During the Russian spring, the sun transforms into a pancake.
At least, that’s the folk story mothers tell their children while cooking blinchiki for breakfast. This flat, circular cake, which can be served for any meal of the day, is a symbol of the sun’s return to the cold, dark climates of the Northern Hemisphere. It’s served crepe-style, rolled up and slathered in honey or jam. Every bite tastes like a ray of sunshine.
But there’s more to blinchiki than folklore. The pancakes are the signature food item for the season of Lent, a time before Easter when many Russians give up eating meat. That alone isn’t surprising, but Russians are unique among Christians for the extent to which they take the practice—60 days, not 40.
The difference owes to a glitch in a calendar designed during the reign of Julius Caesar. The calculation was incorrect, making the year 11 minutes too long. Over the centuries, all those extra 11 minutes added up so that the calendar day didn’t match the time of year, created a problem for Christian holidays that coincide with the seasons.
In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII issued a new calendar, calculated to correct the problem. However, not all Christian religions followed suit. The Orthodox churches in Greece and Russia kept the old calendar.
For all churches, Easter is calculated according to this formula: “The first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox.”
In practice, the different calendars cause Easter to fall on different days. This year, the Gregorian calendar celebrated Easter on March 27, but according to the older Cesarean calendar, Easter will be on May 1. (Interesting aside: 2017 will be a rare year when Easter falls on the same day for both calendars, April 17.)
The upshot is that Russians who give up meat for Lent will spend three more weeks as vegetarians than their Gregorian-based brethren. They’ll even surpass the number of days spent by a person abiding by every Meatless Monday in 2016.
Russia is a good country to be in if you’re stuck eating vegetarian for two months. Recipes like borscht can be made with or without meat. Kitchen pantries are filled with preserved pickles, fruits, tomatoes, and vats of fermenting cabbage. And don’t forget the bread. Russians have baked for centuries with native cereals such as rye and winter wheat.
Vegetarians everywhere face the challenge of protein deficiency. For this, Russians have two secret weapons. The first is kasha, or steamed buckwheat. The other consists of the mushrooms that Russians forage in the forest by the bucketful, helping them to maintain a balanced Lenten diet.
Among devout vegetarians in the U.S. and beyond, Russia is best known as home to perhaps the most famous vegetarian of all time: the novelist Leo Tolstoy. Late in his writing career, Tolstoy came to believe that killing and eating animals marred the human soul. Reading through his body of work, you can see the idea fermenting in such great novels as Anna Karenina, in which Tolstoy struggles to understand humankind’s relationship to the natural world. He contrasts the gluttonous, meat-based feasts of city-dwelling characters with the pious, vegetable-based meals of peasants. In 1909, Tolstoy wrote “The First Step,” a treatise on the morality of vegetarianism.
If Russia gave the world one of its greatest vegetarian cheerleaders, it’s also to thank for solving a major vegetarian challenge: how to cook without using animal-based products.
The hero of this little story is the sunflower, a plant imported from the American prairies to Europe in the 1500s. In the 17th century, Peter the Great saw sunflowers growing in Holland and brought some seeds back to Russia. Soon, farmers had hybridized such varieties as the Russian Mammoth, that towering sunflower that gardeners love to plant along their fences. The Russian sunflowers grew to produce enormous seeds (yes, the ones spat by American baseball players) that, when pressed, produced copious amounts of oil.
The sunflower’s arrival was serendipitous. The Russian Orthodox Church had been facing the problem of people breaking Lent by cooking with butter and animal fat. The church forbade animal products but allowed sunflower oil, thereby creating a model for vegetarian-based cooking.
This Orthodox Easter season, families across Russia celebrate by cooking their pancakes with sunflower oil. Outside the kitchen window, farmers will be planting sunflower seeds in their fields, which will sprout to become next year’s cooking oil. The cyclicality of it matches the Easter holiday, which celebrates a man who was born, died, and lived again 2,016 years ago.
Depending, of course, on what calendar you use to calculate the passage of time. Orthodox Easter is May 1 this year.
Ryan Bell is a Fulbright-National Geographic Fellow traveling through Russia and Kazakhstan. He reports on food topics for The Plate and on his travel adventures for Voices. You can also follow him on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Storify. His project website is Comrade Cowboys.