Catholics, the world over, are in the midst of the Lenten season. Lent, of course, means many things to many people. For some, it is a time of preparation. For others, it is about sacrifice. For me, Lent has always meant, first and foremost, fish on Fridays.
When we were kids, every Lenten Friday's menu -- whether at school or home -- featured Mrs. Paul's fish sticks. Not only did this offal directly challenge my faith in an omniscient and loving God, but it instilled in me a lifelong fear and loathing of seafood. According to Mrs. Paul's website, the villain behind fishsticks was a power plant worker named Ed Piszek. I'm sure Mr. Piszek was a swell guy and a capable power plant worker, but suffice it to say, he was no Julia Child. Piszek began selling devilled crab cakes in a Philadelphia saloon to earn money while the plant workers were on strike. One day, in 1947, Piszek made too many cakes. "There was a freezer in the back of the bar, so we threw 'em in there," he recalled. "It was either that or the trash can." I guess the freezer was closer.
Piszek took on a business partner named John Paul. For some reason, they decided to name their frozen seafood company after Paul's mother. Needless to say, it was Piszek and Paul's gustatory atrocity that has turned me against seafood to this very day.
Even now there is no escape. Every Friday evening I somehow end up at the all-you-can-eat fish fry at our parish. Here in the Midwest, fish fries are both a traditional family outing and a cheap date night. Parishioners and non-parishioners alike indulge in greasy platters of deep-fried cod cut-ups, French fries, and gallons of draught Budweiser. (I fail to see how any of this counts as a Lenten sacrifice.) Still, I dutifully attend, if only for the camaraderie and because my girlfriend is the dessert lady. (How ironic that I, the least devout of all, should be the one making the greatest sacrifice.)
I GOT A REPRIEVE last Friday when I was invited to dinner at my brother's house. My brother is something of a gourmet (doubtless a reaction to all those fishsticks); he prepared a lovely salmon pasta with San Francisco vinaigrette, a shrimp salad and copious amounts of cabernet sauvignon, and strawberry cheesecake dessert. Here was a meal fit for king. Again, I ask: where's the sacrifice?
I know good Christian people who spend meatless Fridays at a local Cajun restaurant gorging on Acadian crawfish etouffee, lobster pie, and Oysters Rockefeller, all washed down with an expensive Beaujolais Nouveau. They may not be violating the letter of the law, but its spirit is being violated. As my younger brother -- who also dislikes seafood -- says, the Friday meal should be limited to stale bread and tap water, or just forget the whole thing. At the very least, everyone should have to eat fish sticks.
Often you will hear -- mostly from fish-haters -- that the reason for the Church's ban on meat was that some medieval pope owned a large share of the Roman fish market, or some variation on that theme. Like most things that are too good to be believed, this appears to be an urban legend. Church history shows that around AD 600, Pope St. Gregory was writing to St. Augustine of Canterbury, and issuing the following rule: "We abstain from flesh, meat, and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese and eggs." (If that prohibition were still followed, that would rule out cheese pizza, toasted cheese sandwiches, as well as my brother's pasta.) What's more, the pope said, a Christian was only supposed to have one meal a day.
I dimly recall reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods, and what has stayed with me all these years was Charles' (or Pa's) description of Sabbath at the Ingalls' prairie homestead. Because it was the day of rest, the whole family was made to sit on a rough, splintery bench the entire day, unable to laugh, smile or even swing their feet. These were people living on the 19th century Illinois frontier. You would you think they suffered and sacrificed enough in their every day life…
I'm glad we've relaxed the rules, but Lobster Newburg and chocolate mousse for Friday's Lenten dinner? I'll make a deal with you: you can have your gourmet seafood and wines and desserts. All I ask in return is a couple slices of pepperoni on my cheese and mushroom pizza.
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