Why did they make me eat fish on Fridays?
December 18, 2009 7:52 AM   Subscribe

In some religions (at the very least Catholicism), eating fish on Fridays is (or at least was) a requirement and seems to remain a bit of a tradition. I was raised by some strict Catholics, but never understood what the real rule was. Do you have to eat fish, or do you just have to not eat meat? And how exactly is "meat" defined in this situation?

This question is one I've wondered for a long time, triggered by my intense dislike of all seafood. Most recently, what triggered this question was the fact that it seems that all corporate cafeterias I know of serve fish every Friday (and stank up the whole place).

As a child, on Fridays during Lent, I was given a lot of shit for refusing to eat fish like everyone else. My question was always "if we can't eat meat, why can't we just order some cheese pizza?!" Really...why? Why is fish the traditional alternative to meat, instead of *real* nonmeat foods like tofu and beans and pasta and the aforementioned cheese pizza?

I also wondered exactly how fish was not meat, but chicken was. I mean, where is the line drawn between meat-dead-animals and non-meat-dead-animals? Is it warm-blooded versus cold-blooded (if so, could I eat amphibians and reptiles on Fridays if I wanted to observe this rule? Are frog legs and alligator fair game?)? Is it land-dwelling versus water-dwelling (if so, could I eat a dolphin or a manatee?)?

What about mealworms? Could I eat those?
posted by tastybrains to Religion & Philosophy (41 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You don't have to eat fish. You have to not eat meat. Otherwise no Catholic could be a vegetarian. Or fast.

I'm pretty sure all water-dwelling animals are kosher (as it were). I remember reading that capybara were declared "fish" by the Vatican so that people could eat them, notwithstanding they are large rodents. I'm pretty sure that when the regulations were invented, cetaceans were considered fish, so you could eat a dolphin.

I'm not sure the regulations have that much basis in Scripture. I think, like clerical chastity, it's another medieval rule that had as much to do with politics as spirituality.
posted by musofire at 7:59 AM on December 18, 2009

I don't have an answer for why fish is not considered meat. But I have an anecdote that might help you resolve the fish or no fish Fridays question. When I was growing up my Catholic church had soup suppers on Fridays in Lent. Any kind of vegetarian soup was an option, and there were usually two or three choices. I do recall that clam chowder was a frequent selection. I know other churches will do a Fish Fry Friday. I think (and this is just my guess with no evidence to back it up) that the fish on Fridays became a tradition because people weren't used to eating vegetarian meals at all. How can you have supper without a meat?! I've also met a lot of people who consider themselves vegetarians who eat fish. Just recently I had an argument with a classmate about whether fish are "animals". Sigh. What is wrong with people?
posted by purpletangerine at 8:00 AM on December 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

My understanding was that the idea was that fish was cheap while meat was expensive and that you could save the difference and donate it to the church while at the same time demonstrate a sacrifice by eating the 'less desirable' substitute.

Less vegetarians about when this was instituted I guess so none of this veggie option business. I think the fish thing became fairly dogmatic, (certainly my older relatives - all catholic - seemed to view it as some sort of proof of catholicism) and more about the demonstation of piety than either sacrifice or contribution, especially as the economics of fish vs meat changed.
posted by biffa at 8:01 AM on December 18, 2009

The idea that all water-dwelling animals are non-meat is very interesting to me... thanks for the info on the capybara, that's something for me to research. :-)

Note that I am not personally concerned about what I eat on Fridays...I'm not Catholic or even Christian anymore, I just am trying to understand the rules that always confused me as a child (and that continue to confuse me as an adult).
posted by tastybrains at 8:04 AM on December 18, 2009

These links all have more information.
posted by box at 8:04 AM on December 18, 2009

According to wikipedia (Fasting and abstinence in the Roman Catholic Church) it is a restriction from eating meat, which matches my understanding as a former Catholic, so cheese pizza would be A-OK. They don't address the issue of categorizing fish as not meat, and neither does the referenced page from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. It may just be tradition stemming from Jesus' association with fishermen.
posted by He Is Only The Imposter at 8:05 AM on December 18, 2009

