For many who watch nature documentaries on TV, the capybara will be an instantly familiar sight. These semi-aquatic animals, covered in brown fur and roughly the size of an average dog, are the largest extant rodents on the planet.
Capybaras come across as serene almost to the point of torpor, relaxing in the water or near it and relentlessly chewing through aquatic vegetation. They are also seemingly indifferent to the nearby predators such as caiman, giant otters and man itself.
For it seems that capybara is, in some parts of the world, a delicacy. In Venezuela the capybara is a popular meat, said to taste like salted pork. However it is surprisingly hard to uncover what the actual meat of the animal tastes like, as the preparation almost always involves preservation through drying and salting.
What the capybara is not, by any stretch of the imagination, is a fish. And yet, by the standards of the Catholic church, it is. How can this be?
Tasty and Plentiful
The story starts in the 16th century, with Catholic clergymen in Venezuela who had noted that capybara were easy to corral and had a surprising amount of useable meat on them. They started to enjoy the animal’s meat, and it soon became something of a staple.
In fact, Venezuelans started eating so much capybara that they threatened to wipe out the entire wild population altogether. Thankfully the rodent proved very suitable for farming, and with its partial domestication the population recovered and prospers today.
However, the Venezuelans also faced something of a problem with their diet and their faith. Capybaras were an important source of protein, but they were also a mammal, and the consumption of such animals was forbidden during Lent.
Fish was the usual substitute for terrestrial meats during this 40 day Christian period of fasting, but capybara meat was not something that the Venezuelans wanted to do without, at least for that length of time. Perhaps fish was not as easy to come by, or perhaps they enjoyed the taste of the giant rodent too much.
As a result, the clergymen wrote to the Vatican on behalf of themselves and their congregations, presenting this problem and asking what should be done. They already had a solution: if the Vatican would decree that a capybara was a “fish” then they would be able to continue to eat it during Lent.
After all, they reasoned, the capybara spent a lot of its time in water, maybe that counted as a fish. However in doing so they were clearly ignoring the time it spent on land, the fact it had decidedly un-fish-like characteristics, and the fact that, at the end of the day, it wasn’t a fish.
However, the Vatican was amenable to their request. The capybara was henceforth considered a fish in the eyes of God, and Venezuelans to this day eat capybara during Lent, glad for their little cheat.
And since God has not struck them down for their failure to adhere to his rules, presumably He is cool with it. Oh, and it’s OK to eat beaver and muskrat during Lent if you fancy as well.
Top Image: Pictured: a capybara, which is apparently a fish. Source: Ezequiel Racker / CC BY 4.0.
By Joseph Green