A competition in 1962 set the stage for the fish sandwich to become a fast food favorite as Christians mark the season of Lent each year.
You may have seen a few commercials for a fish sandwich from fast food restaurants lately. I know of at least one chain that just introduced a new such sandwich. Why now? It’s simple: We’re in the annual period of Lent, a Christian observance that marks the 40 days Jesus Christ spent fasting while being tempted by Satan.
Many Christians will give up something they enjoy — coffee, chocolate, TV, fried food, for example — for 40 days. Some Christians give up meat in general.
So the fish sandwich serves as a popular alternative to the burger they might otherwise order.
I know, I know. There’s that obvious question:
Isn’t fish meat?
Yes. Yes, it is. The prohibition against eating meat on Fridays by Catholics dates back centuries. Some modern-day Catholics now observe abstinence from eating meet only on Ash Wednesday and on Fridays during Lent.
Fish managed to survive the prohibition against meat despite the fact that fish meat is meat. Why?
U.S. Catholic offers a few explanations for fish being an acceptable option. First, Friday is the day Christ died, “so abstaining from the shedding (and consuming) of blood seems appropriate.” Of course, fish have blood as well, so that explanation doesn’t fully add up.
It also states that Friday was the day God created animals, so abstaining from meat serves as a symbolic “stay of execution” for cows, pigs and sheep. Why don’t fish deserve a similar stay of execution? It doesn’t go there.
Third, it suggests, that eating fish is a symbolic defeat of death, a reference to Hebrew scriptures that tell of Leviathan, “a primordial gigantic enigmatic sea-creature (think Jonah’s whale) that represents death.”
“Because of Christ’s victory, the great monster death is now nothing more than fish sticks on your plate! Think of that next time you skip that Friday hamburger for a tuna fish sandwich,” the website states.
Somehow, the distinction on meats came to be most easily explained this way: Christ (and the rest of us) are warm-blooded. Fish are cold-blooded. That makes fish the fish an entirely different animal, so to speak.
So fish is considered an acceptable alternative to “meat” even though it is meat, too. Let’s now move past this meeting of the Hair Splitters Convention, shall we?
Fast food restaurants embrace the fish sandwich
Let’s go back to 1962. A McDonald’s franchise owner observed falling burger sales every Friday. Back then, it was more widely accepted that Catholics wouldn’t eat meat any Friday. (It appears that has been relaxed, though you’ll still find dispute there, too.)
So he decided to come up with something that everyone could eat on Fridays. His answer was what would become known as the Filet-O-Fish Sandwich on McDonald’s menu. But it turns out it had competition for a permanent menu placement over at the Golden Arches: the Hula Burger. The Hula Burger was the brainchild of McDonald’s owner Ray Kroc himself. It was a grilled pineapple ring with cheese on a bun.
If you’re the type who likes pineapple on pizza, the Hula Burger might have sounded like a great idea to you.
But consumers in 1962 chose the fish sandwich over the pineapple sandwich. Kroc lived up to his promise and the Filet-O-Fish became a permanent part of McDonald’s menu.
Other franchises offer their own versions. Burger King has the Big Fish. Hardee’s and Wendy’s offer fish sandwiches as well. In fact, it’s hard to find fast food restaurants — even chicken restaurants like Popeye’s and Bojangles — that don’t offer a fish sandwich.
Chick-fil-A, on the other hand, seems to be the holdout. They recently started testing a cauliflower sandwich that mimics the look of chicken (but, of course, falls short of the taste). If the test across three markets goes well, Chick-fil-A might go the veggie route in time for Lent next year.
So if you decide that you don’t wish to eat meat on Fridays or for the length of Lent, you have non-beef and non-chicken options at many fast food restaurants. That’s assuming you haven’t chosen to give up fast food for Lent…which would probably be healthier anyway!