Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Eating Seafood as Penance

It’s easy for even the most secular person in America to notice that Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season has arrived. Everybody is talking about fish! Just about every restaurant is all of a sudden promoting its fish specials. Churches and fire halls are promoting their fish fry events. Even McDonald’s instead of their burgers and chicken is promoting their Filet-O-Fish sandwiches.

As a serious foodie who was raised in a Catholic household with meatless Fridays, I still wonder about all the sense of all of this.

When I was a child, I used to dread those meatless Fridays. Instead of ‘good’ food like hot dogs, hamburgers, and the like, dinner was some yucky bland bean dish…or lentils, or Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks. Seafood back then was tuna fish out of the can or mystery breaded fish from the grocery freezer section. It was edible, but not as good as the food I really liked. But I guess that’s what penance is all about.

Then in my teenage years I had an epiphany on the subject of seafood. I was hanging out with a buddy who wanted to go to a seafood place that sold fish sandwiches. As I saw him order a fish sandwich, I wondered to myself, “Why would he order a fish sandwich when it wasn’t even Friday?” “And he wasn’t even a Catholic!”

The breaded fresh piece of fish was unlike anything I had ever tasted until that day. For those who say that they don’t like a particular food, I argue that there are two possible reasons. One is that the person really doesn’t like that food. But more likely it is because that person has never tasted a good example of the food in question. For me and seafood, the latter clearly applied to me and to this day, seafood is high on the list of my favorite foods.

But what’s with this idea of seafood and penance? It was interesting to hear mentioned on a couple of travel shows on Ireland Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations and Food Network's Tasting Ireland that despite being a country that produces some of the world’s best seafood, the Irish people have been notable for their dislike of seafood. Why is that? Supposedly, it is because in the Republic of Ireland, its population is predominantly Catholic and eating seafood is looked upon as penance. By contrast, neighboring England with its Protestant population loves its fish and chips.

Before the mid 60s when meatless Fridays were all year round instead of just during Lent, the rules around this created a lot of interesting situations for Catholics as described by comedian George Carlin in his observations on
Special Dispensation!

I think I was troubled too at the time by the fact that my church would keep changing rules. I mean, they would change a rule anytime they wanted. "THIS LAW'S ETERNAL! Except for this weekend! SPECIAL DISPENSATION!" Magic words.

Yeah, like eating meat on Friday was definitely a sin — except for the people in Philadelphia; they were number one in the scrap iron drive, yeah! They would give it away as a prize, y'know? If your parish gave the most money to the bishop's relief fund...Hamburgers on Friday, yeah! Wow.

But since the law was changed, Carlin wondered about the fate of those who died after committing the mortal sin (at the time) of eating meat on Friday.

It's not even a sin anymore to eat meat on Friday but I'll betcha there are still some guys in Hell doing time on the meat rap, right? "I thought it was retroactive! I had a baloney sandwich! This guy had a beef jerky, right? Tell 'em what you had." How'd you like to do eternity for a beef jerky. Yeah, 'cause Hell wasn't no five to ten, y'know. Hell was LATER!
But the number one problem I have with requiring the eating of fish or other seafood as ‘penance’ is that it affects poorer and more affluent people a lot differently. Really good seafood that is a pleasure to eat and not a penance tends to be expensive. Fresh seafood is perishable and requires more costly transportation to get it to market quickly while it is still fresh.

So for those who make rules like this, I can’t help but wonder if they have considered that while the less well-to-do have to resort to choices like canned tuna, frozen fish sticks, and maybe peanut butter or beans to observe meatless Fridays, more affluent people can dine on among other things, shrimp, crab, or even lobster. Some penance!

Unfortunately, once the Lenten season ends with Easter, fish and other seafood will be forgotten by many of us until next Ash Wednesday. Most restaurants will go back to offering mediocre seafood as an obscure secondary offering. For example, instead of offering a mediocre (at best) Filet-O-Fish that people only want to eat because they have to during Lent, why doesn't McDonald's offer a really good fish sandwich that people will want to eat all year round? As long as seafood retains its stigma by many as a food one eats only as penance, too many of us will never discover the pleasure (along with the health benefits) that really good fresh seafood has to offer. And that’s a shame!

No comments: