Lent is here and, pardon my French, I decided it was time to talk about Lenten abstinence and how it shaped an entire industry in Europe. That would be the fish industry, of course.

Everyone knows that fish was a part of many biblical characters' diet; and it's true that where fish was available, it was abundant and voraciously consumed. But preservation was difficult and refrigerators didn't exist.

Those who lived near the sea would have depended on fish as a food source, almost without exception. Those who lived by smaller bodies of water also incorporated fish into their diet. As a matter of fact, the earliest known fish farms originated in 1000 BC in China.

Inland, people would likely subsist off of cheese, hard bread and mostly vegetables. Abstinence barely had an effect on these people. The king owned most animals in the forest. Those living on water, however, could always fish.

People living next to the sea also had access to an abundance of salt; salt and pickled fish were likely some of the very first traded food commodities, though the trade was slow to grow at first. The fish industry existed before the abstinence decree, but it took nearly divine intervention to make it boom and spread inland. Some say this was intentional; others say it was not.

Lenten abstinence was really cemented in place by Pope Telesphorus, eighth pope after Peter, who reigned from 126-137 AD. Pope Nicholas I (858-867) expanded this fasting to include all Fridays. The earliest fasting practices forbade food derived from flesh, which meant dairy and eggs.

Some say the pope (I'm honestly not sure which one) did this to support the Italian fish industry, which exploded when the rich suddenly were devouring fish at least once a week.

Other historians, such as Brian Fagan, professor emeritus of archaeology at the University of California, say this was not the case. After all, the papal decree did not tell followers, “don't eat meat; eat fish instead.” Evidence suggests the clergy had actually intended for fasting meals to consist of (dramatic pause) - vegetables! Somehow that's less sensational than a pope/fish industry conspiracy theory.

Of course, people like sensational - even if they swear up and down that they don't - so the conspiracy theory stuck.

People also like loopholes, and that's how “don't eat meat” translated to “fish time." The decree, in Latin, would have said not to eat “carne," but Latin had a different name for water dwelling animals. So by taking the decree literally, they found their loophole.

Again, this only really affected the rich who could afford meat and imported fish. Everyone else abstained from meat probably 350 or more days a year.

Few know that Lenten abstinence has also allowed followers to eat alligators since 2010 at least; and since the 17th century, the same is true for beaver tails because of classification of animals by Thomas Aquinas. Illustrators of the time drew beavers as having literal fish as tails - seriously, look it up.

Year-round fasting rules basically fell by the wayside after the Second Vatican Council from 1962-65; though ironically, the clergy only intended the rules to be loosened for select individuals. But the laity took that inch and turned it into a mile, and now Fridays are just like every other day, except during Lent.

Honey Fish Fillets

  • 1 egg
  • 2 teaspoons honey
  • 2 cups crushed Ritz crackers
  • ½ teaspoon of salt
  • 1 ½ pounds fish fillets
  • 1/3 to ½ cup oil

In a shallow bowl, combine the honey and egg. In a shallow dish combine crackers and salt. Dip the fish in the egg mixture, then in the cracker mixture and coat. Shallow fry these fillets over medium heat until golden and flaky.

Parmesan Broiled Fish

  • ½ cup grated Parmesan
  • 3 tablespoons butter, softened
  • 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
  • ¼ teaspoon dried basil
  • ¼ teaspoon pepper
  • 1/8 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon celery salt
  • 4 6-ounce fillets

In a small bowl, mix all but the fish fillets. Arrange the fillets on a baking pan coated with cooking spray. Spread the cheese over the fish and broil four inches from the heat for 4-5 minutes or until the topping is light brown and the fish is flaky.

Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or travis.grimler@pineandlakes.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.