fishes must swim
Feb. 17, 2010 5:30 pm
Updated: Feb. 18, 2010 10:20 am
Yesterday was Shrove Tuesday, a day that was celebrated here at Allrecipes, once again, with an enormous pile of pancakes. As a tradition, the pancake practice goes way, way back, and is rooted in the need to have all your eggs eaten up before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday (today). At any rate, it’s a tremendous excuse to stuff yourself with pancakes.
If you’re following Lent, then today begins your austerity program. The rules have been relaxed considerably, but back in the day, by which I mean the medieval day, Lent involved some serious hardcore deprivation. As it happens, last night, and completely by chance, I stumbled upon some study notes that I’d scribbled down on the subject of Lent back when I was studying food history. And I’ll share a few of them here because I think they’re fascinating. (I’ll put some things in quotes, but I’m not sure anymore exactly whom I’m quoting. Professor Stephen Meuse? The author of an article? I can’t tell from my notes.)
It seems that immediately after setting down the rules of Lent, folks set about trying to circumvent them. “It is man’s nature to build the most complicated cage of rules and regulations in which to trap himself, and then, with equal ingenuity to rack his brain trying to wriggle out again.”
I like that sentiment, so I Googled the sentence. Turns out, those words belong to an author named Bridget Ann Henisch, whose article, “Fast and Feast: Food in Medieval Society,” evidence seems now to suggest, I once read. The actual quote: “It is the nature of man to build the most complicated cage of rules and regulations in which to trap himself, and then, with equal ingenuity and zest, to bend his brain to the problem of wriggling triumphantly out again. Lent was a challenge; the game was to ferret out the loopholes.” Nice.
So then, during Lent, with meat officially outlawed, presumably only outlaws ate meat. The trick was to redefine what meat was. If a monk could eat game that he himself hunted, why not release the hounds to chase the pig around the yard until it could technically be considered a game animal? (No notes on how long was considered a convincing amount of time.) Fish, of course, were okay to eat. The flesh of the fish was not classified as meat. The beaver itself, naturally, was an animal made of meat. But its tail sure did spend a suspicious amount of time thrashing around in the water. Probably it was safe to classify the tail as a fish. And that’s just what hungry people did.
There’s also this line in my notes: “Belt tightening and salt herrings were a blow to the human spirit.” (Google tells me that this is again a paraphrase of Henisch.) Besides herring, “the most despised” of the Lenten fish, there was salt Atlantic cod. The fast in fact made fishing big business. It also was a boon to beer brewing.
If all this deprivation encouraged you to drink, then at least you were in luck there. Booze was not forbidden. “Fishes must swim,” after all. Besides, all that salty fish could provoke a powerful thirst.
So there it is. And to celebrate the beginning of Lent, I think I’ll grab a basket of fish and chips and wash it all down with a spot of ale. Maybe two spots.