'd say, you know, one of the big ones I would say are a lot of pulses or beans and, you know, black beans and rice, things like that. Those are some kind of traditional dishes. And I have a whole connection to a series I did on fish in food so there's a lot of fish recipes that people would have if they go to the blog foodasalens.com.

MARTIN: Are you personally fasting, if you don't mind my asking? How do you observe the fast?

OPIE: You know, fasting means many things. You don't have to fast food. You could fast something like Facebook. You could fast something like constantly checking your e-mail. You could fast chocolate. You could fast TV, your favorite TV show. You know, I could think of a number of things that people could fast that might be more important than food - i.e. coffee. So there's a lot of things

MARTIN: Please don't say that. Don't say that.

OPIE: I'm sorry. I'm sorry.

MARTIN: Don't say that.

OPIE: I messing with people.

MARTIN: I think the day - I can't even envision the day.

OPIE: Well, then it would be an important fast for you 'cause you'd really be making a sacrifice.

MARTIN: No, this is not about me. Let's turn it back to you. Let's turn it back to you. I think I asked if you were fasting for Lent and how you were observing that.

OPIE: Michel, you saw me trying to squeeze out of it. Honestly, in preparation for the interview, I had to do some reflection. And I can tell you, as a father, both me and my wife are professional, we have an 8 - 11-year-old. And I think I got kind of caught up in forgetting what season it was, and had to reflect on some things I need to do.

MARTIN: That was Professor Frederick Douglass Opie. He is a food blogger. His blog is foodasalens.com. He's a historian at Babson College. And we caught up with him here in Washington, D.C. Thanks so much for joining us.

OPIE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.