The Daily Capybara, And a Bit of Legend

The capybara is my favorite animal, and not merely because they’re the only red meat you can eat on days of Lenten fast.

Well, that’s the legend at least. Supposedly, when the missionaries encountered the capybara in South America, they weren’t sure if it qualified as a mammal or a fish. It has webbed feet and can swim, you see, so we’re supposed to believe that men who knew perfectly well that a duck was not a fish, were confused about whether or not a hamster the size of a mastiff was a fish.

It sounds absurd, but it’s possible there’s more than mere legend behind it. At certain points in history, otters, beavers, and amphibians have been included among “fish” for the purpose of determining what could be eaten on days of fast. St. Thomas Aquinas explains why:

Fasting was instituted by the Church in order to bridle the concupiscences of the flesh, which regard pleasures of touch in connexion with food and sex. Wherefore the Church forbade those who fast to partake of those foods which both afford most pleasure to the palate, and besides are a very great incentive to lust. Such are the flesh of animals that take their rest on the earth, and of those that breathe the air and their products, such as milk from those that walk on the earth, and eggs from birds. For, since suchlike animals are more like man in body, they afford greater pleasure as food, and greater nourishment to the human body, so that from their consumption there results a greater surplus available for seminal matter, which when abundant becomes a great incentive to lust. Hence the Church has bidden those who fast to abstain especially from these foods. (ST 2–2: 147:8)

For the purpose of the fast, “meat” was considered the flesh of animals that breathed air and spent most of their time on land. St. Thomas also adds, in a response about milk and eggs, that “each person is bound to conform to that custom which is in vogue with those among whom he is dwelling.”

Supposedly, “The Vatican” declared capybara to be a fish, and never undeclared it, so it’s allowed to be eaten during Lenten fast.

There’s also a story that Bl. François de Laval, Bishop of Quebec, made a similar request about beavers in the 17th century. This one even includes details about de Laval writing to the theologians at the Sorbonne for an opinion.

Again, it’s a story that’s certainly repeated a lot, but is it true? The waters of Quebec were full of fish. Beavers created headaches for the bishop: the beaver hunt was distracting the flock and leading to the defrauding of Indians, who were plied with alcohol to give up their pelts. Would he have really been looking for loopholes in the fasting guidelines?

“For $13, I can be yours. I am not edible.”

It’s certainly possible both stories are true. I just haven’t seen any documentary evidence for either. If you know of any, post in the comboxes.

Anyway, back to the capybara. I just love these weird rodents. They’re strange, cute, and, I understand, quite tasty. My family gave me a stuffed one which we named Captain Barry. I feed him a steady diet of FlufferNutella sandwiches and hugs.

So, on my Facebook page through Lent, I’ll be running The Daily Capybara. (Why yes, this is a naked attempt to drive up my Facebook page likes. Why do you ask?)

It’s like Cute Overload, only with edible giant rodents.

“It is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God”
How I Pray: The Very Reverend Archimandrite John Panteleimon Manoussakis
The Three Pillars of Lent
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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • victor

    I didn’t the legend was that the missionaries were confused about whether the capybara was a fish or not, but that because it was such a staple of the indigenous peoples’ diet it would have caused an undue hardship to prevent them from eating it during Lent. Kind of like if you were a missionary to MeatLand and everything there was a meat, even the vegetables, then you couldn’t very well tell the people there not to eat meat without being run out of town on a rail (and since this is MeatLand the rail is made of delicious sausage).

  • Adam Burch

    I don’t know if this counts as red meat, but in Louisiana the archbishop declared that eating alligator was permitted during days of fasting.

  • Belinda A

    I had actually wondered a few years ago whether alligator was considered red meat or not (I’d given up red meat for Lent, and gator can be gotten with relative ease in Florida.)

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    I’ve read that too.

  • Theodore Seeber

    Could it be the good Bishop was just trying to encourage overhunting and wipe the Beaver out of his diocese?

  • David Sharples

    I love fish. My whole family loves fish and living in New England we have some of the best seafood in the world. I always feel a little guilty about this discipline of eating only fish on certain days, but then I remind myself that it is just that a “discipline” not a mortification.

    Happily Lent

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    There is an Middle English poem–it’s title is escaping me at the moment–asking what good it does to strip the larder of meat and heap the plate with fish? St. Thomas has the theological answer, but it doesn’t quite convince on a practical level.

  • Tito Edwards

    Try nutria, it’s a good substitute.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    They’re not as cute. It’s the cuteness that makes things tasty.

  • Rebecca Fuentes

    My oldest adores clam chowder and fish. She loves Lenten meals.

  • HowardRichards

    I’ve wondered whether it might be confusion over the name. For example, the bottle-nosed dolphin is a fish, but there is a fish (not a mammal) called a dolphin as well. Likewise, “gopher races” in Florida used to be a race of gopher turtles. Add to this the difficulty of explorers and missionaries with accurately reproducing native names.