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Silver Threads: Ash Wednesday

When Hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans in 1965, none of the homes in our neighborhood had much damage, but of course power was out and people were sweltering in the summer heat, and the children were whining because the debris all around restricted their customary roaming and there wasn’t any television to watch in the evenings. We did play cards and kiddie board games, but what can compete with “The Flintstones”? 

We had a gas stove, so cooking and eating the thawing meat from our crammed freezer was possible until it, too, got warm enough to be iffy.  A neighbor and good friend came over after a couple of days and asked if she might use our kitchen to prepare a meal for her family.

I was stunned when she began frying — fish sticks!

With all those thawing roasts, pork chops and chicken breasts available, why choose a cheap and, to me, relatively unappetizing entrée? Now, had my daddy’s freezer — situated 100 miles north — lost power, the race would have been on to devour all the delicious bream and perch that this avid fisherman had stored away.

My husband pointed out that this was Friday, and our Catholic neighbor was bound to produce a meal of fish or seafood for herself, her husband, and their children. I wasn’t as ignorant as I seem in telling this; the stress of the storm and its aftermath had made me lose track of  what day of the week it was.

I got to thinking about this today, with Ash Wednesday on the calendar, and wondering whether abstinence from meat is still the rule during Lent. Why would I notice when dining with Catholic friends that they order a meatless menu? Our oysters, shrimp, crawfish and crabs, not to mention redfish and flounder, are so superb that who wouldn’t prefer them to steak? Give me delicious crabmeat au gratin or char-broiled oysters over a filet mignon anytime. 

Anyhow, a search on the internet — that 21st century font of facts — yielded the information that “current Church law in the territories of the United States still regards abstinence from meat as the only form of penance which must be performed during Lent” (from the Modern Catholic Dictionary). I should have known all this, what with the plethora of Lenten recipes included in food advertising for the six weeks before Easter. 

In New Orleans, some Protestants closer to Catholic tradition than my own denomination also observe Lent, beginning on Ash Wednesday, by giving up things they probably have too much of during the rest of the year: alcohol, sugar and chocolate come to mind, and at least some of the penitent ones have also admitted to me that abstinence will help him or her also lose weight.

But since “penance” implies a certain amount of discomfort, I wondered whether anybody had considered going the route of actual physical deprivation. Googling “Lenten suggestions“ took me to a website titled Life Teen and I found that several youngsters plan to give up their beds and sleep on the floor for 40 nights — which they did last year and not something that older folks can consider without a lot of pain.

I also wondered whether any of the teens had considered giving up twitter, tweeting, texting or Facebook, all of which I‘d consider addictions. And found that while one young woman resolves to use her cell phone only at night and to stay away from social media altogether, two others report that they‘ve posted other plans for Lent on Facebook.

But Lent isn’t just about abstaining from doing something: It’s also about prayer, study, meditation and being a part of good works. I like the idea that one teen came up with for this year’s observance. She’s put together a list of 40 people who’ve played meaningful roles in her life and plans to write a thank-you letter to each one.

Imagine how good she’ll make them feel. 

Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at


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