by Joy Salyers
North Carolina historian David Cecelski helped start NC Food, delighting readers for the blog’s first five years with his explorations of state foodways and his musings about food’s connections to place, family, and all that is good in life. In 2011, he noted in a food blog post that “It’s one of the nice things about Friday nights this time of year: you can often find a fish fry at your local Catholic church.” Listing about 13 fish fries in the state that year, Cecelski noted, “The popularity of Lenten fish fries has been growing with the astonishing rise in the number of Catholics here over the last 15 or 20 years.” He hypothesized that the large numbers of Catholics moving to North Carolina from northern states brought the Lenten fish fry tradition along with them.
This year, however, we had a harder time finding fish fries publicized in the state. Outside of the Triangle (where fish fries still abound), the only church Cecelski mentioned holding fish fries four years ago announcing one this year is St. Therese’s in Mooresville (Iredell County). Now, it may be that the churches are indeed having Lenten fish fries and just haven’t promoted them online or on Facebook. And if you’re a member of one of those parishes, definitely let us know!
But it led us to wonder if there is a decline in Lenten fish fry traditions in North Carolina and, if so, why. It’s not likely a decline of Catholics. There are some places in the state where numbers of Catholics are declining, including Cumberland County (home to St. Ann’s of Fayetteville), which decreased 3% in Catholic adherents between 2000 and 2010, and Polk County (home to St. John the Baptist in Tryon) which decreased 5% in the same period. But in many places in the state numbers have stayed the same or, in some cases, dramatically increased. The Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies (ASARB) collects county-level data of religious bodies in the United States, publishing a U.S. Religious Census every ten years. According to those numbers, the number of Catholic adherents in the state increased almost 36% from 2000 to 2010, moving North Carolina from 32 to 27 in national ranking. (In 2,000, Catholics made up about 4% of North Carolina’s population, increasing to 4.5% in 2010.)
So while it’s possible that a major downward shift has occurred in the last few years (and we won’t know until 2020), it seems unlikely. However, do the Catholic adherents of today share the same traditions as those of the past? Certainly, a greater number of our state’s Catholics are Hispanic than in the past. According to the U.S. Census, the percentage of North Carolina’s population identifying as Hispanic or Latino increased from 4.7% in 2000 to 8.4% in 2010. And they make up a growing portion of the state’s Catholic adherents.
Right about the time David Cecelski was sampling Lenten fish fries in 2011, UNC-Chapel Hill journalism undergrad Lindsay Ruebens was writing her senior thesis on Roman Catholicism in North Carolina. Her first article for her thesis is a thoughtful discussion of the changes at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Newton Grove, NC, based on several weeks of fieldwork. The importance of culture, and specifically food, comes up repeatedly. So are Lenten fish fries a historically white Catholic tradition, and is the tradition shifting along with the demographics of Catholics in the state? Or is the new realm of social media and internet saturation just making it harder to find them? Sounds like a great research project!
In the meantime, let us know about your community’s Lenten fish fries or other Lenten food traditions in the comments section.