Lent used to be a far more widespread concept in American society than one might think. As Mark Kurlansky made clear in his book, Cod: A Biography of a Fish That Changed the World (1997), cod overfishing led to some radical changes, including Canada’s moratorium on cod fishing in 1992.
Dan Murphy of Dunville, Newfoundland created a folk art protest of this state of affairs.
But just to show you how prevalent fish eating was in the U.S., here’s some commentary from a Good Housekeeping magazine article by Mrs. Sherman Bonney* from 1888:
By personal inquiry at the Boston market, I find the following fish will be in season during Lent ; cod, haddock, halibut, shad, smelts, white fish, bass, pickerel, eels, sheep’s head, red snapper, salmon, lobster, oysters, clams, scallops, shrimps and smoked fish. In marketing great care should be exercised that the fish be perfectly fresh, as no food deteriorates so rapidly. If the fish is good and fresh the flesh will be firm and hard and will rise at once, if pressed with the finger. The skins and scales will be bright, the eyes full and clear, and the fins stiff. The oily fish keeps better as the oil tends to preserve it. In lobsters select a firm shell of a dark color. The tail, if straightened, should always spring back into position. The medium sized are tenderest and sweetest.
And Mrs. Bonney goes on to provide forty recipes for Lenten fish dishes, one for each day of Lent as it were, including several utilizing salt fish:
Let the fish stand in water a little while ; then, pick in small pieces, a cupful of fish. Pare and cut in quarters a pint of raw potatoes. Boil the fish and potatoes together until the potatoes are soft. Drain and mash lightly. Add one teaspoonful of butter, no more, and a little pepper and when slightly cool add an egg, shape with a fork like small croquettes and fry in deep fat as fish above. Drain on brown paper. This can be prepared the day before. In the morning heat and add the egg.
*Mrs. Bonney won what was essentially a food-writing contest and Good Housekeeping published her article.