1920 Lenten Luncheon Menu

Lenten Luncheon Menu
Source: American Cookery (March, 1920)

There’s been a history of giving up meat during Lent for a long time. I’m not sure exactly what was allowed a hundred years ago – and it probably varied depending upon someone’s religious and ethnic background – but this 1920 Lenten menu clearly suggests that it was common to eat fish instead of meat during this time of year.

58 thoughts on “1920 Lenten Luncheon Menu

    1. I think that watercress may have been more widely served a hundred years ago than what it is now. My mother used to talk about foraging in streams for wild watercress when she was a child.

  1. That is a lot of fish in one meal. I was not raised Catholic, but we always had fish sticks at school on Fridays and that is the day I most likely prepare fish for dinner. Old habits.

    1. My father was a dedicated fisherman and we are Catholic. I note that as for years and years after the change came where Friday’s were “meatless”, but you could eat fish, we still did, as we always had a lot of fish.

      For that matter, I’ve been stunned as an adult to learn that trout are regarded by some people as really fine food. In our house, that was just what we always had on Fridays.

    2. We also often had fish sticks on Fridays at school. If my memory is correct, the school I attended alternated between fish sticks one week, and tomato soup (which I really disliked) with macaroni and cheese the next.

      1. I really dislike tomato soup and won’t eat it very often now. But my mother liked it and when I was a kid tomato soup with melted velveeta cheese was a common lunch item if I came home from school for lunch. I didn’t like it then, but we ate what we were served.

        Her Mac & Cheese was good, however. She always prepared it and it wasn’t until I was an adult that I had the instant stuff, which I’ve never developed a fondness for.

        One thing that you notice as a Catholic adult is that this time of year, i.e., Lent, all of a sudden all sorts of restaurants, particularly fast food restaurants, have a fish item. I really like McDonalds Filet-o-fish sandwiches anyway (it’s the only think on their menu I like) but every fast food outfit has a fish item right now. They never say its for Lent, it just appears, and then disappears.

        Conversely, if you ever have to go to anything official this time of year that’s not going to be true, at least where I live. I hardly ever eat lunch anyway, but recall going to a county bar meeting once in which the only option as the Giant Beef Sandwich. Not a problem for me, as a Giant Anything sandwich is going to put me down and out for the rest of the day, so I don’t order them. Another Catholic fellow I know was served one however and tried to switch it out for another entre, which oddly enough, even in this day in which there’s always a vegetarian item on a menu, meant that he got the Even More Giant Beef Sandwich served as the restaurant’s return option.

  2. I have some old posts on this topic on my blog, and have a more detailed one coming up on it I haven’t published yet.

    Fasting as a feature of the Apostolic faiths (the Catholic and Orthodox faiths) goes back to the beginning but ultimately took different paths in the East and the West. In the West the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church imposed a rule that all the faithful were required throughout the year to “abstinence”, i.e., abstaining from meat, on Fridays. Then, in Lent, the added requirement of a fasting (no more than one full meal and two smaller ones) was added for Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. At some point in the 1960s, the Latin Rite changed the rule so that local areas could take a different route on the regular Friday’s of the year, which remained penitential in character but for which local areas could allow for different practices. In North America, for example, the rules was changed to do away with abstinence but individuals were supposed to substitute something of their own choosing. In some other areas other things were done, and in at least one area there’s been a move back to abstinence. Fridays during Lent, however, remain ones of abstinence and the fasts remain for Good Friday and Ash Wednesday (and a much smaller one before receiving communion).

    In the Eastern Rite, which includes the Eastern Rite of the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox the tradition took a different approach. The Eastern churches observe two Lenten seasons rather than one, with the one we call Lent being called Great Lent in the Eastern churches. Another lenten season is observed before Christmas during the period of time that roughly coincides with Advent. The Eastern Rite’s fasts and abstinence period are much more extensive in character. Indeed, we just passed what those in the East call “Clean Monday” ( https://lexanteinternet.blogspot.com/2020/02/today-is-clean-monday.html ) and, for those in Slavic countries, “Butter Week” (which roughly equates with Carnival and Mardi Gras in Latin Rite regions ( https://lexanteinternet.blogspot.com/2020/02/today-is-last-day-of-butter-week.html ) which reflect that. In the East during Great Lent, those who fully observe the rules give up all meat, dairy, fats and alcohol. Shellfish, for some reason, is not included. During the period prior to Christmas the same occurs but it is stepped in over time, i.e., one week you give up meat, the next week dairly, etc, until you are on a pretty strict abstinence.

