“When I hear Lent I always think of lentils” I told Francesca when we discussed Fastenzeit, the 40 days between carneval and Eastern.
In the catholic household of my upbringing, lentil soup was the staple diet for a Friday, the day on which religon demanded not to eat any meat. We ate it with Wiener Würstchen, a kind of Frankfurters, instead, which didn´t count as meat. This lentil soup was served enriched with Spätzle, a special kind of regional pasta, and flavoured with a tablespoon of vinegar. I loved this lentil soup, maybe because it was the only not-homemade dish my mother ever served. In a household reigned by homemade marmelade, self-pressed raspberry juices and handpicked peas, the taste of a pulverized soup with freezedried vegetables and probably an unhealthy amount of glutamat spelled luxurious pleasure.
Only when I worked in the kitchen of a Gasthaus in our local ski-ressort, I learnt that lentils are more than a brown mass of powder. Each night we poured kilos of the brown protein bombs into a 40 liter pot, and covered them with water. The next morning, we got up early to let them simmer on the stove for two hours. We added Speck, lard, and cooked it for another hour, to get the smotth texture and the rich taste of lentils and lard combined. Then I would prepare everything for a rush of 200 hungry children. I carried the pot outside into a wooden barrack reserved for the ski classes and heated another big pot of Wiener Würstchen. This was the most delicate part of my task, as their skin tended to burst when overheated, and even then, in the 70ies, children didn´t eat burst sausages. Today, lentil soup still is served in my own family, homemade. I like the idea of a dish that only needs to stand overnight and cooks for hours without me..
Another favorite dish in my family originates in Fastenzeit as well: Maultaschen, literally translated as mouth-bag.
Schwabians invented Maultaschen to cheat on the obligation of fasting. They took a chunk of meat, minced it finely, mixed it with spinach and covered it in pasta dough. Thus, God was cheated twice. If he looked at the dish, he would see only the pasta dough. In case he might be able to look beneath the surface, he would see a green mass and take it for a vegetarian dish. God obviously doesn´t taste.
For a long time only the Schwabians enjoyed Maultaschen. For me, the pleasure of Maultaschen in der Brühe or Maultaschen geschmälzt made up for the otherwise ascetic lifestyle in Stuttgart, where people enjoy not to enjoy. “Mir geht es nicht so gut, dass ich klagen könnte – I´m not so well off that I could complain” describes the general attitude in an ironic way.
Surprisingly, this regional dish opened the door to my first intercultural friendship. Once, at university, I tutored an exchange scientist from Inner Mongolia. I was paid to show him Germany, to tell him about our customs and thus to help him to feel more at home in a foreign country. For a long time I didn´t succeed. He missed his wife, his children, his friends, his status at his home university and we didn´t connect. Then, one day, on a trip to Tübingen, I invited him to Maultaschen in der Brühe. First he declined, as he always declined the food I offered him. This non-acceptance of food always offended me, because in my understanding, offering food means to offer hospitality and to decline it equalls rejection. This time, I insisted. Luckily, our neighbours at the next table were already eating their Maultaschen. “Look”, I said “those are Maultaschen in der Brühe”. He smiled for the first time since I had met him:” Oh, you mean Wan-Tan-soup”.
Das Eis war gebrochen-the ice had cracked. Over Maultaschen and the Wan-tan soup he prepared for me the following week, I learnt about similarities and differences between people and culture. I learnt about his lactose allergy that made it impossible for him to partake in our students diet of bread, cheese and milk.
Though Lent is part of our religious and cultural tradition, the fasting rules don´t count any more. The only people I know who seriously obey any fasting rules out of religious reasons are islamic neighbours and friends during Rhamadan. Others decide to make Fastenzeit the time of the year when they test if they can live without the daily pleasures of chocolate, coffee, cigarettes or a glass of wine. It´s like a second New Years resolution, though within a limited time span which makes it much easier to keep. With an chocolate Easter bunny as a reward, even I can deny myself a chocolate bar.
But this is another story.