The slogan “Fish Fry Fridays” is a familiar one to Catholics this time of year. On Fridays during Lent, which falls from Feb. 18 to April 4 in 2015, meat is strictly off limits.
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This practice stems from the crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday: Because he sacrificed his flesh for the sake of mankind on that day, Catholics (and members of other Christian denominations) are asked to abstain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent. The period of sacrifice ends on Easter Sunday, usually with the devouring of a large ham.
While the Lenten season may sound a bit somber, churches have found a way to turn meatless Fridays into community celebrations. They’re called fish fries, and for decades, these events have brought people together in church basements and event rooms, where they enjoy heaping plates of fried fish, French fries and coleslaw.
Friday fish fries are occasionally held on the West Coast and in other U.S. regions, but they’re ubiquitous in the Midwest. When I was a kid in Michigan, my dad brought home take-out fish fry dinners from our church nearly every Friday during Lent. It was something my sister and I looked forward to each year with gluttonous relish (so much for sacrifice). But when I raise the topic with Californian friends who grew up Catholic, I’m met with blank stares. Or undisguised envy.
The epicenter of the Midwest’s fish fry tradition, I’ve come to learn, is St. Louis, Missouri. Fish fries abound in that city, so much so that a local man was inspired to create a website called FridayNightFish.com, devoted to reviewing Lenten fish fries.
The site is run by Stephen Ibendahl (a.k.a. Fish Fry Guy), owner of a St. Louis-area consulting firm that specializes in community and urban planning. Each Friday during Lent, Ibendahl heads out with his family to sample and review a fish fry. After the season ends, he names a Best Fish Fry winner for the year, along with a Fan Favorite.
According to Ibendahl, who has attended at least 50 different fish fries over the years, St. Louis is a fish fry hub because the city’s residents have a strong spirit of community. “It gives parishes and churches a chance to come together,” he said, pointing out that most of the events are run by volunteers. “You’ll see everyone involved in a parish fish fry, from the men frying the fish to teenagers clearing tables.”
What makes a great fish fry? “You have to have great fried cod,” Ibendahl said. “That’s essential.” Tasty sides are a plus, he added, along with special touches such as “real plates” or live music.
Ibendahl’s Best Fish Fry winner for years running is St. Pius V Catholic Church in St. Louis, which hosts its annual “Fabulous Fish Fry” every Friday during Lent. The fry not only features two kinds of fried fish, but homemade sides and desserts, live music and beer. For each weekly fish fry, volunteers prepare meals for about 700 people, including take-out orders. An adult meal costs only $8.
“We prepare fried cod loins, huge fillets of fried catfish and baked cod,” said St. Pius V parishioner Kathy Donahue, who estimates a typical weekly fish order at 350 pounds. “We hand-bread both the cod loins and catfish, and the catfish is breaded with a special mix of regular and Cajun breading to give it a little kick.”
The fish is served with homemade tartar and cocktail sauces, and fresh lemon slices.
To go along with the fish, volunteers make about 100 pounds of potato salad and 40 to 50 pounds of coleslaw each week. There are also “tons” of macaroni and cheese, applesauce and a variety of scratch-made desserts. Dinners are served on real china, not paper plates.
And that’s not all. “A popular draw is our live band Clan Jameson — all parishioners who play Irish music,” Donahue said. “Plus we have a wide assortment of craft and regular beer served by ‘The Precious Bar Maids,’ who are really the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood. We also have our very own Frying Nun, a sister of the Precious Blood, who fries our catfish.”
This extravaganza is a far cry from the simple fish fries of my childhood, which featured only fried cod, fries and coleslaw. But that’s the fun of the fish fry — no two are exactly the same.
“When you travel around to different fish fries,” Ibendahl said, “each one is a little different.”
To find a fish fry near you, check out these regional “Fish Fry Finders”:
Main photo: A Friday night fish fry typically includes fried cod, french fries and coleslaw. Credit: Tina Caputo