The strange history of how the Catholic Church declared beaver to be a fish — at least during Lent

This isn't the only odd dietary dispensation the church has made for observers of the 40-day fast

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published February 25, 2023 5:30PM (EST)

American beaver (Getty Images/barbaraaaa)
American beaver (Getty Images/barbaraaaa)

Born to a very wealthy and well-connected family, François de Laval had a glimmering future in the 17th-century French Catholic Church. By the age of 24, Laval was ordained a priest; he was quickly named an archdeacon and eventually a bishop. According to his biographers, however, Laval dreamed of doing something with his life that would expand the mission of the church more meaningfully.

In 1659, Laval moved to Quebec on a mission to become the first Roman Catholic bishop in Canada. Soon after, he approached his superiors with a pressing theological query: Could beaver be eaten during Lent?

Historians generally agree that the 40-day period before Easter, known as Lent, emerged shortly following the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. It was modeled after the 40 days that Jesus Christ spent fasting and resisting temptation in the desert, according to the Gospels. In observance, many Christians similarly engage in prayer and some form of fasting.

Throughout the history of the church, particular specifications regarding how to fast have changed. However, two rules have remained largely consistent for centuries. Both Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are obligatory days of fasting and abstinence; and on Fridays, Catholics must abstain from eating meat, as it was traditionally a celebratory food.

This has had a lot of implications for dining throughout the years, especially in cities with large Catholic populations. Lent is the reason that Lou Groen, a Cincinnati-based McDonald's franchise owner, developed the Filet-O-Fish in 1962 after realizing that his business was hurting specifically on Fridays in the spring. (It's also the reason my Catholic school only served cheese pizza on Fridays.)

He approached his superiors with a pressing theological query: "Could beaver be eaten during Lent?"

Beaver was already consumed fairly regularly in 17th-century Canada. It was an abundant source of food — this was the peak of the Canadian fur trade, during which there were an estimated 6 million beavers in the country — and broke down similarly to rabbits. In form, beavers are also more similar to rabbits than fish; they're covered in coarse fur, give birth to live young, and like all mammals, are warm-blooded.

For ease and access, it would make sense that one would want to classify beavers as something other than meat during the Lenten season — but what would that be? Laval's answer came from scholars at the Sorbonne University in Paris.

According to a 1760 publication called "The natural and civil history of the French dominions in North and South America," in respect to the beaver's tail, "he is a perfect fish, and has been judicially declared such by the College of Physicians at Paris, and the faculty of divinity have, in consequence of this declaration, pronounced it lawful to be eaten on days of fasting."

Some early writings also speculate that the Canadian Catholic Church wasn't the only group to explore this loophole. An 1850 issue of The Dublin University Magazine said beaver tail was usually eaten during Lent by the "strict churchmen of Northern Germany," while the Canadian Journal of Industry, Science and Art wrote:

[A] Dutch writer, states that the animal was used as food in Holland, in the time of the Crusades ; and he repeats the common notice, that its tail and paws were eaten as fish, with a safe conscience, during the religious fasts but the monks of a convent of Chartreux, at Villeneuve-les- Avignon, seem to have carried this indulgent notion farther and to have accounted their entire carcass among the "mets maigres"

Other countries have sought special dispensations, as well.

As Cecily Ann Wong reported for Gastro Obscura, sometime between the 16th and 18th centuries (accounts vary), Venezuelan clergymen wrote to the Vatican with a special request.

"They had discovered an animal that lived in water, had webbed feet and tasted like fish," Wong wrote. "With Lent approaching, they asked the Vatican to grant the animal the status of fish, so they might eat it during the upcoming days of meat-free fasting. By letter, the Catholic Church agreed, and the capybara — the largest living rodent in the world — became a coveted addition to many Lenten dinner tables."

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About a hundred years later, Father Gabriel Richard of Saint Anne Parish in Detroit lobbied for the region's residents to be allowed to consume muskrat throughout the Lenten season, as the winters were especially harsh and parishioners were encouraged to abstain from meat for the entirety of Lent — not only on Fridays. Muskrat dinners are still commonplace in Michigan during Lent.

Throughout the centuries, Catholic leaders have debated whether indulging special requests such as these were (and still are) theologically sound. For instance, at least 80 Roman Catholic dioceses across the U.S. have said it's permissible to enjoy corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick's Day, even if it falls on a Lenten Friday, though some Catholics still consider that "cheating."

It goes to show that the tension between wanting to adhere to the intention of the season without being Pharisaic in this endeavor isn't a new feeling for the devout — nor is the desire to find a spiritual loophole one that will likely be lost on future generations of Catholics.

It goes to show that the tension between wanting to adhere to the intention of the season without being Pharisaic in this endeavor isn't a new feeling for the devout — nor is the desire to find a spiritual loophole one that will likely be lost on future generations of Catholics.

I'm reminded of a boy with whom I went to middle and high school who enjoyed finding ways to game the system during Lent, primarily as a way to annoy the teachers and any of the particularly pious students (and there were a few). One spring, he had already brought in steak-flavored novelty chips and a sandwich piled high with Tofurky slices, when he pulled out a pack of bacon-flavored gum.

He began to chew it, smacking his lips as though he was Violet Beauregarde eating Willy Wonka's gum that contained an entire three-course dinner. My English teacher, a stern woman in her 60s, finally had enough and demanded that he spit it out, as it was a Friday.

"God knows it isn't bacon," he replied with a smirk.

You could see her eyes roll to the back of her head as she sighed and held out the waste basket.

"He also knows your heart."

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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Beavers Catholicism Deep Dive Food History Lent Religion