Good Friday: I Know the City Getting Ready

It’s Good Friday, and if you are a good Newfoundlander then you know what you will be eating fish today. I am not a good Newfoundlander, or at least I wasn’t. I didn’t eat fish or anything from the sea. All that changed at a friend’s birthday nearly three years ago at the St. John’s Fish Exchange Kitchen & Wet Bar when I took the plunge. Ironically, I didn’t order fish, (I had chicken tacos) but I ended up trying a piece that the birthday girl was too full and too busy mingling with her guests to finish.

Shortly after this “exchange” with fish, I ate it again, this time as part of the 2016 St. John’s Poutine Challenge. Magnum & Steins offered a “Fish & Chips Poutine” which sounds exactly like you’d expect, and my poutine partner in crime called it “a perfect meeting between Newfoundland and Quebec” (aka a Labrador?).

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So Good Friday 2017 rolls around and I like fish now, so what do I do? I make my own version of Magnum & Stein’s creation, which I’ll share later in this article. Why fish on Good Friday though? Where does this tradition stem from?

Fish has traditionally been the meal of choice for Christians on all Fridays. According to an email from Larry Dohey, Director of Programming and Public Engagement at The Rooms, “the ichthys or ichthus, from the Greek ikhthýs is a symbol consisting of two intersecting arcs, the ends of the right side extending beyond the meeting point so as to resemble the profile of a fish. The symbol was adopted by early Christians as a secret symbol,” making the fish a significant symbol in Christianity. Since Jesus died on a Friday, his followers began fasting on that day as a way to commemorate his sacrifice. This tradition dates back as early as the first century.

These traditions can change though at the whim of the Pope. “Consider this in the 1960's Pope Paul VI in talks that we now refer to as the Vatican Council introduced less stringent fasting,” said Dohey. “As a result, the price of fish internationally plummeted.”

Things get even fishier here in Newfoundland as hot cross buns have long been a tradition on Good Friday dating as far back as 1869. There is no meat in a hot cross bun, so eating this sweet treat on Good Friday makes sense, but what about seal flipper? According to the St. John’s Archives, Swedish scholar, and Catholic Bishop Olaus Magnus wrote that seal flesh was to be classified as fish during Lent and eaten on Good Friday way back in 1555.

Seal Flipper Pie

Seal Flipper Pie

Here on the Rock, Memorial University’s Folklore and Language Archives found that seal flippers are classified as fish also. Traditionally, Catholics were permitted to eat “flipper pie” during Lent because the occasion coincided with the seal hunt. The Archives state, “[l]ocal legend says a Pope, through the local bishop, once declared the seal to be a fish so that during Lent and on meatless Fridays, Newfoundlanders had a better chance avail of this “seasonal”  food source.”

These legends can be backed up by the federal Bill C-45 which is concerned with the sustainable development of Canada’s seacoast and inland fisheries. The document states, “[t]he inclusion of seals within the category of “fish” stems from a long tradition, possibly explained by the ruling of the Church of Newfoundland that seals were fish, so that even the most pious Newfoundlander can eat seal meat on Friday or during Lent,” and goes so far as to suggest other animals associated with water including beaver, otter and frogs were sanctioned by the church to be consumed during Lent.

Despite this, eating fish on Good Friday seems to be the meal of choice in Newfoundland. In an article for Tint of Ink, Vicki Barbour, the Marketing and Communications liaison at Ches’s Famous Fish & Chips noted the religious connotation but said, “Here in Newfoundland there's also a cultural link, especially in St. John's. These days it seems many people have fish and chips, or other fish dishes on Good Friday because it's a cultural tradition as much as a religious tradition.”

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Ches’s seems to be a cultural tradition in the city as well. The restaurant chain has been open since 1951 and Vicki is the granddaughter of the Ches in Ches’s Famous Fish & Chips. Good Friday is “without a doubt [their] busiest day, “she said. Barbour noted that every Friday is generally the busiest day of the week, “but Good Friday is a day unlike any other.”

Barbour said while they can’t really anticipate the number of customers Ches’s sees on Good Friday, she estimated that the final number will be in the thousands. “Our prep for Good Friday is about 20 000 pounds of potatoes and 5000 pounds of fish,” she said. Barbour said that the first fish and chips is likely served around 10 A.M. and that business will be steady until they close. “At the peak of suppertime, it's not uncommon to see customers lined up outside waiting to get in,” she said.

CBC also published an article about the traditionand how local restaurants are kept busy with customers looking for a Good Friday feed. Karen Lambert, the owner of the Big R Restaurant, said that business was so good that three restaurants in the neighbourhood of Harvey Road (The Big R, Ches’ and Leo’s) are flat out claiming “thousands of pieces of fish” are sold. Despite the tradition of Catholics not eating meat, Good Friday in Newfoundland seems to be on another level. In the same article, Lambert said she had employees originally hailing from New Brunswick and Saskatchewan and they “never heard tell of it.”

So a fish and chips poutine definitely isn’t “traditionally” Newfoundland but it is becoming a tradition for me as this will be the third year in a row preparing this dish for supper. Throw in fries topped with fish soaked in local beer and coated in Mrs. Vicky’s salt and vinegar chips and Hawkins Cheezies topped with some dressing, gravy, and local cheese curds and you’ve got my Good Friday fish and chips poutine.

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I basically tried to recreate the recipe from Magnum & Steins and added some of my own ideas to it. It's pretty simple, soak your fish in beer and flour. Then coat it with the chip and cheezie mixture and fry it in a pan. Cook your fries and top with cheese curds, gravy, dressing, battered fish, and some tartar sauce. It seems that I am not the only one who enjoys this combination; Vicki Barbour also mentioned that many Ches's customers turn their fish and chips into a poutine "all the time."

This fish and chips poutine has become my Good Friday tradition along with some local brews and a Star Wars film. Sounds like a great Friday to me!