    The big difference, however, between the East and the West is that the rule is very strict in the Latin Rite and always has been. As a mandatory rule of the Latin Rite those knowingly violating the rule are regarded as having committed serious sin for disobedience to the rule. In the East, however, the practice is taken seriously but is not obligatory, so failing to observe it is a failure, but not a sinful one.

    Also worth noting, in both the East and the West a Fast is always followed by a Feast, which is actually a phrase, I think, in the East, but is true for both. So the Lenten Fasts are followed by the Easter Feast, which is in fact a “feast” on the liturgical calendar. The Advent fast in the East is followed by Christmas. The Friday abstinence in the Latin right and its pre communion fast (which went in the 1960s to no food at all from midnight Saturday night until a person received communion, if they did, to just one hour prior to communion) is broken by the Sunday feast.

    Indeed, the word “Breakfast” comes from that latter practice, i.e., the breaking of the fast.

    That’s probably more than anyone wanted to know of this entire topic, I’m sure.

    1. By the way, an added interesting aspect to this story is that during World War One when the nation went to try to conserve a lot of different foods, it started a campaign for “Meatless Mondays” and “Porkless Tuesdays”.

      I’ve thought for some time that this must have been a real bummer for American Catholics and American Orthodox as they already had rules of this type. I.e., if you were a Latin Rite Catholic, Fridays were already meatless and you had to wonder why the government was choosing Mondays and Tuesday for that.

    2. It’s fascinating to learn about the history of abstaining from meat and fasting, and similarities and differences between the Catholic and Orthodox religions. I knew that the requirements related to abstaining from meat had changed for Catholics since the 1960s, but until I read you comment I hadn’t been quite sure how they’d changed.

      1. On the Orthodox, one thing I didn’t note is that during World War One the Imperial Russian government went to impose meatless, etc., days due to food shortages but because the Russian Orthodox Church already had so many fast days as it was, it made no difference as to the problem they were attempting to address.

        1. I guess that the policymakers hadn’t really thought meatless days through within the context of the fasting that people already were doing as part of their religion.

  3. I do observe the Lenten fast, however, eating the meal suggested above would be a sacrifice. LOL Doesn’t sound too appetizing (other than the soup and olives). 🙂

    1. I guess that some people take both the letter and the spirit of the rule seriously, while others (like the menu author) focus only on the letter of the rule, and figure out ways to have an elegant meal during a time of prayer and fasting.

        1. Definitely – with a lovely tablecloth, napkins, the good china and silverware, and a beautiful centerpiece. Creating beautiful tables for special luncheons and meals was considered important back then.

            1. With my son (and occasionally me), it’s often the only thing on the menu for breakfast.

              And it may not be omitted.

  4. On Fridays around here, and especially on Good Friday, every knows to avoid the area of the fish markets — there are plenty of people who keep their Lent with fish on the menu. We always had fish as an option in school on Friday, but this is quite a menu. Lobster creole’s a far cry from fish sticks!

  5. That is a lot of fish. I hope they were choices and not a set of courses. I wonder where in the country this book was written. A couple of the items–shad roe and lobster–suggest the East Coast.

    1. Really good point about the location. If you lived in the interior of the US or Canada at the time I’d have to think your options were pretty limited.

        1. Additionally fresh water fish would have been an option. Depending upon where someone lived, bass, perch, walleye, trout, or catfish may have been available.

          1. Even that can be different than we think, however. In Wyoming, for example, people think of all the various trout species that are so common in our rivers (and which were our Friday table fare when I was a kid) being native, but they aren’t. They were introduced. Only brook trout are native here in the trout group, and even a century ago here it was illegal for game fish to be commercially sold.

            All the trouts were introduced species, and that was already going on a century ago, but it was really just starting here. Having said that, they took off pretty rapidly so even by this time they were common.

