Something’s Fishy for Those who Observe Lent

Mar 1st, 2017 | By | Category: blog, cook something, fish and seafood
Fried Smelt Courtesy

Fried Smelt Courtesy

As we cross the threshold into Lent, I am reminded of my youth. I am second generation Italian-American, and was raised Roman Catholic.

What are the odds, right?

Ash Wednesday always signaled the time when our family attempted to follow the Italian tradition of moderate fasting and not eating meat for the 40 days leading up to Easter.

Yeah, well, that didn’t always pan out. So, even if we ate meat on other days, we always eschewed meat on Fridays, which we’d already been doing because that was still part of Catholic doctrine at the time, so it wasn’t exactly a hardship.

And that annoyed my mother.

Mom did her best to raise her seven children to view the Lenten season as a time of penance and deprivation. It was all about seeking forgiveness and giving up everything that made life worth living. The more you saw yourself as sinful, and the more you suffered, the more pious you were in my mother’s eyes.

My poor mother had suffered enough with our antics to have earned her place in heaven several times over, and I guess she just wanted to make sure she’d see a few of us up there with her. That remains to be seen.

Every Ash Wednesday my mother would make us all get up early so we could go to mass and let the priest smear our foreheads with ashes, theoretically tracing the Sign of the Cross. It always came out looking like a big black bulls eye, which made us great targets in school. Since we’d promised Mom not to wipe off the holy ashes, we had to deal with snickers from classmates all day long. I call that “Mom’s Revenge.”

Although we ate meat during Lent, we did consume a lot of fish, too. Because we were a big family on a budget, we weren’t eating salmon and prawns. We were eating fried smelt and broiled monkfish. The latter used to be very inexpensive and was called “poor man’s lobster.” At $16.00 a pound today, eating monkfish can make you poor.

While I am no longer a practicing Catholic, I do enjoy tradition. So this year I will incorporate more fish into my meals leading up to Easter and think of my how hard my mother tried to keep her children in God’s good graces despite our best efforts.

Fried Smelt

Smelt are small, silvery fish, that look like bait fish, because they are–salmon love them. Most don’t get any bigger than eight-inches long.

Smelt still hasn’t caught on as table fare the way monkfish has, and that’s probably good news for budget-minded Catholics this time of year. My folks always bought five pound bags of frozen smelt, and my Dad would fry them up (grilling and frying were his favorite sports), which would mean the nine of us would each get about a half pound of smelt a piece. It was fun to eat whole fish. They were crunchy and flavorful, and served with a salad and crusty bread, made a good meal that didn’t seem like penance or deprivation.


  • 2-3 pounds smelt, cleaned, headless
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 Tb. Salt
  • 2 tsp. garlic power
  • 1 tsp. red pepper flakes (optional)
  • 1 tsp. ground black pepper
  • Olive oil (or other oil) about 2-inches in skillet


  1. Wash cleaned, headless smelt and pat dry
  2. Place flour and seasonings in a gallon sized self-sealing plastic bag, shake to mix
  3. Place a few smelt at a time in bag and shake to coat fish
  4. Take cast iron skillet and add oil and heat
  5. Add fish and cook until brown on both sides
  6. When crispy, place fish on paper towel to absorb oil
  7. Mangia!
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