It's a cinch to give up meat for Lent on the seafood-abundant Gulf Coast. But I grew up in the landlocked Midwest, and during the weeks leading up to Easter my parents had a fondness for baked haddock, one of the fishiest-tasting fish I know. I ate a lot of macaroni and cheese.
When I balked, my parents told me I was lucky, as they abstained from meat every Friday of the year when they were young. That threw me, as I'd always thought it of a give-up-stuff-for-Lent sort of thing, a question of sacrifice and spiritual discipline. So, why did the rule change, and where did the practice originate?
A legend is that a pope instituted the practice as a way of propping up his friends in the Italian fishing industry, and in fact the price of fish plummeted worldwide in 1966 when Pope Paul IV oversaw the rule change. However, the practice of meat-abstaining predates this myth. One historian claimed that early Christians, offended that meat from sacrificial animals was for sale in markets on Fridays, avoided buying meat altogether on that day.
Never Mind the Truth
I never learned the definitive reason, but as I've grown to love seafood (except haddock), the spiritual discipline has merged with culinary discipline to spawn a solid reason to look for a great place for fish every Lenten season. This year, I decided on J & J Seafood, a fish market and fried-fish carryout joint at Stella Link and 610.
This past Friday I arrived J & J at noon, just as the lunch rush began. The parking lot overflowed, and a crowd surged in and out of the door. Inside, I saw the wildest frenzy I've ever seen in a restaurant, with dozens of customers ordering and jockeying for position in line. The fishmongers yelled out orders, sometimes in English, sometimes in Vietnamese, and orchestrated the activity with the finesse of air-traffic controllers.
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It was the sort of controlled chaos that would lead to a disturbance in many restaurants, but the customers had their eyes on the prize. They joked and laughed, and asked others politely if they were in queue.
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I went for the two pieces of fish with three shrimp. The man behind the counter asked if I wanted tilapia or catfish. Then he hesitated, and said, "You can also have trout, drum, or redfish, but you might get bones."
There's no fish more boring than tilapia, and catfish is delicious but unadventurous, so I took the chance of choking and went for the drum. The fillets were fried with a gorgeous cornmeal crust. This was an excellent counterpoint to the tender flesh of the drum, which has a full, but pleasant, fish taste. The contrast was enhanced by the need to chew carefully and precisely, to detect the few small bones I did find. The bones made the entrée a little more exciting, requiring a lot more, well, discipline, which is what got me to J & J to begin with.
The shrimp were large and fried only to the point of tenderness. The French fries had a good crust and were soft inside. The taste was unremarkable, but that's what ketchup is for. The coleslaw is a recommended side dish.
J & J Seafood has an extensive menu of fried seafood, including oysters, crawfish, calamari, and clams, with a full roster of fried vegetables and boudin balls. Most of the lunch plates are less than $10.00, so it looks like I'll be abstaining from meat on a lot more Fridays after Easter.