On Fat Tuesday, starting early, lines thread around the mom-and-pop bakeries of greater Philadelphia. Drive out to Bucks County, parts of Jersey, or Pennsylvania Dutch Country and you’ll see the same. Doors swing in and out. The occasional snowflake drifts in, drawn like I am to the scent of sugar and sizzling fat.
It’s Doughnut Day, and bakers have been working ‘round the clock to feed demand.
More than a hashtag holiday, this sweet celebration that precedes Ash Wednesday has spiritual roots. For the observant, the penitence of Lent looms just on the other side of tomorrow’s sunrise. Shrove—or Fat—Tuesday is a last chance to feed one’s inner glutton. For those of German or Polish upbringing, that means doughnuts called fastnacht and paczki, and you may as well make it a dozen.
In the Orthodox and Catholic traditions, Shrove Tuesday is a time of repentance and cleansing, a far cry from a doughnut feast. Indeed, shrove finds its roots in the verb shirve: “to free from guilt” or “to confess one’s sins especially to a priest.” References to rituals of confession and absolution go back to the Middle Ages.
Photo by Jenn Hall
While seeking a clean slate, however, Christians also needed to use up soon-to-be forbidden pantry items—and the Lenten list was intimidating. Meats, fats, eggs and dairy were all verboten. In France, the resulting feast was dubbed “Fat Tuesday” or Mardi Gras, appropriate given the indulgence. Other traditions include British pancake races, church pancake suppers, Rio’s carnival and yes, doughnuts.
Why pancakes and doughnuts? That’s a matter of convenience, their recipes calling for much of what needed to be consumed. And even for a spiritual independent without a sweet tooth, it’s hard not to get swept up in the excitement.
Photo by Jenn Hall
In the Pennsylvania Dutch Country, housewives traditionally spent Shrove Tuesday using up the larder’s most sinful ingredients: sugar, butter, eggs and (well) lard. Nowadays, German and Amish bakeries throughout Southern Pennsylvania do the same, crafting old-fashioned doughnuts that share their name with the German pre-Lenten carnival: fastnacht (pronounced fash-naht).
According to the Oxford Companion to Food, the German Shrove Tuesday doughnut tradition dates all the way to medieval times. Heagele’s Bakery, a 1930s-era German shop located in the Mayfair section of Philly, notes that fastnacht translates to “feast night.” (Others say it’s “fast night” or “night before the fast.”) Either way, a visit for their annual fastnacht sale is like time traveling. Old-fashioned string dispensers hang from the ceiling, perfectly placed to tie up boxes with a bow. Women wear tasteful dirndl and history feels close at hand.
Bakeries typically keep their recipes secret, but there are constants. A true fastnacht is prepared only for Shrove Tuesday, and made with sweet yeast dough that gets fried. From there, variations abound: mashed potatoes are often added to the batter, and the doughnuts can be crafted with or without holes (the latter is more traditional). Sometimes fastnacht come soaked in cream, glazed or dusted in sugar or cinnamon. Occasionally, they’re filled, but old-school types demand them unadorned, cut into diamonds and served with honey or molasses.
At Heagele’s, there are two, diamond-shaped choices, based on a family recipe: powdered sugar and cinnamon. And while one man’s ideal doughnut is another’s sacrilege, it’s best to gorge with an open mind. (In other words, get both.)
Across the bridge in Riverside, N.J., JB Bakery extends the fastnacht season, offering them on weekends in the run-up to Lent and then increasing production as Shrove Tuesday nears. They, too, stick with a traditional recipe, offering a potato-based donut with no holes in sugared, powdered and glazed. Decisions, decisions…
Photo by Jenn Hall
Come Doughnut Day, fastnacht aren’t the only pastries in town. If you’re Polish, that means you’re probably on the hunt for paczki (pronounced pounch-key): fried jelly doughnuts with a sugar coating or glaze.
Paczki purists seek out egg-rich dough with a plum, rose hip or prune butter filling, though as with fastnacht there is room for creativity…depending on whom you ask. You may find your pastry topped with a sweet glaze and adorned with candied orange peel. Some choose granulated sugar. Today, almond paste is a filling of choice for home cooks, along with lemon, apricot and apricot jam. Prior to the 1700s, paczki would have been filled with pork fat and fried in lard.
According to the Polish American Journal, p?czki made a move to Fat Tuesday when they came to the United States. Traditionally, they are more closely associated with Fat Thursday, or Tlusty Czwartek, which kicks off a full week of revelry before Lent. Today, it is estimated that nearly 100 million p?czki are consumed on Tlusty Czwartek.
In the Port Richmond section of Philly, a Polish-American enclave, paczki lines start early on Shrove Tuesday, though they can, in fact, be found throughout the year. Cities with strong Polish communities throughout the Midwest and Northeast also have Doughnut Day traditions.
Perhaps more fun than the doughnuts themselves is a proliferation of Polish paczki proverbs (say that five times fast). I found my favorite at Culture.pl, a Polish culture website: “Live like a doughnut in butter.” One can try. Another is a bit more serious: “Those who don’t eat a stack of paczki on Fat Thursday will have an empty barn and their field destroyed by mice.” Run that through the Internet a few times and you seem to end up with this, ubiquitous, line: “If you don’t eat at least one doughnut on Shrove Thursday, you will no longer be successful in life.” Though the line is suspiciously omnipresent in the digital paczki press, I will nevertheless seek to avoid the risk, one sweet fried treat at a time.
This year, Doughnut Day is Tuesday, February 28. Be sure to arrive to your favorite bakery early for these pre-Lenten treats.
Jenn Hall writes about food and culture from a Jersey-side suburb of Philly. Follow along on Instagram and Twitter @jennsarahhall.