Thursday, April 2, 2009

Fish Isn't Meat? and Other Lenten Mysteries

I was raised Catholic. Not devout Catholic by any means, but rather church on Christmas Eve and say your prayers before bed Catholic. I've always considered myself a bit of a skeptic, though, when it comes to the existence of an omnipresent and omnipotent deity who determines which of us find eternal salvation and which of us do not. That being said, this is in no way intended as a dig on any particular religion, or on the concept of religion as a whole, any more than it is intended as an endorsement of same.

With that out of the way, today's topic is Lent. Lent, to the uninitiated, traditionally refers to the forty-day commemoration of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and culminates on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. During this period, Catholics typically do without something they value. Children sometimes give up sweets, video games, or television. Adults may cease all unnecessary spending, or forego gambling or alcohol. In addition to this, most Catholics do not eat meat on Fridays for the entirety of Lent.

I've always found the compulsory sacrifice of meat arbitrary and somewhat counter-productive. After all, if I'm trying to accomplish something - studying for an exam, taking a long drive, building a church - I'm going to need a lot of protein. But having been raised in a Catholic household, I am all too familiar with the practice. As a child and a teenager, there were many Fridays when I looked forward to the possibility of hamburgers, steak, Mexican food, or other meaty delights for dinner, only to remember later that it was Lent, and I'd have to wait until another day. That's not to say that the dinner I did eat that night wouldn't be just as good, it just wasn't what I had been craving all day.

The inconvenience of putting off until tomorrow what I so desperately wanted today notwithstanding, I was aware even then of a glaring inconsistency associated with the "no meat on Fridays" rule: Why, if Catholics couldn't eat beef, chicken or pork, did I frequently find myself sitting before a plate of fish sticks during Lenten Fridays? Fish are animals too, after all. Why are Catholics allowed to eat them? Why not limit ourselves to vegetables? It isn't like only mammals are verboten; chicken, turkey and other poultry are, of course, birds. So why no respect for fish? Wouldn't someone who prefers fish over beef be making less of a sacrifice than someone who doesn't like fish? Why not make the fish lover eat a hamburger?

It didn't make much sense to me back then, and it still doesn't, really. Sitting at the dinner table during those no-meat Fridays, I became convinced that the allowance of fish had something to do with the fact that my father didn't like vegetables, and that perhaps my mother bent the rules a little in order to appease his palate. Certainly the Catholic Church would never make such an arbitrary distinction as to what is meat and what is not! This gave me hope; if we could bend the rules because my father disliked vegetables, could we also bend the rules because by Good Friday I would undoubtedly be tired of fish sticks? Unfortunately I soon learned that my cousins - whose parents had no such hang-ups - were also allowed to eat fish on Fridays, and my theory went right out the window. But it still didn't explain how fish were okay while a pork chop was not. This inconsistency weighed on my mind throughout my childhood, and I was reminded of it in my mid-teens when I heard Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain singing "Something in the Way", from the band's 1991 album Nevermind: "It's okay to eat fish 'cause they don't have any feelings." I remember wondering if Cobain was Catholic.

As I reached adulthood, I worried less about what I ate. It was much easier when I began to cook for myself. No one looked over my shoulder or wagged a finger if I strayed from what I had been taught. There were times when I found myself eating fish during Lent out of habit or tradition, though over time I managed to divest myself of this tendency and live for the minute. After all, if God did exist, it made sense that He or She (or It, I suppose) would be less concerned with whether I ate a ribeye steak to celebrate the start of the weekend than whether I had done anything seriously wrong. I've always tried to live my life according to a set of principles, and I couldn't fathom anyone begrudging me pepperoni on my pizza if that was what I wanted. At the time, I thought that if the Catholic Church considered violation of the "no meat on Friday" rule a strong enough breach to warrant damnation, then I had been raised in the wrong faith. If it didn't, well then why should I stress out over it? Either way, a Heaven populated by a bunch of murderers, rapists and other scoundrels who'd managed to stick to fish on Fridays wasn't a Heaven I hoped to someday reach.

Several years ago my wife and I found ourselves at a favorite neighborhood pub late one Friday night, having drinks with friends who were also Catholic. The four of us were hungry, and given the lateness of the hour there were few dining options. We headed to a nearby taqueria for a few orders of fish tacos. By the time we got our food, it was after midnight. That's right, it was Saturday. I could have ordered the carne asada tacos I was really in the mood for.