The significance of any ritual is mostly about the accidents of its history. Old school taxonomy of foods defined fish as not being meat. The ritual evolved over time from "no meat" to "obligatory fish".
posted by idiopath at 8:05 AM on December 18, 2009

The goal is penance, so substituting pizza that you like for fish that you don't is kind of missing the point. Really, if you like fish more than meat, you should be skipping fish on Friday, but people prefer simpler rules.
posted by smackfu at 8:06 AM on December 18, 2009

And by a strict definition not eating animals would rule out bread and peanut butter and ketchup due to the prevalence of processed insect parts (insects are animals).
posted by idiopath at 8:06 AM on December 18, 2009

But are insects more animals than fish??
posted by tastybrains at 8:08 AM on December 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

I believe there is no restriction against 'meat" but against "carnis" which is a Latin word whose meaning specifically excludes things like fish. You're trying to reason in English about a law that was laid down in Latin.
posted by vacapinta at 8:09 AM on December 18, 2009 [6 favorites]

One curiosity related to where the line gets drawn is the Capybara of Central and South America. From the "Human Interaction" section of the article: "During the Christian observation of Lent, capybara meat is especially popular as it is claimed that the Catholic church, in a special dispensation, classified the animal as a fish in the 16th century. (cf. Barnacle goose) There are differing accounts of how the dispensation arose. The most cited refers to a group of 16th Century missionaries who made a request which implied that the semi-aquatic capybara might be a "fish" and also hinted that there would be an issue with starvation if the animal weren't classified as suitable for Lent."

This Capybara encyclopedia entry explains a bit more about the church's possible motivations for the dispensation (including the claim that it's the only warm-blooded animal allowed for consumption during Lent), and this link quotes a 1992 Economist article about how Capy meat is copiously consumed during Lent.

On preview, musofire beat me to the capy, but hopefully these links are helpful!
posted by BlooPen at 8:10 AM on December 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

AIUI, canvas-back duck was permitted (per my deceased confirmation sponsor), but I don't know why it was permitted.
posted by jgirl at 8:13 AM on December 18, 2009

Beavers also got made OK by French-Canadian trappers at one point.

As far as I've read, it's a form of fasting from 'fancier' or more expensive foods. Medieval cookbooks have a lot of vegetarian/vegan recipes for 'ember' (fasting) days. More foods than meat used to be restricted.
posted by cobaltnine at 8:14 AM on December 18, 2009

But are insects more animals than fish??

Like I said, logic has nothing to do with any of this. The ancients defined animals, or the word we translated to animals in our language, to exclude fish.

Insects and fish and cows are all animals, by the modern biological definition - there is not really a coherent biological meaning to "more animal".
posted by idiopath at 8:14 AM on December 18, 2009

My understanding was that the idea was that fish was cheap while meat was expensive and that you could save the difference and donate it to the church while at the same time demonstrate a sacrifice by eating the 'less desirable' substitute.

I can't supply a link or anything, but I remember reading that the idea of eating fish on Fridays came out of the Vatican as a means of supporting the fishing industry and propping up colony building in early North America's New France. Colony building in France was motivated in part by the drive to convert natives to Christianity but it was mostly a business decision.

Contemporary people are often confused by these kind of papal decisions, but they make more sense if you think of popes in the medieval era up until fairly recently as Italian Princes rather than spiritual leaders (it was a plum patrongage appointment - some popes were married, some were non-religious, and at least one was a woman who gave birth in office).
posted by Deep Dish at 8:14 AM on December 18, 2009

This might be a class issue as well. You have to think back to when these rules were drawn up centuries ago (Late Antiquity - Early Medieval). Meat was an expensive luxury, and "upper-class" thing. Fish never seem to have fallen into that category (even now fishermen are not exactly thought of as high-class folk).

