Thursday, April 28, 2011
In the film The Name of the Rose (1986) there is a fascinating character, played by Ron Perlman, named Salvatore, a hunchbacked, evidently demented monk who goes around speaking "all languages, and none", spouting heretical slogans like "Penitenzi agite" and eating rats. The young acolyte Adso asks him, "You eat rats?" To which Salvatore replies, "Yes! But not during Lent. I'm a good Catholic!"
In the days prior to Ash Wednesday, which is the beginning of Lent, many Catholic, or formerly Catholic, countries in Europe and the Americas celebrate Carnival. The word is derived from the Latin words "carne vale", which means "farewell meat". Even non-Catholics in the U.S. celebrate one abridged version of carnival called Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, most conspicuously in New Orleans, even if they have no intention of observing the forty days of fasting the celebration precedes.
This past Lenten season, I continued my personal tradition of non-observance by eating meat (no rats) as frequently and as heartily as I pleased. But this was not always the case. Growing up a Roman Catholic in the 1960s meant that throughout the year, for one day a week, Friday, I was compelled to eat fish rather than beef or chicken or pork. My mother was a good but a limited cook who could work wonders with meat but was at a loss when it came to fish. So we invariably had to eat "fish sticks" for lunch and for dinner. Fish sticks - or fish fingers - are as simple and as unpalatable as the name suggests. Made primarily from haddock, they are shaped into rectangular "sticks" and breaded, so you can taste them. They come frozen from the supermarket and can be baked until they're ready to be masticated. They were served for lunch at the Catholic schools I attended, often with a dab of tartar sauce on the side to disguise the flavor.
As a consequence of this ridiculous practice, I learned to hate Fridays, and, quite irrationally, I have avoided eating fish ever since. (I eat seafood without any intrusive memories.) On one particular Friday in my childhood, I couldn't take it any more and I simply refused to eat my dinner. My sister could do nothing to persuade me to eat. So she called up the Pope and asked for dispensation. With me standing beside her in tears, she picked up the phone and dialed a number.
"Hello?" she said into the phone. "Is this the Vatican? May I speak to the Pope, please?" She indicated to me that they were getting him. After a few moments, she said, "Hello your holiness. I'm so sorry to wake you. [It must've been late at the Vatican.] I'm calling about my little brother, who won't eat his Friday fish for dinner." I immediately felt guilty about it, and regretted that I had allowed my sister to disturb the Pope over something so trivial.
"Is there anything else he can eat besides fish?" she asked. I felt a sudden rush of hope. "Really?" she exclaimed. "Oh thank you so much, your holiness. Have a good night. Goodbye." And she hung up the phone.
My sister looked at me and smiled. "Well," she said, "you're in luck little brother. The Pope said that the only acceptable alternative to fish on Fridays is a fried baloney sandwich." (Baloney isn't really meat, you see.)
I was delighted, and my sister fried me up a crisp baloney sandwich. From that day on, thanks to my sister, I was the only Catholic boy I knew who enjoyed fried baloney for his Friday dinner.