Last Friday I was passing the fish counter in my local supermarket when I noticed festoons of bunting announcing ‘Fish Friday!’ Yes, not just any old Friday, but fish Friday – with 20% off fish! I paused to ponder the significance of this publicity.
‘Fish Friday’ has its roots in the Christian practice of abstinence and fasting on a Friday. The abstinence of meat was seen as an act of penitence in recognition of the sacrifice of Christ. Fish has always been invested with Christian symbolism and came to be accepted as a practical alternative to eating meat during fasts. Although eating fish on a Friday is associated with Catholic doctrines, the practice has evolved into a western secular tradition.
In Britain, this tradition conveniently slotted into the post-war rationing habit of eating similar meals on the same day of the week; it might be salad on Wednesday or liver on Thursday… but always fish on Friday.
Fish and Fridays make regular appearances on menus. In the UK (when school dinners were free for all), a fish option was always offered on a Friday. Fish and Chips is traditionally eaten on a Friday, and Friday is the traditional day for a ‘Fish Fry’ in America. Even McDonald’s introduced the Fillet-o-Fish sandwich to compensate for falling hamburger sales on Fridays.
Apart from Saturday, fishmongers sell most of their fish on a Friday. But this could have more to do with the logistics of catching fish than weekend demand. Fishing fleets are traditionally at harbour on a Sunday and therefore do not land fish Sunday or Monday (the days when fish markets are also closed). Anthony Bourdain knows this: in his book, Kitchen Confidential, he warns of the dangers of eating fish in a restaurant on a Monday as the fish may be several days old… The common belief therefore is that fish will be at its freshest around Friday.
In fact, the freshness of fish is a complex matter; retailers can manage a piece of fish for up to six days, working between cold stores, display and vacuum packing… after this period it will be disposed. Supermarkets therefore insist their fish is fresh throughout the week – not just on a Friday.
So how far should we read into the ‘Fish Friday’ promotion? Is the supermarket branding a spiritual ritual for their own ends or simply celebrating a long established tradition? Perhaps they are showing their altruistic side and encouraging people to eat more fish because it’s good for them. I suspect the real answer is that nobody thought about it much and simply came up with a happy bit of fish-hype to shift more product.
For me buying, cooking and eating fish on a Friday is a simple way to make Friday a special day. Part of my own ritual is to make the effort to shop at an independent fishmongers. I enjoy exploring their fantastic range of fish, learning about the provenance of a piece of fish, quizzing about sustainability and exchanging recipe ideas. At home the fish is cooked and shared as part of a special dinner. This is my idea of ‘Fish Friday’.