Today is Ash Wednesday – the start of Lent, a time of fasting and soul searching for hundreds of millions of Christians around the world.
The word Lent derives from the Old English lencten, meaning spring. Many believers will give up favorite foods during Lent, or they’ll devote time to volunteering or charity work.
And what the peak holiday selling season from Thanksgiving to Christmas means to retailers, Lent means to the seafood industry.
Food Services of America, for example, reports that Ash Wednesday is the busiest day of the year for frozen seafood sales, and the six weeks following is the top selling season for the entire year. And McDonald’s says it sells nearly a quarter of its total yearly Filet-O-Fish sandwiches during Lent.
The Lenten season, which this year runs from February 26 through March 12, dates back to the 4th century.
Ash Wednesday is so called from the ritual of placing ashes from burned palm branches on the forehead as a sign of repentance. The ashes symbolize the religious statement “remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”
In many countries, the day before Lent – called Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday – has become a last fling before the start of the long fasting season.
For centuries, it was customary to not eat meat during Lent, which is why some people call the festival carnival, Latin for farewell to meat.
While nearly all seafood enjoys a surge of interest during Lent, the most traditional items served are the so called “whitefish” species, such as cod, Alaska pollock, flounders, and halibut.
But no matter what the seafood favorite, the six week Lenten season is good news for Alaska, which provides nearly 60% of the nation’s wild caught seafood to U.S. restaurants and grocery stores.