The "tradtional" Friday Fish Fry is certainly a sectional tradition. I'd never heard of such a thing growing up on the east coast, where of course fresh, tasty salt-water fish and seafood were available in abundance. But it was certainly big in the midwest when I lived in Milwaukee in the late 1970s, and it seems similarly popular here as well. And so, we will be having a fish fry at the parish tonight - and every Lenten Friday night - before the Stations of the Cross.
"Fish on Friday" was once a staple of Catholic community culture. Even our calendars typically used to display a fish superimposed on the date number every Friday of the year (and the various other days like Ash Wednesday and Christmas Eve which were also days of abstience). There were also half-fishes for days of partial abstience, such as Ember Wednesdays and Saturdays, when meat might be eaten, but only once. Apart from Lent, all of that is all gone now - and with it the fishes on the calendar.
Of course, there never was any rule requiring one actually to eat fish on Friday. The rule rather required abstinence from meat, which in earlier centuries apparently also included dairy products and eggs, but which by modern times had been defined down to include only the flesh meat of "warm-blooded" animals. It was not unheard of in my childhood home to eat omelets or pizza for Friday dinner, but fish probably was the most common option.
It was great for the fish industry. It also introduced greater variety into the average American Catholic's diet. But, best of all, it introduced religion into everyday life. Like keeping kosher among religious Jews, it was an intrusion of religion into the ordinary routine of the mudane world, very effectively so, because - to borrow from Ludwig Feuerbah - we are what we eat. Of course, Friday abstinence was a rather modest intrusion into our kitchens and dining rooms - in that regard hardly comparable at all to keeping kosher. But it still served the purpose and functioned as a valuable identity-marker. It may or may not have effectively formed people in a spirituality of self-denial, but it did at least make the point that religion required a consciousness of its restrictions in ordinary settings - not just for an hour in church on Sundays.
Perhaps I may yet live long enough to see that wonderful custom restored to our weekly routine - something sincerely to be hoped for!
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