‘‘Where is the penance?”
The question came from a devout young man baffled by the Buffalo tradition of a Friday fish fry in Lent, a time of fasting and piety. He repeated his question. I fished for an answer.
When it’s Lent and you are crunching into a hot beer-battered slab of fish, accompanied by potato salad, macaroni salad, creamy coleslaw and an icy beer or chilled Riesling, obviously, that penance is nowhere.
That penance has left the building!
You want a penitential facility, go back a couple of stops on our 100 Things list and head to Attica State Prison. The Friday fish fry is all about enjoyment.
And that’s OK, for reasons we will get to in a second.
[See Sharon Cantillon's fish fry gallery from R&L Lounge]
Meanwhile, let us marvel at this rich tradition. It was born of necessity, in the days when Catholics gave up meat not only on Fridays in Lent, but all year round. Now, this time-honored tavern meal transcends ethnic background.
Everyone turns Irish at the Irish Center in South Buffalo, where the menu on Lenten Fridays features the Fenian Fish Fry. Formalities disappear as the waitress, without pausing for a formal greeting, asks simply, “What are you drinking?”
And I’m not Polish, but I feel as at home as anyone Polish does at the R&L Lounge at 23 Mills St. near the Broadway Market.
“This is our Lenten tradition,” said Michael Miszewski, who was at the tavern on a recent Friday with Catie Paradiso. “We invite out-of-towners here. It’s like going to your grandparents’ house for dinner.”
The R&L Lounge gets so busy on Fridays that Lottie Pikuzinski, who owns the tavern with her husband, Ronnie, might draft you, briefly, to lend a hand. “Take this platter over to Ronnie,” she might say. Once, I found myself operating the ancient french fry machine, cutting potatoes.
Coleslaw, mac salad and potato salad are all homemade. And as you feast, don’t look around for a tiny packet of tartar sauce. Instead, Ronnie makes the rounds dishing the stuff out family style, directly onto your fish.
“Who wants tartar sauce?”
“Me!” “I do!”
[Read One Beer at R&L Lounge by Michael Farrell]
Every Friday, over our fish fries, we become one big family. East Side, West Side, Northtowns and Southtowns, the fish are frying and the people are enjoying.
Which brings us back to our original question. Where is the penance?
Get ready for a surprising answer. Allow me to introduce my authority, the Rev. Czeslaw Krysa, the director of worship for the Diocese of Buffalo.
I called Father Krysa about something else, and so I put this question to him. Krysa explained that the meatless Friday tradition concerns the type of food you eat, not how much.
“You are still doing penitential practice. You are eating something different,” he said. “The Church makes a distinction between fast and abstinence. Fasting concerns the amount. That is only in play on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, when you eat one full meal, and other two meals are not equal to one full meal.”
Just the fact that you are eating fish on Friday serves as a reminder. Christians can see it as a reminder of Friday and faith. And everyone around here can see it as a reminder of our shared identity as Western New Yorkers.
“Having a fish fry is an identity-forming action,” Krysa said. “You can enjoy it. People go out to local taverns, restaurants and pubs to meet each other. They are getting together. They get out of the house. There is a lot of talk about where you are going.
“There is a bonding that happens.”