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9 Pre-Lenten Treats from Around the World

Today is Shrove Tuesday, the last day before Lent in many Christian traditions. Eastern Orthodox Christians begin Great Lent on a slightly different calendar. The day is also called Mardi Gras, Carnival, Pancake Tuesday, and many other names in various languages. What these days have in common is a tradition of a final feast of foods that will be forbidden for the period of Lent which leads up to Easter. Many cultures have developed traditional recipes to use up the household supplies commonly given up for Lent, in order to reduce temptation and waste. That means sugar, eggs, oil, meat, and other calorie-laden staples.

1. Semla

In Sweden, semla is the traditional treat for fettisdag. Semla is a sweet bun laced with cardamon and filled with almond paste and cream, an unbelievably sweet treat eaten with plenty of coffee to wash it down. In Sweden, bakeries compete fiercely to offer the best semla of the season. The semla of the Middle Ages was a rather plain bun eaten up before Lent, but with the Protestant Reformation, Swedes began eating it during Lent as part of the protest. When the fillings were added, it became so rich that it gradually moved back to being a pre-Lenten treat. Similar sweets are offered in other Scandinavian countries by other names, with slight variations in the recipes. In Finland, buns are sometimes filled with raspberry jam. In Denmark, the buns have whipped cream and jam inside. Other versions include raisins or orange peel. Photograph by Flickr user Johan Dalenius.

2. Malasada

Malasadas

Malasada is traditional in both Portugal and Hawaii. The recipe was imported when laborers from Madeira and the Azores worked in sugar plantations in Hawaii. The Shrove Tuesday treat consists of deep-fried balls of yeast dough that are sprinkled with sugar and resemble fluffy doughnuts without the hole. Some recipes call for passionfruit filling. They are best eaten hot from the fryer, with a cup of cocoa. Photograph by Flickr user joyosity.

3. P?czki

produkt finalny

In Poland and in communities with Polish roots, Shrove Tuesday is known as Ostatki. The most common traditional treat is p?czki, a deep-fried jelly doughnut dusted with powdered sugar. They are different from your everyday doughnut in that they contain more eggs, and some recipes call for a little bit of alcohol in the dough, which keeps the oil from penetrating too deeply. P?czki is traditionally eaten on Fat Thursday in Poland, almost a week before Ash Wednesday, but in the U.S., p?czki is common through the Carnival season up through the day of Ostatki. Photograph by Flickr user Tomek Augustyn.

4. Salted Lamb

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Iceland celebrates Sprengidagur, which translates to Bursting Day. It's a day in which you eat to the point of bursting! The traditional feast is salted lamb and peas, or split-pea soup. You can try the recipe if you are comfortable with a mechanical translation. Note that it calls for salt salt. Photograph by Flickr user Ralf Smallkaa.

5. Papanasi

Papanasi - yummy Romanian desert

Romanian pre-Lenten feasts are held on Cheesefare Sunday in the Orthodox tradition. This is the last day dairy products are eaten before Lent. Treats include gogosi, which is another deep-fried doughnut, and papanasi, which is a cottage cheese dumpling. The cheese is mixed with sugar and other ingredients and fried, then served with sour cream and jam. Photograph by Flickr user Ana ADI.

6. Pancakes

Even communities that do not observe Lent will enjoy a traditional Pancake Day, for fundraisers or just for the fun of it. It's a good time to try out some new pancake recipes or techniques. Photograph by Flickr user Rachel.

7. Blini

Caviar & white chocolate on a curry blini

Russians celebrate the week before Great Lent as Pancake Week, or Masletnitsa, by eating blinis, or Russian crepes. But they're not just crepes! Blini before Lent means crepes topped with caviar, smoked salmon, sour cream, onions, or sugary toppings. Photograph by Flickr user LexnGer.

8. Nalysnyky

In the Ukraine, Cheesefare Sunday feasts feature nalysnyky (crepes) that are rolled up with the cottage cheese that must be finished before Great Lent. This type of nalysnyky is eaten as a main course, as observant Orthodox adherents have given up meat already by Cheesefare Sunday. Nalysnyky can also be filled with fruit or orange sauce as a dessert. See how nalysnyky is made at Claudia's Cookbook.

9. King Cake

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In Alabama, Louisiana, and other places that celebrate Mardi Gras, the King Cake is the traditional sweet. The King Cake started as a Christmas treat in Europe, and was named for the visit of the Magi. A dried bean was baked into the cake, and the person who was served the part containing the bean became the "king" of the celebration. As Christmas stretched to Twelfth Night, the cake continued to be served, and that tradition stretched into Carnival season. In the U.S., the bean began to be used on Twelfth Night to designate who would be the Queen of the Ball for Mardi Gras. Over time, the bean (or sometimes a coin) was replaced by a small ceramic or plastic baby. In the last 50 years, a tradition developed in which neighborhood parties were held every weekend from Twelfth Night to Mardi Gras, and whoever got the baby would bake the King Cake for the next party. Photograph by Flickr user Logan Brown.

This is just a short overview of some pre-Lenten treats from different places. The list of traditional foods goes on and on. Which are your favorite treats?

See also: 7 Carnivals Around the World, Parade Time in New Orleans, and Happy Pancake Day!

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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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science
Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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