Monday, February 23, 2009


In New Orleans, on the day before Lent begins, they have a party called Mardi Gras. Folks put on funny clothes and wear silly masks. Young ladies attempt to earn beads. Young men, reputedly, are fairly eager to distribute beads. From the pictures I’ve seen, it would appear that everyone has a pretty good time.

But here in Pennsylvania, we do things a little differently. We don’t go in for funny clothes or silly masks around these parts. And it is still far too cold for ladies to earn beads here (although I suspect that young men would still be willing to distribute them).

Here, Shrove Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent) we don’t do Mardi Gras. Here we do Fasnachts.

Frankly, I had never heard of these things before moving here a little over three years ago. But in this part of the world, they are a bona fide BIG DEAL. It is a Pennsylvania Dutch tradition to make these things and eat them on the day before the beginning of Lent.

(By the way, the term “Pennsylvania Dutch” is a misnomer. They aren’t Dutch. The term is a mongrelization of Deutsch, which is the German word for, well, German. But even that is misleading because there wasn’t a Germany when these folks came over. And the Pennsylvania Dutch aren’t necessarily Amish, either. Many of the Pennsylvania Dutch are Amish, but not all Amish are Pennsylvania Dutch. It all gets really complicated from here. Just take my word for it; you’ll sleep better.)

Now, Lent was a very serious time of year for these very serious people. It was a time of fasting and of self-denial. A period of preparation, in anticipation of the joys of Easter. In order to properly observe this serious period, all good things were to have been removed from the pantry for the duration. The duration being the 40 days of Lent.

But it wouldn’t have been right to waste all the good things. So, rather than throw them away, these serious people put all the good things into one big blowout. They made fasnachts.

The idea was to take all the sugar, all the molasses, all the butter, all the lard (one of the really good things!), all the honey and mix them together for one calorie-packed, artery-hardening, delicious lump of really bad cholesterol. Then, when you’ve got your lump really ready, you’d deep-fry it, and sprinkle the result with sugar.

My cardiologist would not approve.

These things are murder. They look a little like a doughnut, but they are not doughnuts. Doughnuts have holes, and there ain’t no holes here (why would anyone leave an empty space where there could be fasnacht-ness?). And traditional fasnachts are square, rather than round. This is because, I am told, it is traditional. That’s a good enough reason for me.

They weigh a bloody ton, even before they are consumed. After they are consumed, they weigh even more. Eat a couple of fasnachts, and you won’t need to eat anything else for 40 days.

Just for the record: cardiologist be damned; I do love them so.

On the off chance that I should be coming to visit and you’re at a loss as to what to serve, I offer here a traditional recipe. For a variation, add potatoes (I’m serious):

1 1/2 quarts milk
1/2-cup molasses or honey
4 quarts flour
2 tablespoons lard
2 cakes yeast
1-cup butter
4 eggs

Scald the milk, then after cooling a little stir in 2 quarts of the flour, to make a batter. Add the yeast after dissolving in lukewarm water. Beat well and let stand overnight to rise. Cream the butter; eggs, molasses or honey, and then add more flour and the lard. Knead well, adding almost all the remainder of the flour. Let rise and then roll out for doughnuts, and fry in deep fat.

After they’ve been consumed, you may do your penance.


  1. Ahhh, I do miss Mardi Gras in New Orleans. While fastnachts point you in the general direction of penance, the over-indulgence of Mardi Gras in New Orleans really does fry your brain. Hence the Ash Wednesday which begins Lent. The distribution of Ashes in New Orleans takes on a whole new meaning as you search for equilibrium on the way down the aisle. You feel penitent in your body and soul, but mostly in your head. O' my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee...

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