Anyone familiar with the Christian tradition of Lent, which is the six weeks leading up to Easter Sunday, may know of the associated ritual fasting and abstinence, especially from eating meat. Traditionally, all healthy Catholics between their 14th birthday until death are required to abstain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and each Friday during the weeks of Lent. In this case, meat is regarded as being the flesh and organs of mammals and fowl – meaning that eating the flesh of fish, amphibians, reptiles and shellfish is therefore allowed. Historically, however, there have been some interesting exceptions to this rule that Linnaeus may have had some qualms about…
Capybaras, the largest rodent in the world, are most certainly mammals and they spend much of their time in water. In fact, their scientific name Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris has a Greek origin meaning ‘water pig’. About 400 years ago, Spanish missionaries in South America were the first Europeans to encounter these giant rodents and they soon realised that capybara meat was a key source of protein for the indigenous people. Naturally, they sent word back to the Vatican of this new animal and asked whether this new could be considered a fish due to its association with water habitats, primarily so it could be eaten during Lent. With only descriptions to go on, the Pope declared the capybara to be included in the fish category in 1784. This ruling stands to this day and capybaras are still enjoyed as a Lenten meal throughout South America.
Similarly, North Americans also have their own fishy rodent tradition. When Canada was first discovered, Jesuit missionaries came across strange large semi-aquatic rodents, or beavers as they are now known. Again, word was sent back to Europe about these new animals and the amphibious description of the creatures convinced the Vatican to designate beavers alongside the capybaras as viable sources of Lent-friendly fish-meat. As with the capybara, this classification of beavers is traditional and beavers are still eaten during Lent.
It’s not just mammals that have been re-designated as fish, a few bird species have also been caught in the crosshairs of hungry Catholics. In the fifteenth century, a French monastery sparked a discussion about their penchant for eating puffins during Lent. Apparently the French monks could not decide whether puffins were more fish or more bird, which left enough doubt for it to be considered fishy enough to be consumed during Lent.
Surprisingly, there was a time in Wales almost 1000 years ago when Barnacle geese were believed to be immaculately conceived and instantly created rather than born, which was enough of a loophole to allow people to eat them during Lent too. Barnacle geese were still eaten as a traditional Lent meal in Northern Ireland up until 1914. The fact that Barancle geese became Lent-approved led to other semi-aquatic birds being deemed to be “more fish than fowl”. The American coot, for example, was a recorded source of Lenten meat in the 18oos and is still eaten today in Cajun cuisine.
There’s still a few weeks of Lent left, so if you’ve ever been tempted to re-categorise a species in the hopes of diminishing your guilt for eating it, now’s your chance!