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Giving It Up for Lent

The history and future of the meat-free Lent

Giving It Up for Lent

Todd Strand / Alamy Stock Photo

There is no order in all of canon law that is easier for Louisianans to follow than abstaining from meat on Fridays during Lent. With over one million pounds of seafood landed in the state yearly, it is no surprise that we have come up with countless ways to satisfy both our obligations to the church and our desire for a good meal. If it comes out of the water, we will étouffée it, amandine it, stuff it, or gratin it, but hands down the most popular meal is the humble fish fry. Lenten fish fries are common throughout the United States, but in Louisiana, with Catholics comprising nearly a third of the state’s population, school cafeterias, parish halls, and auxiliary clubs all go to work overtime throughout Lent, filling a near-endless stream of Styrofoam cartons with fried fish dinners, many selling out entirely before the evening is up.

The composition of the meal varies from organization to organization but typically you can expect to find two large pieces of fish and some combination of dinner rolls, macaroni and cheese, green beans, and French fries, all for under ten dollars. The odd fish fry will diversify their menu with other meat-free dishes like shrimp and grits, seafood muffulettas, or crawfish pasta, but the fish gets top billing.

The first fish fry of the year is always scheduled on Ash Wednesday—the day after Mardi Gras. The Carnival season is a final chance to indulge before heading into the most solemn time in the liturgical calendar, the six-week Lenten period leading into Easter. The coming fast that looms over the revelry is embedded in the language used to describe the event itself; the word carnival comes from the Latin expression “carne levare” or “remove meat.” The tradition of fasting stretches back to the first centuries of the Catholic Church, where rules governing what was permissible in the fast varied widely by parish. These rules would eventually be codified by Pope Saint Gregory the Great, as outlined in a letter he wrote to Saint Augustine of Canterbury in 604, wherein he announced that during periods of fasting “we abstain from flesh meat and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese, eggs.” These fasts were, as they are now, penitential in nature, so indulging in something as luxurious as a meat-based meal would be considered counterproductive.

Obviously things have changed since then—dairy is back on the menu, and the days where fasting is observed have been reduced from the entire period of Lent to once a week on Fridays (twice in the first week of Lent because of Ash Wednesday). One thing that has not changed is the curious distinction of “flesh meat” and how it allows for fish to sneak on to our plate. One justification for the practice comes from Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians where he establishes that “all flesh is not the same flesh: but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts, another of fishes, and another of birds.” Others use Judaic dietary restrictions that classifies food into milchig (dairy), fleishig (meat or poultry), and parve (everything else, including fish) to guide their decisions. Should there be any question as to whether a food is fair game during Lenten fasting, parishioners are encouraged to seek clarification from their local diocese. Such dispensations have expanded potential Lenten meals to include capybara (in Venezuela), muskrat (in Detroit), and, naturally, alligator in New Orleans.

In 2020 the Archdiocese of New Orleans alone had over thirty weekly fish fries raising money for their local parishes and church organizations, but Lent, like everything else in the world, was derailed by the devastating effects of COVID-19. In acknowledgment of the difficulties caused by the pandemic, Bishop Shelton J. Fabre of the Diocese of Houma–Thibodaux made the unheralded decision to grant dispensation to local Catholics from the obligation to abstain from eating meat for the final two Fridays in Lent. Over in Gonzales, the St. Mark’s Men’s Club went from selling through an estimated three hundred plates per week to issuing a refund for weeks’ worth of pre-purchased meals.

No one can say for sure what the Lent of 2021 will look like, but there is little doubt that fish fries will remain a part of life in Louisiana for a long time to come. In addition to providing a solution for the weekly dilemma of what to eat when a major food group is no longer on the table, these fish fries are a source of pride for the groups that put them on and for the community that they are a part of. Oftentimes, the fish to be fried is purchased through local fisherman or is donated by neighborhood grocers. The meals are almost always prepared by hand using personal recipes. Like many aspects of religious life in Louisiana, it is an opportunity for the devout and cultural Catholic to gather alike and enjoy the community.

Just try not to think too hard about how eating a good meal is supposed to be a penance.

Gregory Theriot acknowledges that he is not the greatest Gregory involved in this story.