WALL STREET JOURNAL
March 3, 2006
SOME ADDITIONS TO THE MENU
JOHN J. MILLER
The season of Lent, which began on Wednesday, brings to mind an odd request the Vatican received from South America in the 17th century. The faithful sought permission to eat capybaras on Fridays during the six weeks before Easter, when Catholics are supposed to avoid the meat of birds and mammals.
The priests who puzzled over this petition certainly had no inkling of capybaras. Even today, most non-zookeepers outside South America have never heard of them. But these critters spend lots of time in water, they swim and dive well, and their feet are slightly webbed. Kind of like fish, right?
Close enough for the Vatican, apparently, because Rome sent out the word that it was acceptable to consume capybaras during Lent. Today they are considered a delicacy in many parts of South America, especially Venezuela. Eating capybaras there during Lent is about as traditional as eating turkeys at Thanksgiving here in the U.S. Technically, though, capybaras are mammals — the largest members of the rodent family, with adults weighing more than 100 lbs. The food they provide is meat.
Capybaras are hardly the only creatures that have been subjected to cafeteria-style Catholicism: At various times and places, Lenten exceptions have reportedly been made for beavers, geese, puffins and other marine animals. There’s a persistent rumor in Michigan, for example, that muskrats are an approved dish. When a bishop was asked about it, he supposedly replied that anybody bold enough to eat muskrat already is “doing penance worthy of the greatest saints.”
The point of Lenten abstinence is not to partake in taxonomical fetishes but to engage in a form of self-sacrifice that encourages prayer and alms-giving. The deepest roots of the practice lie in Genesis: God’s first command to humanity was to abstain from the tree of knowledge. It eventually became a Christian custom — rejected by most Protestants after the Reformation but still honored by Roman Catholics — not to eat certain kinds of food at assorted intervals, and the most popular of these traditions has been an injunction against eating meat on Fridays.
There was a time when even the consumption of fish was frowned upon, though by the 10th century it was a well-established option. In his just-published book “Fish on Friday,” the respected anthropologist Brian Fagan argues that fishermen who toiled to feed this European hunger probably laid eyes on Newfoundland before Columbus sailed across the ocean. “It was fish, not spices, that led to the discovery of North America,” he claims.
Back in those days, the demand for fish wouldn’t have been as great if Europeans had followed the habits of today’s American Catholics, who tend to replace meat with fish only on Fridays during Lent. That’s because in 1966 they gained a special dispensation from their bishops to eat meat on non-Lenten Fridays if they performed some other devotion or work of charity instead. This requirement is probably most honored in the breach. Fish on Fridays was once a year-round tradition; for lots of Catholics in the U.S., it’s now just an Easter-season peculiarity.
The latest trend in abstinence, however, is not to loosen Lenten regulations but to tighten them, especially if there’s an endangered species to save. In Mexico, conservationists are pleading with Rome to declare that the meat of sea turtles — a popular soup ingredient — shouldn’t be on the Lenten menu, even though the flesh of reptiles and other cold-blooded animals has generally been allowed.
If the Vatican cooperates, it can expect an arkload of follow-up requests. Next on the list is probably the green iguana, another threatened reptile that’s on a Latin American soup recipe. If a ban ever materializes, Catholics will need to stomach headlines that proclaim a papal crackdown on “Easter Ig Hunts.”
For those who worry about restrictions on their reptile intake, here’s a modest proposal: capybara stew.
Mr. Miller writes for National Review and is the author of “A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.”