As February melts into March, so begin the Friday night fish fries, the Filet-O-Fish specials at McDonald's and a sudden abundance of weekend seafood specials at restaurants that normally feature red meat.
Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the 40-day period leading up to Easter when Roman Catholics — along with members of other Christian denominations — abstain from eating meat on Fridays.
For those who don't want to fry their own haddock or grill shrimp at home, there are plenty of offerings at both fast-food and sit-down restaurants, which are very aware that many of their customers aren't going to order a hamburger on a Friday night.
"We really adapt our menu and definitely see a big increase in fish sales," said Kelly Robinson, general manager of The Porter House in Montvale. "Especially being known as a steakhouse, we like to have a lot of seafood options."
Robinson said some of the possible featured items this Lent include lobster macaroni and cheese, a haddock potpie and a smoked fish soup.
"Also there's a big increase in sales with our raw bar, with oysters and clams and items like that," Robinson said. "So we're definitely conscious of those customers coming in and wanting a lot to choose from."
Most local steakhouses and pubs already have some fish options on the menu year-round, but tend to promote them more heavily during Lent. Even fast-food restaurants are looking for a piece of the non-meat market.
A Lenten staple is McDonald's Filet-O-Fish sandwich, a square piece of fried Alaskan pollock topped with a slice of cheese and tartar sauce. It was invented in 1963 by Lou Groen, who owned a Cincinnati franchise in a predominantly Catholic area. The fish sandwich, meant to boost sales for Groen, was a success and added to the national menu two years later.
The Filet-O-Fish is one of the chain's bestsellers during Lent; McDonald's aggressively markets it for the season (remember those talking fish commercials three years ago?) and often discounts it. This year it's a buy-one, get-one-free deal, said Jessica Melendez, McDonald's New York marketing manager.
But it's not just McDonald's getting into the fish game. Most fast-food restaurants have at least one fish option to try to keep customers from passing them by during Lent. Burger King has a fish filet sandwich and a veggie burger; Taco Bell offers a shrimp taco; Arby's, known for its roast beef, has a fish sandwich option; and Blimpie's pushes its tuna wraps and subs.
"Over the last few years we've seen an upswing in tuna sales during Lent, so we've decided to feature them more in stores," said Steve Evans, vice president of marketing for Blimpie's. "We're just responding to that clear consumer demand."
And there is another option for those who don't want fine fish dining or fast food — pizza. Sean McCooe, a Ridgewood resident and father of five, said it's a good option for his and fellow Catholic families.
"Some Friday nights we order a cheese or veggie pizza," McCooe said. "Sometimes when we do that we'll do it with other families and someone will bring a salad and someone else dessert."
But McCooe said aside from coordinating dinner, Lent for his family means time to reflect on the season.
"We make sure to say grace before every meal," McCooe said. "Really the meal is for the family to spend time together."
What is Lent?
In the Christian liturgical calendar, Lent is set aside as a period of prayer, penance and fasting, beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending on Easter Sunday. Its origins can be traced back to the earliest days of Christianity when the Council of Nicaea (the governing body that established early Christian doctrine) implemented the 40-day practice. The number 40 is significant in scripture: Moses waited 40 days for the Ten Commandments and, most significantly, Jesus fasted for 40 days and 40 nights before beginning his public ministry.
While Lent is observed in all Christian denominations, Roman Catholics follow the strictest set of rules about eating. Fasting and abstaining is seen as a way to draw strength from one's faith and to do penance for one's sins. For Catholics, the original Lenten guidelines were stringent: just one meal per day — in the evening — and no meat, animal products or fish for the 40 days.
Today, the rules are more relaxed. Only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday do observant Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 eat just one full meal and abstain from meat. During the rest of Lent, those 14 and older are to abstain from meat on Fridays.