07 March 2023, The Tablet

Full of grace – fasting and fish on Fridays

Full of grace – fasting and fish on Fridays

Many Christians refrain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent.
Jim West/Alamy

Vegans, vegetarians, and Catholics : all people eating (the Catholics, only slightly) less meat than the norm. Fish on Fridays has been a marker for Catholics for a long time, so much so that even in non-Catholic Britain, it’s entirely usual and expectable to find a non-meat option available in (non-religious) schools or eating-places on Fridays, even today. There may be lots of reasons for this, the obvious one being the popularity of fish and chips. I’d like to think that it’s also partly because Britain is an island, so fish is easy to get hold of, but traditionally this has not been true (the availability of fish, that is, not our being an island). I think there’s also an element of the power of alliteration. Maybe vegans could try advertising “Vegan on Vednesdays” or similar.

Of course, the rule was not positively eating fish, but negatively not eating meat (though I believe beaver and some other odd things have always been exceptions). Our vegetarians and vegans would scoff at the idea of this being in any way penitential, but it was described as a penance or self-denial, and this undoubtedly affected some people’s reaction to fish on Fridays. All through my childhood, the rules about not eating meat on Fridays were in force, and carefully observed. This was genuinely penitential for my poor mother, who detested fish in any form. Fresh fish was more or less unobtainable in the Midlands in the 1960s and 1970s, so Friday school lunches meant fish fingers, cheese pie or curried eggs (often nearly the same colour as those ghastly yellow-and-pink sprouts we were also given at school).

My husband adores fish, from fish fingers to mullet and turbot, so there was never any self-denial involved for him on Fridays. Fresh and good-quality frozen fish are much easier to obtain today than they ever used to be (though very expensive). Our family rule, especially when away from home, is that leftovers are technically fish, because fish is a treat. Otherwise you can end up with a fridge full of food which needs eating, but instead you just have to go out and buy something expensive and delicious as a penance.

Seeing what other households eat is always fascinating, but when you are an adult, you never know whether they eat like that only when entertaining. It’s different for children. People will simply include an extra child at the table without changing the menu. We still eat kedgeree made according to my memory of it at a schoolfriend’s house, which was the first time I ever realised that fish could be delicious (I still couldn’t convince my mother). I realised that I was moving into more elevated circles than I was used to, when I first visited my future husband’s family and discovered that they ate butcher’s meat twice a day, even without guests.

Meat has always been undeniably a marker of prosperity, which I suppose is the main reason behind the Friday discipline, and why it was seen as laudable self-denial. Nowadays prescribing no meat for just one day a week can seem out of step with modern habits, paradoxically because it is so limited, rather than limiting. My main gripe with it, though, is that it requires thought only from the person organising or choosing the menu, unless you are expecting everyone to order an individual carry-out; most people come to the dinner table and eat what appears in front of them. I also wonder how many of the men who decided to reinstate the Friday abstinence  have to organise any of their own catering. It’s very easy if all you do is turn up for meals that someone else has put together.

The penitential angle on the ‘fish on Friday’ rule means that some people decide to pay a bit more attention to it during Lent. Fascinatingly, the reintroduction of the rule after a hiatus seems to have produced a measurable carbon saving so now some are suggesting that the Pope be asked to reintroduce the idea across more parts of the globe. Britain was a live guinea pig for this, but we are only a little country, so the positive carbon effects could be much bigger, if other countries were involved. I don’t know how many countries-worth of Catholic Bishops ever dropped the abstinence rules, but certainly in the US they have. But they do have Friday abstinence during Lent, so you need to know the rules of wherever you happen to be.

I’m also impressed that the carbon effect of the British abstinence reintroduction in 2011 was measurable, because fish on Fridays had been such a habit that my family at least hadn’t realised that the requirement not to eat meat on Fridays had been dropped. And some of the time too, we were in Orthodox countries and their rules are different. It was always simplest for us just to stick with Friday abstinence.

The Orthodox have much more restrictive food rules than we do, which go on for longer periods, and the restrictions occur more often in the liturgical year; but this goes with a pragmatic approach which means you can always find “fasting” versions of food available, including fasting cakes, biscuits and even doughnuts. I admire the creativity, though I feel that it’s missing the point. But familiar (in all senses) culinary traditions are cherished, and far more people celebrate Carnival than will throw out all the butter, cheese, eggs and meat from the fridge on the following day. Fasting lite is big business.

Food rules, even more than sumptuary ones, are a way to establish a community that chooses to be together, not so much an expression from the top of power over, as an acceptance of belonging, from the bottom up. I think this is why such rules matter, and why the odd failure doesn’t. Indeed, we had two Fridays at the turn of the year (Holy Family in December and Epiphany in January) when the normal abstinence was suspended because each Friday was a feast, but I bet many people dutifully didn’t eat meat anyway, because they didn’t realise, so some of us are (as it were) in credit.

Nowadays not eating meat on any given day happens much more often than once a week, in many households. Who chooses what to eat in your house? Does one person decide and cook, and others just eat? I try to involve others in the exciting task of deciding what we’re going to eat on any day (or even across a few days, if I’m feeling really ambitious), but no one is really very interested (until I ring the dinner bell). They think they don’t really mind very much (until I ring the dinner bell). It’s hard enough making sure that I know how many people will be eating. I would put in a plea here, though, if you are planning to give up eating something for Lent, other than just sweeties or chocolate, and you don’t choose the food in your house, (and especially if it’s something that counts as an ingredient) please do let the chief cook and bottle-washer know, as discreetly as you please, to avert misunderstanding or emergency shopping.

Eating less meat, either because of reducing your carbon footprint, or trying to live more in harmony with the principles of Laudato Si’, or because it’s fashionable, or even because it’s a Church rule, all has a good result for the planet. I’m glad that none of the children is a militant vegan or vegetarian, because I love it when we all eat together and it’s less hassle if everyone eats the same food; but I enjoy being a flexitarian, and I also enjoy that half the time when we eat vegetarian, nobody actually notices. A modern version of not doing fasting just for show, as Jesus encourages us.

Food matters because it’s symbolic of so much more than just itself. It means loving and cherishing, it means home and family. We can’t keep going without it, so we need to notice and appreciate it more, “fruit of the earth and work of human hands”, indeed. Meals shouldn’t ever be nasty, brutish and short, except in dire necessity, e.g. escaping from Egyptian slavery, and even then a bit of thought and ceremony can improve them. The one prayer my family still says together, whenever necessary, is grace before meals. I’ll settle for that.


Kate Keefe composes musical settings for the Mass and writes about the psalms. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn .


Kate Keefe composes musical settings for the Mass and writes about the psalms. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn .


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Comment by: Erasmus
Posted: 08/03/2023 19:17:15
I seem to recall the Friday Abstinence regulation was reintroduced by the Bishops of England and Wales as a "celebration" of the Scottish and English visit of Pope Benedict XVI. Some celebration?

I deplore how it was introduced overnight without lay consultation as a unilateral imposition in England and Wales (not in Scotland) and I see it as an example of clerical overreach, noting that the initial trickle of visit support becoming a flood came from the laity. It is true that under Canon Law, the Bishops did have that authority but the decision to impose it and take away personal choice I found quite shocking, not least because it has never been rescinded.

I imagine there will be no change in the Synod as it is a local matter. For me, it does seem that the circumstances of this personal control over my eating and fasting habits has been taken away from me, something which is reminiscent of a pre-Vatican 2 paternalistic Church.

So I do not now like to hear of the decision being expressed in spin terms as an environmental bonus as if that was the reason for the decision, which I feel certain it never was.
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