As I ate, it occurred to me that this was yet another arbitrary distinction. Would five minutes after midnight have been long enough to wait before eating meat that night? Or would God have said, "Close enough" had we eaten meat at 11:59 PM? Hey, maybe God's watch runs five minutes fast, or slow. Did God still consider it Friday night when we went to sleep at 1:30 that morning? What if God lives in Hawaii? That's a whole different time zone. He might expect us to keep track of His local time: "It's still 11:30 where God's at. We'd better wait until three o'clock before we tear into that brisket."

It's worth noting that I did manage to avoid meat every Friday of that particular Lent. I haven't done it since, and I haven't really felt any regret or loss over this fact. I liken the achievement to getting a particularly high score in Zaxxon; I did it once, I can always brag that I accomplished it, and I don't feel particularly compelled to ever do it again.

Speaking of arbitrary distinctions, I was recently surprised to learn that, in certain counties, including that in which I currently live, the archdiocese does not prohibit its residents from eating meat. This seems odd, as I always thought the Catholic faith was an all-or-nothing type of organization. For the sake of Catholicism as a whole, I hope they don't leave interpretation of the Ten Commandments up to individual archdioceses. I could understand this particular inconsistency if there was no way of getting fish to the counties in question, but it's not like I couldn't easily find seafood at a grocery store, restaurant, or if I'm really desperate, a pet shop. It makes me wonder how serious they were about barring meat in the first place. To me, the notion that eternal salvation comes from not eating meat sounds less like the edict of a religious leader and more like a suggestion made by a floundering fisheries industry, no pun intended.

Are my facts incorrect? If you're a Catholic who knows the real reason for the exemption of fish - or anything else I may have gotten wrong - by all means, enlighten me. I never said I have all the answers, though I'd like to think I have at least some of them.

In closing, here are my top five favorite foods to eat on Fridays during Lent:

5. Sizzler's All You Can Eat Shrimp: I've loved shrimp since I was little, and I've loved them breaded and deep-fried just as long. Unfortunately, going to Sizzler during Lent was rare, since my father doesn't like shrimp, and would have been prohibited from ordering the steak he always got from Sizzler.

4. Toto's Cheese Pizza: Toto's is a small but popular chain of pizzerias in the Bay Area, which I wish would make its way to the Sacramento area. While any of their pizzas is excellent, their cheese pizza is among the most exquisite I've ever tasted.

3. Taco Bell's Bean Burrito: Though hardly a favorite item from Taco Bell's menu, I've always found their basic bean burrito satisfying. Thanks to a relatively low price, one can make a decent meal of several of these and/or other meatless options at Taco Bell.

2. McDonalds' Filet o' Fish: This item was reportedly introduced as a direct result of Catholics staying away from the chain during Lent. To this day I still enjoy it, and on the rare occasion that I find myself at McDonalds' it's a good bet that that's what I'm ordering.

1. Grilled Cheese: As simple or complex as one wishes, easy to prepare, and just the thing to warm the heart on a cold Friday night in March.


  1. Me, in all my anti-religion glory, thoroughly enjoyed that post. I was actually laughing out loud during the paragraph about time zones! All blasphemy aside now, I have often wondered the same thing - how exactly is fish not a meat? And I find it odd that the Catholic religion will allow older followers to eat meat on Fridays in Lent. I'm pretty sure protein is important at all ages... You forgot Long John Silver's on your list of favorite Lenten restaurants!

  2. Sal...In my defense...I did serve meals other than fish sticks on Fridays in Lent. Remember the grilled cheese sandwiches?? :) You forgot to mention that Catholic churches in certain counties in California do not follow the abstinence of meat during Lent. That, I do not understand. So, if I live in San Mateo County (where meat is not allowed on Fridays in Lent) and went to dinner in a county where meat is allowed, am I making a sin?? Just wondering...

  3. Mom - I most certainly did mention that in certain counties, the local archdiocese does not prohibit the eating of meat. However, I have no idea whether you are committing a sin by visiting other counties. That's why I usually disregard the entire issue.

    Miss - I would have included Long John Silver's had there been one in my area when I was growing up. They ran commercials for it incessantly on local television, and I knew their jingles and slogans, but unfortunately I didn't eat at a Long John Silver's until well into adulthood. Good place; I wish I'd discovered it sooner!

  4. It was always my understanding that the reason fish was allowed where meat wasn't stems back to the whole thing being a sacrifice you make. When the rule was created, meat was considered a luxury item and hard to come by. Fish was considered a poor person's food as it was easier to acquire. Thus, meat, the luxury item, was sacrificed.