Fish: Feast or Fast?

I realized that this year, Chinese New Year and Lent were on the same day.

I found this to be ironic. Lots of people feasting on symbolic foods meant to bring abundance and luck in the New Year, while others begin a fast in order to in order to do penance for humanity’s betrayal of Jesus.

Over at The Thorngrove Table, Christina wrote a great post about the observance of Lent in the medieval period, while Desmond Goh gives an overview of Chinese New Year customs in his blog.

The dichotomy struck me. It is Yin and Yang–the world in balance. Some eat, drink and are merry, while others abstain and meditate upon the coming joy of Christ’s resurrection and the meaning it has for their lives today.

One thing I noticed in my musing is that Chinese New Year and Lent do have a food tradition in common: the consumption of fish.

A whole steamed or poached fish is always served as part of a Chinese New Year’s Eve feast, with the head and tail intact. This symbolizes a good beginning and end to the new year. It is best to choose a fish which is still alive, swimming in a tank, and great care is taken to choose one which is spirited, for it will bring more good fortune into the new year than one which is listless and sluggish, or worse, already dead.

Fish is eaten in Chinese New Year because the sound of the word for fish, “yu” is a homophone for the word for wish in Cantonese, so it symbolizes a desire for all of your wishes to come true in the new year. The word for fish, “yu” also sounds like the word for abundance, so it is a wish for a surplus of good things to come into a family’s life.

There is even more depth to the symbolism of a whole fish served at the traditional New Year’s dinner. As Grace Young points out in her book, The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen, fish swim in pairs, and so can symbolize marital fidelity and harmony; a quick look at many traditional Chinese paintings will show a pair of carp swimming together in peaceful unity. Because fish lay many eggs, they are symbols of fertility, so they are wish for many children in a family.

For Catholics, fish is a substitute for meat, and is eaten on fast days, especially at Lent. In the aforementioned excellent blog entry over at Thorngrove, Christina outlines the history of why fish was substituted for meat during the Lenten season, so I won’t go into that. Suffice to say that Lent, which is about abstaining from pleasures, including those of the table, to muse upon the sacrifice Christ made for every human being. Fish became a substitute for meat, and because of that, it became symbolic of self-willed deprivation.

For myself, I have trouble seeing fish as symbolic of deprivation of pleasure–I love the stuff. I love it, that is when we are talking about real fish, not fish sticks–those God-awful creations of the frozen foodocrats are a blight upon the supermarket shelves and really do symbolize privation and want. I agree completely with Elesha Coffman writing in Christianity Today that being forced to eat fish sticks in the school cafeteria on Fridays during Lent instead of pizza is a trial for the schoolchild’s soul.

Later in that same article, Coffman notes that the use of fish in a spiritual fast was cause for great culinary creativity in the Medieval kitchen, and a French abbess is credited for the creation of the divine dish which I hesitate to categorize as “fish soup” called bouillabaisse. No one who tastes a well-crafted bouillabaisse could in any way call the dish a poor substitute for meat. In fact, were it myself, I’d take the fish soup and to heck with the meat.

That hardly seems penitent of me, but then, I was never Catholic and was barely raised Protestant, and am currently a heathen, so what do I know of it?

What I do find utterly fascinating is how fish can be considered the symbol of abundance and joy in one culture, and in another, be seen as a substitute for a preferred other food, and symbolic of personal sacrifice in the practice of a spiritual fast.

This dichotomy speaks clearly to the sacred function that food plays in cultures around the world and its centrality in the celebration or observance of holidays.

I am going to go out on a limb and say that there is probably no culture in the world which has a holiday in which food, by its presence or absence, does not take a central role in the rituals of that sacred time. I certainly can think of no such a holiday.

It is part of what draws me to the study of food–the meaning of it and its nature. It is a necessity for us to survive, yes, but it becomes so much more in every culture. It becomes a means of cementing family and communal bonds, a means of communication between human beings and the Divine.

