It’s Good Friday, and if you are a good Newfoundlander then you know what you will be eating on today, fish. I am not a good Newfoundlander, or at least I wasn’t. That is, I didn’t eat fish or anything from the sea. All that changed at a friend’s birthday nearly two years ago at the St. John’s Fish Exchange Kitchen & Wet Bar when I took the plunge. Ironically, I didn’t order fish, (I had chicken tacos) but I ended up trying a piece that the birthday girl was too full and too busy mingling with her guests to finish.
Shortly after this “exchange” with fish, I ate it again, this time as part of the 2016 St. John’s Poutine Challenge. Magnum & Steins offered a “Fish & Chips Poutine” which sounds exactly like you’d expect, and my poutine partner in crime called it “a perfect meeting between Newfoundland and Quebec” (aka a Labrador?). The Fish & Chips Poutine was my pick to win the Challenge but it did not win the popular vote.
So Good Friday 2017 rolls around and I like fish now, so what do I do? I make my own version of Magnum & Stein’s creation, which I’ll share later in this article. Why fish on Good Friday though? Where does this tradition stem from?
Avoiding meat is a longstanding tradition for Christians on Good Friday (some people do this every Friday throughout the year). The idea being that Jesus died on Good Friday, sacrificing his flesh so churches encourage Christians to avoid meat on this day. Fish is believed to be a “different kind of flesh” and therefore ok to eat on Good Friday. Fish and chips seems to be synonymous with Newfoundland so it doesn’t seem too far-fetched that this would be the go-to meal on Good Friday.
I spoke to Vicki Barbour, the Marketing and Communications liaison at Ches’s Famous Fish & Chips about the tradition of eating fish on Good Friday. She noted the religious connotation but said, “Here in Newfoundland there’s also a cultural link, especially in St. John’s.” Barbour said, “These days it seems many people have fish and chips, or other fish dishes on Good Friday because it’s a cultural tradition as much as a religious tradition.”
Ches’s seems to be a cultural tradition in the city as well. The restaurant chain has been open since 1951 and Vicki is the granddaughter of the Ches in Ches’s Famous Fish & Chips. Good Friday is “without a doubt [their] busiest day.” Barbour noted that Friday is generally the busiest day of the week, “but Good Friday is a day unlike any other.”
Barbour said while they can’t really anticipate the number of customers they will see on Good Friday, she estimates that the final number will be in the thousands. “Our prep for Good Friday is about 20 000 pounds of potatoes and 5000 pounds of fish,” she said. Barbour said that the first fish and chips will likely be served around 10 A.M. and that business will be steady until they close. “At the peak of suppertime, it’s not uncommon to see customers lined up outside waiting to get in,” she said. Despite offering chicken and burgers on their menu, Ches’s will only serve fish on Good Friday because there is no time to prepare other dishes.
CBC also published an article about the tradition in present day and how local restaurants are kept busy with customers looking for a Good Friday feed. Karen Lambert, the owner of the Big R Restaurant, said that business was so good that three restaurants in the neighbourhood of Harvey Road (The Big R, Ches’ and Leo’s) are flat out claiming “thousands of pieces of fish” are sold. Despite the tradition of Catholics not eating meat, Good Friday in Newfoundland seems to be on another level. In the same article, Lambert said she had employees originally hailing from New Brunswick and Saskatchewan and they “never heard tell of it” (fish on Good Friday).
So a fish and chips poutine definitely isn’t “traditionally” Newfoundland but it is becoming a tradition for me as this will be the second year in a row preparing this dish for supper. Before I get to the recipe, during my research, I came across some interesting information about Newfoundland and Labrador Catholics were permitted to eat “flipper pie” during Lent. Flipper as in seal, as in mammal, as in meat. According to the St. John’s archives, “local legend says a Pope, through the local bishop, once declared the seal to be a fish so that during Lent and on meatless Fridays, Newfoundlanders had a better chance avail of this “seasonal” food source.” It even goes on to mention Canada’s Bill C-45 as which mentions that seal falls under the category of “fish” due to a “possibly explained by the ruling of the Church of Newfoundland that seals were fish.” This way, “even the most pious Newfoundlander can eat seal meat on Friday or during Lent.”
Pious I’m not, but poutine I do love. Throw in fries topped some local beer battered fish coated in Mrs. Vicky’s salt and vinegar chips and Hawkins Cheezies topped with some dressing, gravy, and local cheese curds and you’ve got my Good Friday fish and chips poutine.
I basically tried to recreate the recipe from Magnum & Steins and added some of my own ideas to it. It’s pretty simple, soak your fish in beer and flour. Then coat it with the chip and cheezie mixture and fry it in a pan. Cook your fries and top with cheese curds, gravy, dressing, battered fish, and some tartar sauce. It seems that I am not the only one who enjoys this combination; Vicki Barbour also mentioned that many Ches’s customers turn their fish and chips into a poutine “all the time.”
This fish and chips poutine has become my Good Friday tradition along with some local brews and a Star Wars film. Sounds like a great Friday to me!