Fish Friday? It begins with a myth that sounds like the plot of a best seller: A powerful pope makes a secret pact to prop up the fishing industry and ultimately alters global economics. The result: Millions of Catholics around the world eat fish on Fridays thinking they are doing so as part of a religious observance. But what’s the real story?
Jesus died on a Friday and traditionally the flesh of warm-blooded animals became off limits following the thought that it represented a sacrificed life. Plus Jesus fed his disciples fish at the last supper.
At first Christians' religious appetite was largely met with herring, a fish that was plentiful but dry and tasteless when smoked or salted which was necessary for preservation.
Eventually, cod became increasingly popular — it tasted better when cured and it lasted longer too. The Vikings became quite expert at preserving it on their ocean passages through Greenland, Iceland, Newfoundland; the natural range of the Atlantic cod. Clues suggest that English fishermen may also have made the voyage by around 1480 to find cod to satiate the demands of the faithful but kept the location quiet. However, both Columbus and John Cabot, according to records from the time, had heard of these adventures when they set off on their own epic travels west.
But while the ‘pope story’ is a fishy tale, Henry VIII was influential in the demise of fish-eating for quite a number of years. By the time he ascended the throne in 1509, fish dominated the menu for a good part of the year. But after Henry became smitten with Anne Boleyn, English fish-eating took a nosedive.
Henry was desperate with desire for Anne but married to Catherine of Aragon and when the pope refused to annul the marriage Henry broke off from the Catholic Church to enable his divorce. Suddenly, eating fish became political. It was seen as a 'popish flesh' that lost favour as fast as Henry’s Anglicism spread.
In fact, fishermen were badly affected until Edward VI took over in 1547 and reinstated fast days, stating "for worldly and civil policy, to spare flesh, and use fish, for the benefit of the commonwealth, where many be fishers, and use the trade of living."
In fact, fish fasting remained surprisingly influential in global economics well into the 20th century and in the 1960’s Lou Groen, an enterprising McDonald's franchise owner in Cincinnati, found himself struggling to sell burgers on Fridays. His solution? The Filet-O-Fish – still available today!