Lenten Feasts And Gabfests


February 18, 1996|By JACQUES KELLY

Baltimore's seafood dealers rejoice when Ash Wednesday arrives. The vendors of shrimp and salted cod can count on seven meatless Fridays until this season of repentance is over and Easter Sunday arrives.

I've never relinquished my fascination with the Christian observance of these 40 days of Lent, a time of year that neatly coincides with Baltimore's moody, damp and dragged-out last weeks of winter. It all goes back to my youth, when this period of Christian muscle-toning meant business.

The Lenten food calendar seemed to be all fish. And the strangest was the half-piece of mackerel floating on the calendar on the Saturday before Easter. Years of religious study taught me that Lent officially ended at noon this day. Postmeridian gorging was permitted. Thus the pictured mackerel half.

It fell to my religiously observant Great Aunt Cora to determine all home Lenten menus, because she was 50 percent of the cooking staff at our home. Her sister, my grandmother, never set foot in a church and therefore was not up on the rules.

My grandmother was, however, a superior fish and oyster fryer, which guaranteed her solid employment during the Lenten period. Meat -- in moderation -- was permitted during Lent, but Baltimoreans generally regarded the sacred season as a fine excuse to feast on oysters, shrimp and fish.

As a matter of fact, there were those who felt the Lenten dinners were the finest of the year. To this day my father, Joe Kelly, breaks into a broad smile when he recalls the nights when a fine oyster potpie was the center of attention on the kitchen table.

Meatless days during Lent were just a part of the religious observation this time of year. One February 35 years ago, I piously decided the way to address Lent's rigors was head-on, like some pious medieval soul.

I would rise early and walk to daily Mass with Aunt Cora. Aunt Cora was the high priestess of the old family home on Guilford Avenue. She was at the first Mass -- at 6:30 a.m. -- rain or shine. In addition, she held memberships in the Legion of Mary and the Third Order of St. Francis. She was on a first-name basis with the church sexton, and she washed and ironed the altar cloths, too. She was a pillar of SS Philip and James parish.

She rose in the pitch-black pre-dawn hours and alerted all slumbering others by lowering her window. The clatter of sash weights and their chains at 5:15 a.m. was a match for any alarm clock.

Cora held that rising at a sunless hour necessitated no special use of light. Her one concession was the Chesterfield cigarette she lighted. Its amber-glowing ash made for a strange sight as she negotiated the twists and turns of the hall staircase.

As I soon learned, Cora had other pilgrim friends who shared her religious fervor. Four good Christian women met out on the street, and on their walk to church had a jolly time gabbing and otherwise socializing at an hour known best by the milkman and the morning paperboy.

The Lent Squad consisted of Cora and her pals Sue Martin, Mary McTeague and Loretta Byrne, who was secretary to the city's director of public works.

Loretta was a cheerful and devout woman, still fondly recalled around City Hall years after her death. She exercised considerable power during the last McKeldin administration, and was said she could have any alley in the city paved by baking one of her nut-and-spice cakes and passing it along to the appropriate city foreman. I am sure she still exercises such power in the alleys of heaven.

Loretta's nephew Pat recently recalled her rowhouse at 420 Ilchester Ave. It had a large parlor that had a huge heating grate in the floor. Upstairs in the house was a kneeler like you might find in a church. Facing it were a plaster head of Jesus Christ and two votive lights. Each evening at 7:30 Loretta recited the rosary at her little shrine.

The Lent Squad ladies were wide awake at dawn and seemed to wake up half the neighborhood as they cackled their way across 29th Street to the church doors. Once inside, they broke and headed for separate pews. One or two may have lingered after Mass but I recall the others headed for their appointed rounds. I'm sure Loretta was dispatching dump trucks by 7:30.

I made it through just one week of the early rising before dropping out of the daily-Mass routine. My quitting never brought a word of censure from Aunt Cora. After all, she told me, she was a 365-days-a-year churchgoer. Forty days in February and March were for the amateurs.

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