So giving up meat (i.e. land-dwelling meat) was essentially giving up a luxury. Giving up fish would not be seen as a sacrifice, I'd imagine...it would be equivalent to giving up bread. Sacrifice is the key thing here.

If you're really into this you might want to read up on medieval bestiaries, and the ways in which animals were classified in those days. Not something I'm an expert on, but I'm sure it would be interesting.
posted by hiteleven at 8:15 AM on December 18, 2009

Why is fish the traditional alternative to meat, instead of *real* nonmeat foods like tofu and beans and pasta and the aforementioned cheese pizza?

In my Catholic family, we ate pizza every Friday. My grandparents still do. I thought everyone did this until I was embarrassingly old. "What do you guys want to eat?" "Well, its Friday...so...don't we have to eat pizza?" To this day, though, one of the stranger lingering effects of my Catholic upbringing is associating pizza with Fridays, due entirely to the 'no meat' rule.

I think for a lot of people, stuff like pizza is the traditional alternative to meat, your parents were just being a pain. I mean, yeah, if we were trying to have a proper meal or went out somewhere, we had fish. We had fish on fast days that were also holidays, but for a regular workaday Friday, pizza. Anyway, the reason behind all this is that the Pope owns Long John Silvers', like Tracy Jordan says.
posted by jeb at 8:19 AM on December 18, 2009

More foods than meat used to be restricted.

BUTTER used to be restricted. Imagine trying to live a day with no butter. Catholicness was mad harsh in the day.
posted by jeb at 8:21 AM on December 18, 2009

biffa, whose answer you selected as best, is incorrect. Abstention from meat--defined as indicated above as the flesh of warm-blooded creatures, which fish are not--on Fridays was imposed by the Vatican as a spiritual discipline, namely abstinence. Friday was chosen to comemmorate Good Friday all year round.

Some kind of tithe-differential was never in mind.
posted by valkyryn at 8:21 AM on December 18, 2009 [6 favorites]

The medieval Church (there was only one) deemed that all Fridays (unless they were otherwise Holy Days) were days of fasting. They did not define fasting as 'no food', unlike Muslims, but rather as "no meat". Fish was "not meat". Ergo, if one ate fish on Fridays, one was fasting and observing a church rule.

Probably not uncoincidentally, meat (beef, pork, mutton, venison, etc) was expensive and hard to obtain for most people, unless it was slaughtering time. It also didn't store well. "Fasting" Fridays made a virtue of a necessity.

Many Protestant churches, especially those which split from the Catholic church over administrative differences (lutheran, episcopal), kept the fish/"fasting" on Friday. Lent (the forty days before Easter, mod Sundays) is also a fasting season. Eventually, it became on of those silly litte dogmatic rules that most people in the church follow but few know why, and ignorant laypeople used it as a "tell" for piety.

The Eastern Orthodox church, which split from the medival Church in the 11th century, has even more stringent rules on when and how to fast.
posted by jlkr at 8:22 AM on December 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

Despite the changes put forth in the 1960s by the Vatican and despite it being a public school, in the 80s and early 90s when I was in the public school system, the cafeteria was still doing Catholic-style "meatless" Friday school lunches. Pizza, fried clams, mac and cheese, and a few others were in rotation.
posted by sciencegeek at 8:29 AM on December 18, 2009

This answer in the Catholic Answers is correct:

"The Latin term used is CARNE. That term only covers warm blooded animals.

And since Western Church law is definitive in Latin, (and no other language), we are to abstain from CARNE specifically.

In the Eastern Churches, which have their own Canon Law, all animal products, including fish, eggs and dairy are prohibited on days of Abstinence."

So, like so much of Catholic practice, the rule has its origins in a very different time (well before modern biology) and a very different language. Note that as pointed out in the post, the tradition in the Eastern Church is essentially veganism for all of Lent. So, the West is less strict.

