Mona from heaven

According to my internet game Trip Trivia, an average of 320 baguettes will be eaten in France every second. Mark commented that this was all right as long as it was not by the same person, but it just confirms my impression that in France someone is always eating a baguette within two feet of you. What’s more, the baguette smells amazingly fresh and yeasty, and you must restrain yourself from doing a Jean Valjean and snatching it out of the hands of its hapless consumer and making a run for it. Since that didn’t go so well in Les Miserables, I try to content myself with telling my rumbling tummy that we’ll stop at the next patisserie.

Bread is not exclusive to France, of course. Mexico has tortillas (in Spain, a tortilla is a potato and egg dish, kind of like a frittata), and Russia has its rye bread. In the US, we have regional breads. Southerners have biscuits and cornbread. New Yorkers have bagels. There’s no reason you’d know this, but I never saw a bagel until I was a teenager. I lived in Beaumont, Texas, which is not noted either for its cosmopolitan nature or haute cuisine. But two friends had brought back bagels from New York, and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven upon tasting the chewy circle of perfect carbohydrates. I won’t tell you what I did the first time I had a bagel with cream cheese, lox, and capers. Some things are best left in the past.

Of course now we can get different kinds of bread all over the world. You can get bagels even in Beaumont and Mexican tortillas in Torrevieja. But Mark and I have run into a couple of new carbs here that are worth noting. One is a sweet cake called an Anguila, which we saw in Madrid and is like an elaborate fruitcake in the shape of an eel. I didn’t try it for fear that the shape would make me feel a little eel. (Ba-badum-ching!) And over Holy Week, Semana Santa, we’ve been introduced to monas de Pascua. These Easter cakes are basically cakes that taste a lot like king cakes (more on them later) but with a hard-boiled egg baked in the middle. Seriously, it’s an egg. I don’t know if there’s a special way you’re supposed to eat it. Mark and I just extracted the egg, peeled it, and ate it along with the cake. Apparently it’s traditional for godparents to give monas to their godchildren, who eat them on the Monday after Easter, or the Día de las monas.

Monas seem to be everywhere here during Holy Week. That seems fitting on some level. After all, the bready cake calls to mind the communion bread of Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday when the Last Supper occurred and Jesus instituted the ritual of Communion. And eggs are always around at Easter. As a kid, I loved dyeing eggs. Presumably the desire for this activity was carried on the second X chromosome, because my father and brother were nowhere to be found in this process. But my mom and sister would participate, at least until my sister became an angsty teenager and insisted on dyeing her eggs black and gun metal gray. After that debacle, it was just the Mom and Kathy show, costarring however many eggs I could persuade her into sacrificing for Easter fun. My mom was a great Easter bunny, at least until the year when she hid an egg in the control panel of our living room’s air conditioning unit. No one found the egg during the hunt, and Mom forgot she’d put it there. Even hard-boiled eggs eventually turn rancid and smell. Trust me on that one. Don’t try this at home.

But let’s return to the present day. The monas were yummy; as I said, they tasted a lot like the king’s cake you eat on Fat Tuesday right before Lent starts. As we’re eating our new-found Spanish treat, Lent ends. This all seems so perfectly cyclical that I went looking to see whether those two delicacies are related. I didn’t get an answer on that score, but two interesting pieces of information did crop up.

The first piece was the explanation of the presence of the egg. It’s not just about the symbolism of new life and breaking through death (as well as Spring fertility rites, thank you, pagans); it’s also about hunger. Lent is traditionally a time of repentance and abstinence, and Catholics were supposed to give up meat and eggs. People continued to collect eggs during Lent and hard-boiled them to preserve as many as possible. On Holy Saturday, people brought these eggs to church for a blessing, which presumably included a casting out of ptomaine poisoning. (On a related note, the Lenten fast gave rise to another ritual celebrated just after Easter. It’s called “The Burial of the Sardine,” and it involves people parading, because it’s what you do here, and then, well, burying a sardine. Apparently everyone is sick of fish by this point, so it’s goodbye sardine, hola hamburguesa.)

The second piece of information that caught my eye was the origin of the word “mona.” Apparently it comes from the Arabic word munna, which means “mouth provision” and was a type of gift given to a Muslim lord. Other etymologies also go with munna but specify Morocco as the geographical origin and say the word simply means “gift.” But since Easter keys off Passover in many ways, and Passover is followed by the Jews wandering in the desert for 40 years. I couldn’t help hoping that maybe the monas and the manna the Jews ate during their wanderings were related. Arabic and Hebrew grew up as next door neighbors, so it’s not impossible.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must say that nothing I could conjure up on the internet supports my theory. The etymology of the word “manna” appears to be the subject of some dispute and probably a lot of Doctor of Divinity dissertations. So who knows? Wandering in the desert for more than about 40 minutes doesn’t sound like fun to me, but eating manna does. So until something definitive comes along, I’ll content myself with my little theory on Holy Monday and enjoy my mona from heaven.



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