A good Friday for fish? Hard choices on the menu

For Catholics, eating fish today is said to be good for the soul. But what about the sole?

Should we even be thinking about food on a day that’s supposed to be about a little voluntary self-deprivation?

Should we even be thinking about food on a day that’s supposed to be about a little voluntary self-deprivation?


What should a self-respecting secularist eat on Good Friday? That’s a question you might be asking yourself this morning. Especially if you’re looking at a piece of fish you bought on impulse, and have no idea how to cook, so that it’s gazing glassily back at you every time you open the fridge door.

In itself, this is not a problem. You can find a recipe nowadays for just about any combination of items that may be lurking in your fridge, no matter how unpromising – an olive-and-white-chocolate panini, perhaps, or a mushroom and blueberry omelette.

But should you really be poring over recipes, or even thinking about food, on a day that is supposed to be about a little voluntary self-deprivation? I mean, it’s all very well deciding to eat fish as a kind of penance. But grilled scallops with white wine sauce? How penitential is that, exactly?

When I was growing up it was considered an exclusively Catholic affair, this avoidance of meat on all Fridays – especially Good Friday.

As Protestants, we were actually forbidden to eat fish on Fridays – which was silly, and frustrating to boot, since the fish man would come around in his van offering smoked delicacies, which, to us kids, looked like forbidden fruit of the most tempting kind.

Nefarious medieval pope
The origin of the fish-on-Friday tradition is shrouded in mystery. There is a school of thought that claims it can be traced back to a nefarious medieval pope whose brother (or cousin, or uncle) owned the Italian fishing fleet, and who created the no-meat rule as a sure-fire way of shifting product. This theory surfaces in unsolicited emails around this time every year and, let’s face it, sounds like exactly the sort of thing nefarious medieval popes would have been getting up to. But since the pope in question is never named, we must (reluctantly) send it to the place where fishy conspiracy theories go to die.

Global capitalism, in any case, is just as nefarious – if not more so. We owe the existence of the McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish to the culinary and spiritual ingenuity of one Lou Groen, a franchise owner in Cincinnati, Ohio, who, in 1962, invented the no-meat sandwich to offset the fall in burger sales during Lent. And if that’s the secular option, I’d settle for the pope’s fresh Italian fish any day.

Catholics are still expected to lay off the burgers for the Lenten period. But what if you’re an unbeliever, but also a staunch environmentalist – or worse, a vegetarian? You’ve got yourself a real dilemma. You don’t want to submit to the hegemony of traditional religion. On the other hand, you know perfectly well that (a), a global reduction in meat-eating would greatly help with the lowering of carbon emissions; and (b), you don’t really believe in eating fish, but you do anyhow because compared to the usual lentils or vegetable curry or broccoli stir fry it’s an absolutely thrilling item to find on your plate once in a while.

The fast show
So there you have it: damned if you do, damned if you don’t. You could always fast – just as long as you realise it’s still Good Friday and so your favourite coffee shop may not be open when, by mid-morning, you fall off the wagon and sally forth in search of a skinnycino.

If you want to distract yourself from the hunger pangs, you can always go to church. But be warned: the liturgies for the day are so explicit, prolonged, and relentlessly focused on the suffering and pain inflicted along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem on the day of the Crucifixion, that if you’re at all squeamish you would be better off staying at home and curling up on the sofa with a mug of hot water and white wine vinegar, and the director’s cut of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ .

And so we are, pretty much, back where we started. What to eat on Good Friday? You could show solidarity with the world’s disenfranchised poor by eating beans and rice without so much as a mitigating teaspoonful of tapenade. You could – as some folks of my acquaintance do, arguing that it’s an act of multicultural rebellion – have a boozy party.

Or you could just muddle on as usual, doing your best to do unto others as you’d like them to do unto you. Which, I seem to recall reading somewhere, is what the whole hoo-hah was all about in the first place.

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