Also, it's not ridiculously uncommon to consider seafood as somehow "less meat". Consider the existence of so-called pesco-vegetarians. And I, at least, would find it unusual if someone were to describe a fish dish as being "meat", even if it is the flesh of an animal.
posted by fhangler at 8:33 AM on December 18, 2009 [4 favorites]

When I was a kid, our public school cafeteria never served meat on Fridays. Do schools still do that?
posted by TWinbrook8 at 8:37 AM on December 18, 2009

Ouch - I have my complaints about Catholicism just like everyone else, but I feel like the 'best answer' to this question is a little rough in claiming that it's either dogmatism or masked pragmatism but never anything positive.

And the idea that fish is 'not meat' is widespread amongst non-Catholics - most of my vegetarian friends eat meat. Indeed this is not what the dictionary says: take it up with Wittgenstein.
posted by tmcw at 8:39 AM on December 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

and at least one was a woman who gave birth in office

This is an urban legend.
posted by mpbx at 8:43 AM on December 18, 2009

tmcw: I think the fish not being meat thing has a large amount of regional variation. Here in Portland, one of the vegetarian / vegan capitols of the US, very few people would consider a diet containing fish to be vegetarian.
posted by idiopath at 8:46 AM on December 18, 2009

At my public school in a heavily protestant area, we still always had a no-meat option on Fridays. When I'd eat dinner with Catholic friends, they would sometimes have fish, sometimes have vegetarian food, so fish is not a requirement to everyone. These were Irish-American and Mexican-American families.
posted by ishotjr at 8:53 AM on December 18, 2009

Fish isn't meat in the Jewish tradition, either*, and all the earliest Christians had grown up as Jews.

smackfu, I love you, but it's not about "penance." It doesn't matter whether you like fish or not. It's about abstinence--fish and the meat of warm-blooded critters were believed, in ancient and medieval times, to have different spiritual qualities.

*which is why we have the wonder that is lox with cream cheese on a bialy
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:49 AM on December 18, 2009

With all of this discussion, now I'm starting to wonder if the Catholicism thing is the reason that we always had either cheese pizza or fish sticks at school on Fridays back in the Seventies.
posted by polexxia at 9:51 AM on December 18, 2009

With all of this discussion, now I'm starting to wonder if the Catholicism thing is the reason that we always had either cheese pizza or fish sticks at school on Fridays back in the Seventies.

Almost certainly. I grew up in a little rural town that was about two-thirds Catholics, one-third Protestant (one Jewish family moved into town in the 1980s--one kid from that family became an Orthodox rabbi and the other became a costumed performer at Disney World), and there was always a giant hue and cry when some civic organization would schedule a ham and bean supper or chicken barbecue on a Friday night. I mean, letters to the editor in the small paper, people resigning in huffs from committees, etc.

In short, yes. If your community had any substantial Catholic presence, they probably made their wishes for a meat-free option on Fridays known with some vigor to the School Board.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:09 AM on December 18, 2009

With this family stuff, the traditions, and details of the practices sometimes adhere even when the rationale changes. The important thing is the ritual activity, regardless of how you explain it. It doesn't seem to make that much sense, but folklorists, historians and cultural anthropologists all have chicken & egg type arguments about whiich came first the belief or the practice (or theory & practice, or narrative and ritual, etc...) Petr Bogatyrev has a really interesting work on the religious practices of the Carpathian Rus, that shows a surprising consistency across large geographical areas in term of practice, but wildly divergent justifications for the practices. The example I remember was a harvest ritual that invovled stacking the table with food and then wrapping a chain around the legs of the table. People had all kinds of reason for what the ritual was supposed to do and why.

Anyway. The only thing i can add to what's already been said about the fish, is that popular belief held the fish didn't arise from coitus, but spontaneously generated in the water. The heretics i study labelled them edible for this reason (also everyone ate fish in that part of the world and when you are a mendicant preacher having a reason to be able to eat it is a good thing.)
posted by ServSci at 10:17 AM on December 18, 2009

Surprised nobody has mentioned that this rule is why McDonald's sells the Filet-o-Fish sandwich.

