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Where Lent Came From

Island Epicure

Long, long ago when Basque fishermen of Escadia, a province of northern Spain  first discovered the codfish-thronged undersea banks in the northwest Atlantic Ocean, they came home with their ships laden to the gunwales. Word soon spread to the fishermen of Genoa in northern Italy. They, too, began to fish the Grand Banks for cod. But, alas, cod is not very flavorful. Although the plentiful, cheap cod provided protein for the poor. Even the poor preferred spaghetti marinara to spaghetti with cod.

The fishermen put their heads together, seeking an idea for improving the market for their product. They prayed, but God did not seem to be listening. At last, the one from Genoa said, “We need to ask for help from the one man on earth who for sure has God’s ear. Let us send a committee to visit  the Pope.”

The Basques and the Italians sent a boat and a sample of their codfish, well packed in salt so it would stay fresh all the way to Rome. They landed at Ostia, the nearest port to Rome, traveled by land to the Vatican and secured an audience with the Pope.

“Your Holiness, please help us,” they pled. “We have discovered the world’s best source of a variety of fish, but there is not enough of a market for it to justify the time and expense of going after it. We cannot support our families, let alone spare ten percent for a tithe to contribute to the Church’s wealth.”

“Hmmm, I’ll have them eat fish every Friday,” the Pope replied. “It can be in honor of our Savior who chose the fish as his emblem.”

That helped. All the Europeans except the French began to eat fish on Fridays. They simply designated the snail as an honorary fish and went on eating as they had always eaten. Yet, cod were not selling, and being, eaten enough to make it well worth going all the way to the Grand Banks.

A second visit to the Pope produced just what the fishermen hoped for. Led by the fishermen from Genoa, they said, “Your Holiness, people complain that the price of fish from the Mediterranean has gone sky-high. That sea is almost fished out. We want to help your people by supplying an inexpensive fish that they can eat more than once a week. So can you lend  us a hand?”

“Consider it lent,” said the Pope, “Easter is coming in a few weeks. I’ll tell them to eat no red meat for the six weeks before Easter.”

The thing about cod is that, since it has little flavor of its own, you have to put lots of flavor into the dish you make of it. The other night, I marinated diced cod in lemon juice and cooked it in a curry sauce.  My dining companion, grandson James exclaimed, “This is really good! Yum! You have to put this in your column.”

Cod in Curry Sauce
      Serves 3

About 1 lb. cod
Juice of 1 lemon, seeds removed
1 Tablespoon curry powder
2 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed with 3 to 4 Tablespoons cold water
Salt and pepper to taste
Water to cover

Put the fish pieces into a small skillet. Squeeze or drizzle the lemon juice over it. Let the fish marinate 20 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Combine curry powder, cornstarch and water to make a slurry.

Poach the fish in it’s marinade plus water. Stir in the curry-cornstarch slurry. Stir-cook until the sauce clears and thickens. Serve over cooked brown rice.  Complete the meal with a vegetable and a salad.