Remember when a fish fry was just fish fry?
These days — when everything hip is hyped to the nth degree, and everyone and his brother is an amateur marketing guru — dinner time on the Lenten day of reflection is no longer just a communal meal in a moldy church basement. It is an event. A destination.
In St. Louis, a Catholic stronghold, fish fries have become as popular as post-season baseball games or a Sarah Palin book signing. Indeed, some are becoming too popular for their own good. This past Friday at my parish the line snaked out the basement door and round the block, leaving some customers, literally, out-in-the-cold.
Why this sudden trendiness?
One reason, at least in my neighborhood, is there are fewer chances for residents to come together as neighbors, parishioners — in a phrase, as a community. This is, after all, the era of bowling alone. If customers are willing to endure a 45-minute wait in March weather they are obviously hungry for something more substantial than fried cod and mac and cheese. Call it an appetite for community, if you will.
Or call it a respite from cabin fever. Fish fries are also a sure sign of spring, and are often the first chance many of us have to poke our heads out of the house, not unlike the golden daffodils that are beginning to spring up around town.
Since fish fries are often a parish’s main fundraiser, competition is intense. Some parishes pull out all the stops to attract clientele. Live music has been a staple for years. It is not unusual for parishes to serve gourmet meatless dinners on fine china with real silverware. Offerings include: fish tacos, sushi samplers, frog legs, grilled shrimp, jack salmon, and, on tap, the best local microbrews. Others have taken the opposite approach, trumpeting their traditional fare (God’s cod and French fries) served on paper plates (the green-minded bring their own plates, of course) and washed down with Budweiser on draft. None of that snobby, elitist fare for us.
NATURALLY, THE LOCAL hipsters were quick to get in on the ground floor, organizing bus trips (on public transportation, naturally) to a different fish fry each Friday of Lent. One Facebook group called STL Fish Fry Crew advertises itself this way:
This crew goes around to Saint Louis fish fry dinners at parishes and various organizations to dine on fish and drink beer. We have been doing this for ten or so years now, and it is a casual meet-up and kid-friendly. [We] tend to keep it pretty local…. There are many a fine Fish Fry in this town, and by all means go to all over and report your results.
Palatability is just one point of concern to fish fry cruisers. Community, sustainability, and kid friendliness are also important. As one Facebook reviewer noted sourly: “Styrofoam plates and plastic silverware. No visible recycling even with cans of soda and beer sold.” No “mindful products”? Boo, hiss.
St. Louis is not particularly known for its great dining establishments (our local delicacies include thin crust pizza and rock hard toasted ravioli), but we nonetheless boast numerous magazines that review restaurants. Not surprising, then, that we have several websites dedicated to reviewing fish fries. One — Friday Night Fish — calls itself “the only review site that combines comments on Urban Design, Sustainability, and Fried Cod!”
Much to the Catholics’ chagrin, fish fries have become so trendy that other sects have begun cutting into their profits. Methodists, Presbyterians, and countless non-denominationals have all fired up their deep fryers, even though their doctrines say nothing about fish-only Fridays. Even the local Unitarians sponsor an Unfish Fry, aimed at the Vegetarian Unitarian. Not everyone is happy about this ecumenicalism. When the local Jewish paper, the Jewish Light, reviewed local fish fries, some of its readers were up in arms: “In the Jewish universe, Friday night is for Shabbat, not fish-fry hopping,” one reader kvetched. “It is really offensive to have a Jewish institution organize against traditional ways by reviewing Friday-night dining at area churches.”
Sadly, when something becomes this popular crass commercialization cannot be far behind. This Friday ESPN Radio’s whacky “Afternoon Mayhem” crew will broadcast live from St. Gabriel’s Church’s fish fry. That is one event I will not be attending.
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