Looking back as a kid who grew up Catholic, it's astonishing how incompetent the adults were at teaching and explaining their rituals and practices. I'm sure many of the adults didn't know what was going on either, they just followed the herd. I was seriously curious, and wasn't asking "why?" to be a pain in the ass, but they wouldn't even try to answer.
posted by xil at 10:26 AM on December 18, 2009

Somewhat related: there is an idea in some varieties of Judaism that the most meaningless rules are the most important ones to follow. Not killing, or not coveting your neighbor's wife, are rational and pragmatic decisions that show common sense, but not necessarily any sort of religious conviction. But not eating bacon, or not wearing clothes of more than one fiber, or not cutting a certain part of your hair, show conviction because otherwise they would be pointless.
posted by idiopath at 10:34 AM on December 18, 2009

When I was growing up Catholic in the 1960s/1970s, sometimes we had fish on Fridays and sometimes we didn't. Although my mom was Presbyterian, she had agreed to raise the kids Catholic, and used her Italian mother's recipes to give us Friday dishes like pasta with a meatless red sauce or fettuccine alfredo (hold the cream).
posted by Robert Angelo at 10:59 AM on December 18, 2009

I'm pretty sure all water-dwelling animals are kosher (as it were).

Nope. Shellfish aren't kosher and are considered treif. Kosher fish, however is not considered meat and can be eaten with dairy thought not with meat depending on how strict your practice is.
posted by Sophie1 at 11:16 AM on December 18, 2009

Surprised nobody has mentioned that this rule is why McDonald's sells the Filet-o-Fish sandwich.

Quite right, although apparently it was a franchisee in a heavily Catholic area who pushed the issue on reluctant corporate management. Ray Kroc hated the idea on the grounds that fish would smell up the restaurants. That and Kroc had his own fairly ridiculous idea for a meatless sandwich - involving a bun, two slices of cheese and a slice of pineapple.

Kroc and the franchisee eventually agreed on a competition. He could try out the fish sandwich one Friday and another restaurant would try Kroc's weird pineapple cheeseburger, and whichever one sold more would go on the menu. Unsurprisingly, the rest is history, though Kroc would always defend his pineapple cheeseburger, insist it was a great sandwich and encourage people to make them at home.
posted by Naberius at 11:30 AM on December 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

Fascinating discussion. I'm always amazed at what comes out in my conversation classes, when we talk about vegetarians. I mention the rule of meat I've heard among West Coast vegetarians: Eat Nothing With a Face -- which actually makes jellyfish acceptable. I'd never eat one (having been stung too many times while swimming) but they're a feature of some Asian cuisines.

They did not define fasting as 'no food', unlike Muslims, but rather as "no meat".

Note that Muslims consider fasting also "no drinks" (not even water) which strikes me as unhealthy -- not fasting, but a kind of flagellantism. Also note, banned from the Su Buddhist diet are the "fetid" vegetables: onions, garlic, scallions, leeks, or shallots.
posted by Rash at 12:03 PM on December 18, 2009

Can't you baptise rabbits as fish then eat them - 'tonno di coniglio'?
posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:49 PM on December 18, 2009

most of my vegetarian friends eat meat

You have some 'interesting' friends.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 7:13 PM on December 20, 2009

most of my vegetarian friends eat meat

You have some 'interesting' friends.
Uhm, okay (I like them just fine)... anyway, my point is that fish is meat, and many people choose to call themselves vegetarian despite eating fish. I think that this is largely due to the fact that calling yourself a pescetarian is a constant bother and only dials up the 'OH RLY WHY' responses you get from meaty folks. They aren't making the claim that fish don't have souls or that their souls are clean, but are just using a widely-known term in place of one that has the potential of making you sound like a pretentious jerk and prompting another boring conversation.
posted by tmcw at 8:37 AM on January 6, 2010

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