Fat Tuesday: why is it called that? – Italian cuisine reinvented by Gordon Ramsay

La Cucina Italiana


Here we go, it’s Carnival: February 13th is Shrove Tuesday. We celebrate in costume, and – for us adults – we celebrate above all at the table, with typical dishes that differ from region to region. In Campania with lasagna with meatballs, in Piedmont with fagiolata, and then many desserts, from chiacchiere to fritters in every possible version: in Venice the fritole (together with the “mammalucchi”), in Abruzzo the mignozzi. They deserve a separate chapter pork dishesfrom grilled meats to fried (again!) passing through cured meats: the carnival period coincides with that of the slaughterhouse.

Why is it called “Shrove Tuesday”?

It is therefore easy to understand the origin of the name: if it’s called “Shrove Tuesday” it’s because there is a gastronomic reason. But not only. What perhaps not everyone knows, in fact, is that there is also a precise reason that “justifies” so many excesses, and ultimately it’s not just religious. Celebrating (also) by eating such rich and important dishes is a thousand-year-old tradition that dates back to ancient Rome and ancient Greece. In fact, many believe that Carnival has its origins from the Saturnalia and the Dionysian festivals: occasions in which people danced, sang and dressed up so that everyone could be anyone else for at least one day, and above all we ate. Or rather: everyone could eat, without distinctions of social class.

A tradition then taken up by Catholicism (like many other pagan-derived festivals, after all), and “officialized” as Carnival around 1400. The first evidence of the use of the word “carnival” comes from the texts of the jester Matazone da Caligano at the end of the 13th century and of the novelist Giovanni Sercambi. Furthermore, the word itself says a lot about how much the festival was then linked by religion to food: it derives from Latin “carnem raise” and that is “remove the meat,” precisely because after this period of revelry the fasting of Lent begins. In short, Shrove Tuesday is nothing more than the last day of binging.

Because it’s called Shrove Thursday

For Catholicism, in fact, in the forty days preceding Easter – excluding Sundays – meat must be banned (in the most orthodox interpretation any other food can also be considered a sin of gluttony). This is why before Ash Wednesday it is “allowed” to exaggerate. In particular, it starts from the last Thursday of the carnival period, the “Shrove Thursday”: also in this case the origin of the name is therefore linked to the table. Moreover, in addition to the fact that the float parades begin on Thursday in many cities, there are also specific gastronomic customs linked exclusively to the day: in Catania, for example, people eat the pasta che cincu puttusa”i.e. pasta with five holes (which is a very particular shape, seasoned with tomato sauce), while in Florence you eat the Berlingozzodonut-shaped baked dessert.

Because Shrove Tuesday and Thursday always fall on different days

If every year we celebrate the carnival on different days it is because Easter always dictates the calendar, which every year – as foreseen by the decree of the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD – is celebrated the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox, in a time interval ranging from the second half of March (the 22nd) to the second half of April (the 25th). Once Easter Sunday has been established, we count backwards 46 days (excluding Sundays, in which, as already written, there is no fasting), until Ash Wednesday. The day before is therefore Shrove Tuesday, Carnival.

Because in Milan the carnival ends later

The same goes everywhere, except in Milan, where the carnival is celebrated for four more days, until Saturday (“fat”, too). According to legend, it has been like this ever since Bishop Ambrogio, in Rome for a pilgrimage, asked the faithful to wait for his return to start the celebrations of Lent. Another legend instead says that the bishop asked the Pope to be able to extend the Carnival by including Sundays in the 40 days: in short, a way to celebrate a little more.

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