Fish on Friday is a traditional Catholic “sacrifice” for the Lenten season. Growing up in Ireland we ate fish every Friday of Lent. When I moved to Kentucky I was surprised to see how strong the tradition is here. Many churches host a Friday Lenten Fish Fry. Maybe I enjoy our Kentucky Fish Fry so much because it reconnects me with this memorable custom of my childhood.
But let’s face it, there’s little sacrifice involved. In these days of plenty it is easy to feast on fish. Salmon, shrimp, or battered cod with chips and mushy peas, are all simply delicious. I asked myself: How on God’s good earth did eating fish get interpreted as penance?
As I fished around for information on the internet, I was astonished to learn this whole phenomenon of eating fish may have actually led to the discovery of the New World. Just amazing!
In his book, “Fish on Friday: Feasting, Fasting, and Discovery of the New World”, Brian Fagan explores this theory. Here’s how the logic goes.
In the Middle Ages, Europeans typically ate fish on regular days of the week. Meat was a special-occasion dish. The Catholic Church may have forbidden meat on Fridays as a way to let people know it was inappropriate to hold celebrations on that day.
I think it is a little ironic that seafood is now often viewed as a special-occasion food, with meat becoming our routine everyday food. Perhaps if the rule was initiated in this century we would be having Meat on Fridays.
Anyway, back to my tale. Most forested lands in England were owned by the King, and woe betide anyone found hunting on the King’s land. But the sea was considered fair game. Commoners could cast a net into the sea, or drop a hook and freely eat their catch without fear of being hanged.
By the 14th century, the Catholic Church imposed meatless fasting days way beyond just Fridays and Lent, so fish was required to be eaten more than half the days of the year.
This huge demand for fish just kept on growing through the 14th and 15th centuries. Fancy fish delicacies graced the tables of nobles. Commoners ate fish on holy days. Peasants enjoyed fish as a means of supplementing their meager diet. Preserved fish sustained soldiers when they traveled far from home.
In true capitalistic spirit, medieval business men invested in a fishing industry and hired engineers to design new boats and efficient gear. The European fishing industry just kept on growing.
But alas, with over fishing off the European Atlantic coast and the onset of a mini Ice Age fish stocks grew depleted. Fishermen were forced to follow the fish, eventually tracking cod to their winter waters off the coast of Maine. Word spread of these shores far to the west, possibly inspiring Christopher Columbus to undertake his voyage. It is rumored he first heard tell of these new lands on a visit to Ireland.
Believe it or not, it may have been fish not gold nor spices that led to the discovery of America.
And so, I’ll do “penance” at tonight’s Fish Fry, feasting not fasting on my fish in the New World. I’ll remember it was the lure of fish which probably first brought some of my Irish forefathers to these shores, quite a few years before Christopher Columbus.
Slán agus beannacht leat!
(Goodbye and blessings)
Irish American Mom