From fishers of men to Filet-O-Fish

The Christian story behind the famous fish burger.

F is for fish. After God had made the heavens and the earth, he filled the sea and the sky with ‘the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm…’ Fish were created the day before animals in the Book of Genesis, and are central to many Christian stories. At the feeding of the 5,000 Jesus multiplies loaves of bread and a few small fish to sustain the crowd. Most of Jesus’s disciples started as fishermen – simple, humble and steadfast. After the resurrection they became ‘fishers of men,’ spreading the word of Jesus throughout the world. At the resurrection, incidentally, Jesus cooked a breakfast of fish for his followers. Observant Catholics only eat fish on Fridays, as a small token of Christ’s suffering; it was because of this that an early McDonald’s franchise in Cincinnati created its Filet-O-Fish sandwich, noticing that burger sales dropped on Fridays. Early Christians identified one another with the ichthys, the simple two-line drawing of a fish in profile. In Buddhism, too, fish have symbolic value: they represent happiness, because of their complete freedom. Not for nothing is a fish tank the cliché of zen tranquillity.

These days the waters of our oceans are sadly depleted, more likely to swarm with oil slicks and plastic refuse than with mysterious monsters. Cod and tuna have been overfished to the point of destroying entire marine ecosystems. Blue walleye has already become extinct in the Great Lakes. The unappealing-sounding pallid sturgeon is endangered due to destruction of the rivers in which it lives.

But fish remain a staple of diets worldwide, as evinced by the Filet-O-Fish. Seafood is a luxury, revered like no other foodstuff (except, perhaps, Wagyu beef). Think of the acclaim heaped upon Rick Stein; think of the kudos of eating Dover sole at Scott’s; think of the hype around the potentially poisonous fugu sushi, or the prices of sashimi at Nobu. It is also a cheery staple: I defy any reader not to be overwhelmed with cosy nostalgia remembering the fish finger suppers of their childhood (and occasional hungover Sundays throughout life). A trip to the seaside isn’t complete without a portion of searingly hot, crunchy, flaky fish, turning the paper slowly translucent with fat and making fingers smell of vinegar for days. Rockfish in Dartmouth and Quayside in Whitby (which both use sustainable stocks) are world-class purveyors of battered deliciousness.

And yet despite the familiarity of fish in our dishes, the sea remains as much of an enigma as the heavens. We have all gasped with horror at the anaemic deep-sea creatures on David Attenborough, their scales ghostly white, their movements ponderously slow, their eyes eery and gaping. These creatures take years to mature because of the lack of sunlight and food in the depths. And there are things skulking even further down in the fathomless dark, where human eyes have never penetrated. We have plundered the rivers and oceans since the beginning of time; there are ancient cave paintings of fish that are 25,000 years old. Yet we still know remarkably little about what lies beneath the waters. And perhaps we like it that way. After all, as Werner Herzog has it, ‘What would an ocean be without a monster lurking in the dark? It would be a sleep without dreams.’

For more entries from the Dictionary of Food, click here.


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