Growing up, I didn’t understand why we had those squares of fish on Fridays at school. But I ate them.
No matter how far you are from a body of water, you’ll find fish on the menu this time of year.
It’s Lent, the period of fasting and abstinence before Easter in the Christian tradition.
For the last 500 years or so, Catholics have marked the season by avoiding meat other than fish on Fridays.
But Lent affects what you eat even if you’re not Catholic.
The Filet-O-Fish at McDonald’s happened because people didn’t eat other meat on Fridays.
And even in northern Indiana on the heels of a brutal winter, there’s fish to be had.
A former co-worker, when asked where he ate sushi, said, “Somewhere a lot closer to the ocean.” And a lot of folks around these parts still don’t believe you should eat fish unless it’s been grilled, broiled or fried. But even in Elkhart County, a sushi eater has options these days.
The lakes nearby can provide perch, bluegill and trout to a fisherman. Salmon, tuna and shrimp — the top three seafoods consumed in the United States — come from farther away.
But over the years, tilapia has risen to the surface as a popular option. And now it even has conspiracy stories to go with it.
At Ward’s Seafood Market in Clearwater, Fla., the fishmonger recently dissed tilapia because much of it comes from China. And as the stories go, those farmed fish are fed the waste of other fish.
Is it true? Depends whom you ask. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration says it’s not a problem. But plenty of people like telling tilapia horror stories.
I don’t eat a lot of tilapia. I don’t know where it all originates or how it’s grown. That scares me a bit. But mostly I think it’s boring. It’s become the chicken breast of the fish world — a blank palette on which to paste other flavors. I’d rather have salmon, tuna or shrimp.
During a brief trip to visit family in Florida, I ate plenty of fish. It’s easy in Sarasota and Clearwater where it’s fresh and local.
Not everything at Ward’s, where they know my brother-in-law well, is local. But the amberjack is from the Gulf of Mexico. The freshwater perch, which an employee said is actually wild tilapia, was cheap and clean-tasting. I dusted it in cornmeal and put it in a pan with olive oil. If all tilapia was that interesting, I’d eat a lot more.
The blackened grouper sandwich at Ward’s is one of my favorite meals, particularly when they have those crisp, sweet hush puppies alongside.
If your fish tastes fishy, keep moving. It’s probably not fresh. But with flash-freezing techniques and restaurants working hard to get fresh product, the fish you can get here just keeps getting better.
There’s a special joy in taking a piece of fresh fish and trying to stay out of its way. What’s that mean? Preparing it simply and well. Put it on a grill with salt, olive oil, lemon and garlic and serve it when you can flake it with a fork to test the doneness.
I often preach this sermon during Lent. Not because I’m Catholic, but because I love good fish.
I didn’t give up swearing for Lent, but even so I’ll avoid swearing by my favorite fish dishes locally.
I’ll vouch for these:
I’m a fan of the black vinegar fish at J.W. Chen’s Asian Cuisine.
The salmon special on the menu at Antonio’s continues to amaze.
And the perch special that was served with waffle fries at Heinnie’s on Friday was mighty fine.
But I’m curious where your favorite fish. So tell me. Email me. Add a comment at the bottom of this story online. Use social media. Call if you want. And I’ll share the list.
Oh, and a final word of warning. If you order the clam chowder at Heinnie’s and owner Bill Deshone asks whether you want big crackers or little crackers, answer carefully.
If you say you want little crackers, he uses a karate chop on the bar to smash the big ones in the packages. The crumbs fly. The laughter rolls.
It’s an old joke and one the regulars know.
And apparently, it’s one that never gets old. Just like eating fish on Fridays during Lent.