This past week was not just the religiously traditional Shrove Tuesday or the more popular Mardi Gras, but also a holiday little known in the U.S. outside of Pennsylvania: Fastnacht Day.
Pronounced "foss-nut," a fastnacht is a Pennsylvania Dutch doughnut eaten the day before Ash Wednesday, traditionally as a way to use up all the excess lard and sugar in a household before the 40 days of Lenten denial (hence the name, which refers to the night before fasting begins). Sometimes they are made with potato; other times with yeast. They are shaped variously into circles, squares or triangles, with regional custom reporting that the square fastnachts represent the four Gospel writers and the triangular versions the trinity, and many lack the central hole that Americans have come to expect in their doughnuts. When made with yeast, they taste like a cross between a raised and a cake doughnut, with a nutty sweetness and a browned crust.
In Pennsylvania, the holiday is still widely celebrated (note coverage at Penn Live here and at the York Daily Record, my dad's hometown paper, here—although strangely, the Lancaster paper, in the heart of fastnacht country, seems not to have covered the day since 2015). Still, unlike celebrations such as Mardi Gras, Fastnacht Day has never caught on widely outside of the Keystone State, remaining largely limited elsewhere to regions with high concentrations of Amish or Mennonites who migrated from Pennsylvania years ago. In my own state of Virginia, the only place that seems to ever mark the day is Harrisonburg, the home of Eastern Mennonite University.
I didn't taste a fastnacht until I was in my teens, but I was familiar with them long before that, thanks to my father's Pennsylvania German heritage. Finally, when I was in college, I had the opportunity to celebrate the holiday in proper style when a close friend named Laura, with whom I had worked on a small farm outside of Reading, Pa., invited me to her grandparents' home near Hamburg to spend the day mixing and frying. I drove up from college in Virginia in the snow, and when I arrived at the farmhouse, it already smelled of rising dough. Laura's grandmother spoke English with the lilt that you hear among people whose first and home language is Pennsylvania German. She was quiet but unfailingly kind; under her watch, we turned out over the course of the day dozens and dozens of fastnachts—how many I don't recall, but it was easily in the hundreds. When I went back to school very early the next morning, it was with some 50 fastnachts of my own, and they filled the whole car with the scent of that Hamburg kitchen.
Ever since, I've celebrated Fastnacht Day on my own, slowly spreading this gospel of the doughnut to friends and colleagues in the Old Dominion. Until this year, though, my celebrations were limited by time and work to buying doughnuts elsewhere and then sharing them in the evening. Finally, for the first time, I turned out my own batch, frying them for convenience in peanut oil rather than lard. They were nowhere near the perfection Laura's grandmother produced in Hamburg, nowhere near the quantities produced all over Pennsylvania, but they were a start. And really, no one ever complains about a doughnut.