    2. You’re guess is correct – I got this menu out of American Cookery Magazine. The cover page of the magazine says: “American Cookery formerly The Boston Cooking School Magazine.”

  6. I have to agree that this is a rather heavy meal for the Lenten season. However, it is interesting! I’m a member of the Methodist Church and observe the Lenten tradition of eating fish for my main meal on Friday’s. The observance of Lent has really changed over the years, but I find it comforting that the practice of eating fish on Friday has continued.

      1. I like it also, and like with my folks, if I have fish, I’ll prepare it on Friday.

        Unlike when I was a kid, we don’t always have fish. It’s funny, when I was young I tired of trout as we had it so much. But now that both of my parents are gone, and my father long gone, I miss that.

        1. It’s interesting how foods that were regularly served when I was a child, and that I tired of, sometimes seem special now. My family raised many foods so we always ate fruits and vegetables that were in season every day – often at two meals each day – and I tired of strawberries, black raspberries, and even corn on the cob after a week or so. Now all those foods seem special when they are fresh and in season.

  7. That’s a pretty fancy menu! It just kinda screams matronly old school society, doesn’t it?. How times have changed. I’d take the aspargus soup and the lobster tho!! 🙂

    1. Actually all dietary practices that are distinct tend to be odd to outsiders, or in secular situations, over time. For example, breakfast cereals got rolling due to a belief by their inventors that they addressed a lot of social ills and disapproved of behaviors, which is clearly not the case. And in our modern world, if you work in an office with even more than a few people you’d find, I’d guess, at least a quarter of the workers on temporary diets that are currently trendy, many of which no doubt seem well founded now, but in later years will be surprising for people to read of.

      Dietary practices that are based on religion also seem odd to outsiders as they tend to be very misunderstood by outsiders, and often even by people who practice them. Common things that are said about them, such as “all Hindus don’t eat meat” or “Catholics believed that God ordered meatless Fridays” or “Puritans didn’t drink alcohol” aren’t true, but are widely believed, and therefore seem odd. It’s rarely the case that people really understand religion based dietary practices of groups they aren’t part of, and even insiders often don’t know their origins in detail. Indeed, specific dietary practices in the Jewish and Islamic faiths are almost completely misunderstood by those who aren’t members of those faiths and have caused all kinds of problems for them in some areas in which they are immigrants as a result. In the era we’re focused in here, which just passed World War One, their dietary requirements must have been a real problem for those of them who were part of western armies.

      One thing about religious dietary practices is that they’re really long lasting, millenia actually, whereas secular dietary practices are constantly changing. Their long lasting nature, in addition to the purposes they serve within the religion, serve a secondary role of uniting and identifying the members of those faiths, which is part of the reason that even those who only weakly observe the other tenants of those faiths will often observe the dietary ones that are associated with certain times of the year. That same identifying quality also has tended in the past to be used for slight slurs by those who hold prejudices against them, as most Catholics who are at least several decades old usually know as usually somebody has called them something like a “minnow eater” at some point. I’m sure that other religions with dietary practices are subject or were subject to similar nicknames.

  8. This is so very interesting Sheryl, thank you for posting this. I remember when I was growing up, even school cafeterias would not serve meat on Fridays.

        1. I think that reflects sort of a quiet accommodation. In most places in the US Catholics have always been a minority, but as a minority they tend to be a large one. This isn’t the case with the Orthodox, but there are places where Greek immigrants, and sometimes Russian ones, are pretty numerous.

          An example of that would be Salt Lake City, which we tend to associate with the LDS faith that founded the city. It had a huge Irish immigrant population, however, in the early 20th Century and Greek immigrants were so numerous that part of its downtown is called “Greek Town”. In the case of the large Catholic minority that lived in a lot of places accomodations were made so that they could eat something on Friday (the Orthodox have their own requirements but that wouldn’t have been one, I think).

          This is still the case in most of the country, which is why during Lent all of a sudden every fast food chain has a fish sandwich or something like it, whereas normally only McDonald’s does.

    1. I’ve learned a lot about the history of not eating meat during Lent from readers who commented. I continue to be impressed by the knowledge and thoughtfulness of my readers.

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