A riddle: When is a puffin not a puffin?
The answer: When it’s a fish.
The same applies for beavers’ tails, barnacle geese and tiny baby rabbits. All definitely, definitely fish. That is, if you’re a Medieval chef in Western Europe, and it’s a fast day, and you’re gearing up for yet another meal of almonds and salted cod.
Christians observed at least three fast days a week for much of the Middle Ages, usually on Wednesday, the day Judas betrayed Christ; Friday, in penance for His suffering; and Saturday, to commemorate the Virgin Mary. In addition to that, there were other periods of fasting throughout the year, the longest of which was the 40 days of Lent. Fasting was a form of self-discipline, writes Bridget Ann Henisch in Fast and Feast: Food in Medieval Society: “a spring-cleaning to freshen the soul and make it ready to receive God’s grace.”
From the outside, the rules seemed clear: On these days, no animal products (eggs, dairy, meat) could be eaten, though anything from the water was another kettle of fish altogether. While pigs, cows, sheep and other land-beasts had had to shelter from the Flood on Noah’s ark, fish were exempt, and therefore permissible.
The rest of this piece, originally published by Atlas Obscura, can be read here.