In Praise of Fish Sticks

Welcome to this blog and my first ever post! If you’re wondering who I am and what this is, check out the About page . If you’re curious about how a Lenten tradition from the Midwest ties together realpolitik, Vikings, Prohibition and a group of millenial teachers, keep reading.

Last Friday some Catholic teacher friends and I gathered in someone’s apartment for pizza and Trader Joe’s fish sticks. Also, libations. The event was billed as a Fish Fry.

When someone says Lent, I think fish. Catholics abstain from eating meat on Fridays for the forty days of Lent leading up to Easter, and in my house growing up, that meant Fridays were for pizza, pasta or – most typically – fish.

Fridays were not for fish frys.

I first heard the phrase a few months into dating my now-fiance, when he looked at me prepping tilapia for dinner and suggested we try breading our fish “fish fry” style. He went on to explain that churches in his hometown in Michigan put on community fish frys during Lent. For a few dollars, parishioners can eat battered cod with coleslaw and potato salad. We tried it out that night. Turns out a fish fry is delicious.

The internet tells me the Lenten fish fry is a largely Midwestern tradition, transplanted by German Catholic immigrants moving to Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana throughout the 19th century, which explains why I never heard the phrase growing up in Connecticut (it’s also possible my home parish hosted these feasts regularly and I’m just clueless).

Zooming out, the follow-up question is naturally: Why fish?

The answer: Why not. In addition, a convoluted strain of political maneuvering, religious tradition, and adventure on the high seas.

From a religious lens, the Church forbids eating warm-blooded animals during fast days. Cold-blooded fish make an easy alternative. Potential reasons for the fish dispensation range from the medieval distinction between land and sea animals to Aquinas’s theories on the lustful qualities of red meat. Of course, it is also impossible to ignore the deep significance of fish as a symbol for early Christians (inspiration for a forthcoming post!).

However, the role of fish was not truly cemented until the medieval era, when the Church institutionalized practices, including the 40 days of Lent, and fast days started piling up. Christians turned to fish, readily and cheaply caught and preserved, developing a taste for herring and setting off a roaring fish trade. One 15th century schoolboy scribbled dejectedly,

Though wyll not beleve how werey I am off fysshe, and how moch I desir to that flesch were cum in ageyn.”

Random 15th century English kid

Eventually, cod took off as a tastier and even longer-lasting choice. Christians adopted Viking knowledge, smoking and preserving the cod as a kind of fishy take on beef jerky; Viking sea routes followed the natural range of Atlantic cod, from Greenland to Iceland to Newfoundland. One fantastical theory posits that English fisherman from Bristol may have braved the seemingly impossible, setting sail across the ocean blue in search of new fishing grounds and following the cod trail to Canada in 1480. The episode is largely forgotten, because the fishermen (conveniently) kept their epic voyages quiet, lest competition set in. A short decade later, Columbus may very well have considered the intrepid fishermen as he prepared for his own Atlantic crossing.

In the 16th century, when Henry VIII broke with the Church over his desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, the simple act of eating fish became a political declaration of allegiance with Catholicism and against the King’s newly formed Church of England. Considering the grisly fate of those who openly disavowed the new state religion, it is no wonder that the fish trade declined rapidly, only recovering when Henry’s more tolerant son Edward VI took over and reinstated traditional fast days. Edward’s motivations were likely more economic than religious, as England possessed a horde of down-on-their-luck fishermen.

Flash forward to the United States of the 1920s. Prohibition has banned the sale of alcohol, and bars face the prospect of reinventing their trade or closing their doors. Increasingly, Midwestern bars start selling fish dinners, an easy financial boost and a convenient front for speakeasies. Thus, the fish fry is born.

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