More than just fried cod | Lenten Fridays offer variety of dinner options beyond the standard fare

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Editor's note: Updated Friday, March 3, at 10 a.m. with clarification on dispensation.

It's late afternoon on a Friday in Lent, and you're famished.

It's almost dinner time, so where do you go and what do you eat to satisfy the Lenten abstinence from meat for dinner?

The first option, of course, is a fish fry at either your parish or another in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. (Check out the St. Louis Review's map of parish fish fries to find one of the many from which to choose.)

Fast-food joints, family restaurants and even fancy ones are trying to ride the coattails of the #EatMoreFish craze and restore a semblance of normalcy to business on Lenten Fridays. With about 500,000 Catholics in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, that's a lot of meals if you scratch them from the dining roles.

Beyond parish fish fries — and we'll get back to that in a moment — what are the options?

Glad you asked.

Father Nicholas Smith, the director of the archdiocesan Office of Divine Worship, said that though the Archdiocese of St. Louis offers no general dispensation from meatless Fridays, other archdioceses and dioceses do so, in a nod to local custom. One common day of dispensation for some dioceses is St. Patrick's Day, when March 17 falls on a Friday.

According to Father Smith, Canon Law 1253 allows bishops conferences to "determine more particular ways in which fasting and abstinence are to be observed," allowing food beyond the usual Lenten fare of cod fish, jack salmon and catfish.

This Canon also allows bishops to grant individual dispensations for certain situations. While the Archdiocese of St. Louis grants no general dispensation for abstinence from meat on March 17,  the archdiocese will consider the dispensation on a case-by-case basis. If a dispensation for a specific event or organization is granted, Catholics partaking in those events should abstain from meat on one of the succeeding six days. This is a specific dispensation, applying only to the events or organizations granted the dispensation and not applying to Catholics in general for March 17. 

Muskrat

Mmm, muskrat, yummy. While technically a mammal and seemingly not allowed for its meat, muskrats spend about half the time in water, with the semi-aquatic nature qualifying them as creatures of the sea and therefore permissible. Well, in medieval times anyway, when the theological distinction was made between land and sea creatures as opposed to mammals and fish.

Still, 1,000 years later, Michiganders dine on muskrat meat in Lent, thanks to a dispensation from the Archdiocese of Detroit to eat muskrat in Lent. According to First Things website, the Detroit archdiocese classified eating muskrat as a "long-standing permission dating back to our missionary origins in the 1700s."

Likewise, meat from alligator — a reptile — is allowed on Lenten Fridays in the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

So, it's "bon appetit" for a St. Louisan in regard to alligator in New Orleans and muskrat in Detroit. But at home in St. Louis, such exotic options don't exist.

"What would be an indigenous fish? What animal lives in water and on land that is unique to us," Father Smith asked.

"We're out of luck, so get out your fishing pole or, better yet, get to a fish fry."

Mexican/Latin fish fries

Hispanic Catholics have brought flare to Lenten fish-fry menus in the archdiocese, with St. Cecilia Parish in south St. Louis known throughout the area for having the "Original Mexican Fish Fry." St. Cecilia offers entrees including shrimp, chile relleno, bean tostado and fried cheese quesadilla, rice and refried beans among sides and tamales a la carte.

The original is wildly popular, serving as many as 1,000 people on a Friday with long waits in person but shorter ones with reservations through the parish website. A mariachi band and student dancers add to the ambience.

Likewise, Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Ferguson offers entertainment with its "Latin Flavor Fish Fry." The menu includes tilapia, cevich (with tostada), chile relleno, fish tacos, potato tacos, mexican rice and cactus salad.

Fishing pole

If you want to go old style and catch your Lenten meal at the local fishing hole, you'd be giving a nod to seminarians of a 100 years ago at newly minted Kenrick Seminary, now the Cardinal Rigali Center. Seminarians then actually caught their menu for the evening, casting their lines into Ryan Lake — which still exists northwest of Cardinal Ritter Senior Services, behind the Here Today store on Watson Road in Shrewsbury.

"Now that's kind of cool," Father Smith said. 

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