The history of fish fries in the United States is actually fairly short in comparison to both the history of the United States, let alone the Catholic Church. To understand the American fish fry, a few questions must be answered.
What is the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church in regards to meat on Fridays?
The Roman Catholic Church lists seven requirements for all Catholics, known as precepts. One of those precepts pertains to the practice of abstinence of meat:
“The fourth precept (“You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church”) ensures the times of ascesis [i.e., self-discipline, asceticism —ed.] and penance which prepare us for the liturgical feasts and help us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart.” – from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2043
More specifically, according to Canon Law (info found here: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/__P4O.HTM), Catholics above the age of 14 are required to abstain from eating meat on all Fridays, unless a solemnity falls on a Friday (examples include Christmas, Epiphany, Assumption among others), or if the local bishops conference determines more specific forms of penance and days to abstain, as the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops allowed in 1966 in its paper Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence.
Why is Friday the day for penitence? Why fish, or really, anything other than fish?
Friday is chosen as the day for fasting and abstinence because of Tradition with a capital T. Christ was crucified on the cross at the third hour and rose on the third day. With Easter Sunday being the third day, Friday would be the day He was crucified. As such, Catholics commemorate Fridays as a way to remember the sacrifice of Christ on the cross by performing some penance, such as not eating meat.
Now, specifically, the meat that was disallowed were considered flesh meat, which would include beef, pork, sausage, ham, chicken, lamb, veal…really, anything that would be considered a warm blooded animal. It is not specifically known why fish was allowed but other “meats” were prohibited on Fridays, but many believe it’s due to the discipline required to give up those types of meats compared to fish, as well as the fact that fish are generally considered less costly than flesh meats and would be worthy of a penance.
Along with fish, other types of seafood, including crab, lobster, and shark are allowed to be consumed but note that these types of foods are more expensive and would violate the principle of asceticism discussed in the Catechism. Other types of food that are also allowed include amphibians, such as frog legs, chicken eggs, since the product is not flesh meat, grilled cheese sandwiches, cheese pizza, and, in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, alligator.
So, what started the fish fry?
While the fish fry is primarily an American tradition, its roots can be found in the Germanic culture of the Midwest. The tradition is strongest in Wisconsin, where there are many German Catholics who enjoy fishing. The fish fry mostly took off in the 1920s and 1930s, when pubs were unable to sell beer during Prohibition. Fried fish dinners were seen as a very profitable source of new income, as fish was both plentiful from the many lakes in the state, as well as relatively low cost to make a dinner out of fish.
The fish fry has since expanded across the nation and is most prominent in areas where Catholicism, and to some extent, people of German descent, still reside. The fish fry does vary by region, whether by the main course (catfish in the South vs. walleye and cod in the Midwest vs. crab and lobster in the Northeast), the side dishes (hush puppies and vs. German potato salad/corn), or the places that offer fish fries, as even Baptists and Lutherans enjoy a good fish fry or two!
Where can I find my local Catholic fish fry?
Most dioceses in the United States will list a schedule of the parishes with fish fries. In the Archdiocese of Louisville, the fish fries in Louisville have not yet been posted as of February 2, but will be found here: http://www.archlou.org/parishes/picnics-festivals/.
The Archdiocese of Indianapolis, where the parishes in Southern Indiana reside, also have not listed their fish fries on their website. However, you can check out the websites of the parishes of the New Albany Deanery here for more information: http://www.archindy.org/parishes/deanery/newalbany.html
In The Next Post…
Tune in to the next blog for a challenge for Lent and beyond!