The Cod, Meatballs, and Enchiladas of Lent: A Survey

Robyn Priestley
Robyn Priestley

Early Christians spent Lent, the roughly 40-day period between Ash Wednesday and Easter, eating simple meals in community with one another. Church traditions have changed over the centuries, but meatless Lenten Fridays and eating in community have continued into this age. The tone of the meals is lighter now, with church basements becoming ecclesiastical pop-up restaurants serving fried fish, meatless enchiladas, falafel and hummus, dessert carts, and endless coffee by armies of volunteers who pride themselves on turning out good food along with good cheer.

Below is a look at three Lenten Friday meals in the Twin Cities; we’ll wrap up another three meals at the end of the season.

Enchiladas at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church

The prep work starts well in advance each week for the Lenten dinners at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. Each Friday sees roughly 800 people come for meatless enchiladas (in fact, they’re vegan — the beans contain oil instead of lard). The day before, a dedicated team of women comes to chop vegetables and prepare the sauce. Rebecca Arellano Montez oversees the project. “The ladies chop all the vegetables by hand,” Montez says. “No machines, because then the onions get too watery and lose their flavor.”

The Arellano family started the dinners 15 years ago, contributing all the ingredients and doing all the cooking. The dinners became so popular that it was necessary to make them a parish project, and now many families pitch in.

“It’s important that the young people learn how to make the dinner. Many Mexican families aren’t making enchiladas anymore and the next generation learns here,” says Montez. “I’m 80 and I won’t be around here cooking forever. Many of the ladies here have been cooking a long time, too. We like getting to know the young people and teaching them how to do this.” Montez shares the treasured recipe with the up-and-coming cooks of the parish, but not with anyone else. “Every week it seems someone asks for the recipe. I just say it’s a well-guarded family secret,” she says.

Since the recipe won’t leave the church, it’s well worth the effort to come to Our Lady of Guadalupe. You place your order at the door, then find a seat in the festively decorated fellowship hall. Chips and freshly made salsas — your choice of mild or raise-your-eyebrows-to-your-hairline — are on the table, and parish members circulate with beverages and a variety of desserts. The heaping plates of enchiladas, rice, beans, and lettuce are brought to you. The enchilada sauce does every minute spent chopping and simmering proud: It’s rich, complex, smoky, and savory. You simply don’t want the experience of eating them to end.

If it goes too fast, not to worry. There is a to-go table with enchiladas boxed by the dozen just waiting for you. Enchiladas freeze well, so the efforts of the ladies who carefully chopped all the vegetables by hand can be appreciated for weeks to come.

Lenten dinners will be served each Friday through April 18, from 11:30am to 6pm. $10 for adult large plate, $8 for adult small plate, $5 for children.

Our Lady of Guadalupe Church
401 Concord St
St. Paul, MN 55107

All  You Can Eat Pancakes and Soup at St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Church

Expensive repairs to the 100-year-old bell tower resulted in the revival of St. John’s previously defunct Lenten dinners and the return of a bit of Eastern European cooking heritage to the Nordeast — specifically, potato pancakes. Marjorie Spiering had contributed her grandmother’s potato pancake recipe to the congregation’s centennial cookbook, and that recipe was chosen for the church’s Lenten supper pancakes.

“I had never had a potato pancake in my life,” says Spiering. “So I learned from others as we sat down and talked about how to do this.” One thing that Spiering learned was that every family had a different idea about how to top a potato pancake.

In the end, the congregation decided that all preference should be honored; when you sit down at a table, the centerpiece is composed of little dishes with applesauce, lingonberry jam, sour cream, maple syrup, and butter. You are welcome to have any combination thereof, and no one will judge you. “When I watch people, I see that everyone has his or her own way of topping the pancakes,” says Spiering. “Some combine toppings, some spread the toppings, others dip a bit of pancake.”

The congregation at St. John’s also believes in giving people variety in soups. Four different soups are served at each dinner. Two are without meat or dairy, for people who observe the stricter Lenten guidelines: tomato basil, the crowd favorite, and vegetable noodle. Vegetarian chili and a delicately flavored, creamy mushroom soup round out the offerings.  “I don’t know which is more popular – the potato pancakes or the soup. People seem to really enjoy trying lots of both,” says Spiering.

St. John’s has what few basements, especially church basements, ever have: ambient lighting. “We had to remodel the basement and when we did, we paid attention to the lighting,” says Spiering. The softer lighting somehow makes it easier to strike up a conversation with people you have never met and with whom you are seated at the table. It also makes it a little easier to experiment with your pancake toppings. If you decide to combine some sour cream with your lingonberry jam, who’s going to see?

The next All You Can Eat Potato Pancake and Soup Dinner will be Friday, April 11, from 4:30 to 7pm. $9 for adults.
Frozen potato and cheese pierogi made by parish members will be available for purchase.

St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Church
2215 Third St NE
Minneapolis, MN 55418

Renata Fossett
Renata Fossett

Codfish and Meatballs at St. Peder’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Minneapolis

Lutherans allow meat during Lent, but they will never pass up a chance to serve cod. For 60 years, St. Peder’s  has served a traditional Danish cod and mustard gravy dinner, now with a meatball option for those who don’t like fish. The most formal of the area’s Lenten dinners, there are two seatings and reservations are required. The tables are set with pan-Scandinavian flag decorations, flowers, cloth napkins, and china plates. (Danes firmly believe food tastes better on china. Karen Blixen, after all, took an immense set of formal tableware with her when she started her coffee plantation in Kenya.)

Carstens Smith
Carstens Smith

Plates of Havarti cheese and baskets of Danish pumpernickel, or Rugbrød, await you as you are seated. Rugbrød is the dense, nutty, industrial-strength rye bread that is used for making open-face sandwiches. The recipe comes from Blackie’s Bakery in Northeast Minneapolis, a venerable Danish and Polish bakery that is now closed. Denny’s 5th Avenue Bakery in Bloomington bought the recipe and keeps the tradition going. Diners choose baked cod, supplied fresh by The Fish Guys, or meatballs from Ingebretsen’s. Servers deliver the plates, and then the family-style passing of bowls of potatoes, condiments, and, most important, the mustard gravy, begins.

Peter Juhl is the volunteer who oversees the dinner and is the third generation of his family to do so. Baking the cod instead of boiling is a recent change.“It’s easier to get uniformly good cod when it is baked,” Juhl says.  It was good — firm, flaky, and just the right temperature when served. “The mustard gravy recipe is my grandmother’s,” he says. “It’s a pretty traditional accompaniment to cod.” The gravy was a hit when the dinners started, and it is just as popular now. “I wish I could just pour a whole bowl of that stuff into my purse and take it home with me,” says the woman sitting next to me. Barring that option, she’ll just have to come back next year.

The next Cod and Meatball Dinner is March 6, 2015.

St. Peder’s Evangelical Lutheran Church
4600 E 42nd St
Minneapolis, MN 55406

One Comment

  1. Denise Logeland

    Great article. When we all talk about “local food,” this is an aspect that often gets overlooked—not what chefs are doing, but what’s actually being cooked in the community.

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