>HOUSES OF WORSHIP
>Some Additions to the Menu
>Why it's OK to eat certain rodents during Lent.
>BY JOHN J. MILLER
>Friday, March 3, 2006 12:01 a.m. EST
>The season of Lent, which began on Wednesday, brings to mind an odd request
>the Vatican received from South America in the 17th century. The faithful
>sought permission to eat capybaras on Fridays during the six weeks before
>Easter, when Catholics are supposed to avoid the meat of birds and mammals.
>The priests who puzzled over this petition certainly had no inkling of
>capybaras. Even today, most non-zookeepers outside South America have never
>heard of them. But these critters spend lots of time in water, they swim
>and dive well, and their feet are slightly webbed. Kind of like fish,
>Close enough for the Vatican, apparently, because Rome sent out the word
>that it was acceptable to consume capybaras during Lent. Today they are
>considered a delicacy in many parts of South America, especially Venezuela.
> Eating capybaras there during Lent is about as traditional as eating
>turkeys at Thanksgiving here in the U.S. Technically, though, capybaras
>are mammals--the largest members of the rodent family, with adults weighing
>more than 100 pounds. The food they provide is meat.
>Capybaras are hardly the only creatures that have been subjected to
>cafeteria-style Catholicism: At various times and places, Lenten
>exceptions have reportedly been made for beavers, geese, puffins and other
>marine animals. There's a persistent rumor in Michigan, for example, that
>muskrats are an approved dish. When a bishop was asked about it, he
>supposedly replied that anybody bold enough to eat muskrat already is
>"doing penance worthy of the greatest saints."
>The point of Lenten abstinence is not to partake in taxonomical fetishes
>but to engage in a form of self-sacrifice that encourages prayer and
>alms-giving. The deepest roots of the practice lie in Genesis: God's first
>command to humanity was to abstain from the tree of knowledge. It
>eventually became a Christian custom--rejected by most Protestants after
>the Reformation but still honored by Roman Catholics--not to eat certain
>kinds of food at assorted intervals, and the most popular of these
>traditions has been an injunction against eating meat on Fridays.
>There was a time when even the consumption of fish was frowned upon, though
>by the 10th century it was a well-established option. In his
>just-published book "Fish on Friday," the respected anthropologist Brian
>Fagan argues that fishermen who toiled to feed this European hunger
>probably laid eyes on Newfoundland before Columbus sailed across the ocean.
> "It was fish, not spices, that led to the discovery of North America," he
>Back in those days, the demand for fish wouldn't have been as great if
>Europeans had followed the habits of today's American Catholics, who tend
>to replace meat with fish only on Fridays during Lent. That's because in
>1966 they gained a special dispensation from their bishops to eat meat on
>non-Lenten Fridays if they performed some other devotion or work of charity
>instead. This requirement is probably most honored in the breach. Fish on
>Fridays was once a year-round tradition; for lots of Catholics in the U.S.,
>it's now just an Easter-season peculiarity.
>The latest trend in abstinence, however, is not to loosen Lenten
>regulations but to tighten them, especially if there's an endangered
>species to save. In Mexico, conservationists are pleading with Rome to
>declare that the meat of sea turtles--a popular soup ingredient--shouldn't
>be on the Lenten menu, even though the flesh of reptiles and other
>cold-blooded animals has generally been allowed.
>If the Vatican cooperates, it can expect an arkload of follow-up requests.
>Next on the list is probably the green iguana, another threatened reptile
>that's on a Latin American soup recipe. If a ban ever materializes,
>Catholics will need to stomach headlines that proclaim a papal crackdown on
>"Easter Ig Hunts."
>For those who worry about restrictions on their reptile intake, here's a
>modest proposal: capybara stew.
>Mr. Miller writes for National Review and is the author of "A Gift of
>Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America."
>Copyright � 2005 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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