It becomes a transmitter of culture–symbolism becomes very tightly wrapped in certain holiday foods, such that each mouthful brings with it layers of meaning that an eater can often only guess at. It becomes pleasure, treasure and art. It becomes something we do for fun, and something we do to escape reality, and something we do to remember our ancestors.

It becomes part of our expression of who and what we are.

So, at this moment, at this time when many people are feasting, and many others are fasting, when everyone is celebrating or observing the passage of time in ways that express who they are, I am in the midst of it all, filled with wonder to look upon this confluence of energies, and am content to observe, record and muse upon the meaning of it all.

5 Comments

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  1. I personally love fish. But then, you already know that mom. Fishy fish fishety fish. Sorry, just got back from my shrink, and I am happy! For Lent I gave up caffine.

    Comment by Anonymous — February 10, 2005 #

  2. So, the coffee gum I sent to you wasn’t such a good thing, then?

    And well, I guess you know that there is caffeine in chocolate yes? Not much, but still–sure you want me to send you the brownies? ;-)

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — February 10, 2005 #

  3. Barbara, this was really interesting. I will read the post at the Thorngrove Table later on.

    Oh, and another thing…You’ve been tagged :-) Look here: http://acatinthekitchen.blogspot.com/2005/02/music-in-my-kitchen.html

    Comment by kissekatten — February 11, 2005 #

  4. Heh, thank you for the rec! :-D I agree, it is perverse that the two festivals overlap – though I’m sure observant Catholics had a huge ‘carnivale’ feast on Shrove Tuesday!

    The amusing thing is that Lent would have been a very unpleasant time for me back then, as I’m allergic to cooked fish. It makes me violently ill and even the smell of cooked fish makes me nauseous – my friends all know they can’t order fish when we eat at restaurants. I’m not sure why, as I can eat small amounts of smoked, raw or chemically cooked fish, and adore all forms of non-stewed shellfish or crustacean, but fry, stew, steam, poach or roast a fish and pff! I tell everyone I’m the opposite of a kosher Jew – if it has scales and fins and is cooked, I can’t eat it. :-D But I don’t know why. Perhaps there’s some chemical change my body can’t cope with?

    I love the fact that fish=abundence in Chinese culture. The symbolism of food is a fascinating thing.

    And I agree about the fish sticks!

    Comment by Christina — February 11, 2005 #

  5. Thank you for tagging me, Dagmar–but now I have to think of three folks to tag, who haven’t already been tagged! Ai ya!

    Christina–I wonder if your fish allergy has to do with something akin to the allergy a friend of mine has to fish. Oddly, he can eat sushi and sashimi but cooked fish caused mild anaphalaxic reactions. He could take care of them by using over the counter antihistamines, but they came on swiftly and frighteningly.

    One thing I suspected in his case was that utterly fresh fish he could eat, such as what is used to make sushi, but any fish that had begun to decompose, even the slightest bit, would cause the reaction. Fish that is cooked is seldom as fresh as that which is used in sushi–and apparently, he had eaten freshly caught trout, cooked more than once without ill effect.

    He can also eat food with nam pla–fish sauce in it, which is made from fermented fish. Whatever it is that bothers him, is apparently broken down by the bacteria that do the fermenting.

    Perhaps it is a change in the proteins–I will have to read up on fish proteins in Harold McGee and see if he can point me in a direction for fruitful further inquiry.

    Lent would not have bothered me. Eating fish is no hardship–fish was luxury food to me growing up, as West Virginia is landlocked, and in order to eat freshwater fish, we had to catch it! My grandparents had a stocked pond, but it was still a treat to have fried or broiled fish for supper instead of the usual beef, pork or chicken.

    I think I might have liked Lent well enough back in the day, if I’d had enough money. But then, that is true of much of life back then. It wasn’t so bad if you had money.

    And were male. ;-)

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — February 11, 2005 #

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