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Now serving: Fish fries with a side of history

Once upon a time, Catholics gave up meat on Fridays not just during Lent, but all year round.

"It was brilliant," said the Rev. Martin X. Moleski, who teaches at Canisius College. "Everyone knew that all of us were making a little tiny sacrifice that was meaningful. Fridays were different from any other day of the week. Every Friday was a little Lent, and every Sunday was a little Easter."

The rules relaxed in the early 1960s. But that sacrifice was rewarded with a lasting treasure -- the Friday fish fry.

We can get fish fries all year round -- and we should. But there is a particular kind of fish fry that appears specifically during Lent. That is the grassroots fish fry.

Clubs you thought were closed to you suddenly are not. Catholic churches throw open their doors, cooking up those old-time fish fries as they used to in your great-grandparents' day. Centuries-old fights are forgotten as Protestant churches, too, drag out the deep fryers. Everyone pulls together.

We have our own particular fish fry in Buffalo. It is as ritualistic as Thanksgiving dinner.

The centerpiece is a big, Germanic slab of beer-battered fish -- hanging off the plate, if you're lucky. There is a scoop of creamy coleslaw, so you can say you had your vegetables. French fries and rye bread are non-negotiable. So is potato salad -- regular or German, preferably both, side by side. Mac salad should be in there, too. And the plastic tub of butter and the little round container of tartar sauce, too.

"It's like the United Nations on a plate," joked Eddy Dobosiewicz, who explores history with his Forgotten Buffalo tours. "It's very confusing because really it seems to have originated in the South. But a lot of communities where there were Catholics, that's where it became popular. Milwaukee has fish fry action. Cleveland has fish fry action. Wherever these European immigrants went who were Catholic, because of the Friday fasting situation."

The beer-battered fish fry from Leonard Post VFW in Cheektowaga is accompanied by German potato salad, cole slaw, macaroni salad and rye bread. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Other towns' fish fries differ slightly from ours. Cleveland offers rolls, not rye bread. Milwaukee, with its multitude of Germans, often includes potato pancakes. Only Buffalo seems to offer three or four different carbs all together.

How does a delicious, gigantic fish fry square with the original idea of penance?

Moleski laughed. That was obviously a question he had heard many times.

"It doesn't," he shrugged.

"Catholics are just like that. We tend to say, 'OK, my sacrifice is not eating meat.' But I don't have to be puritanical about it. I can enjoy things. God created the good things of the earth. Just the act of choosing the fish fry reminds us that this is the day of our salvation. We are enjoying the celebration. We're saved. Eat, drink, and be merry."

Beyond religious considerations, Lent offers a unique cultural opportunity to step back in time.

A church fish fry gives a glimpse of the goings-on of decades ago, when the parish was the center of the neighborhood. Some gently update tradition. St. Mark's in North Buffalo offers craft beer and, sometimes, a bounce house for the kids.

Aside from these tweaks, not much changes. The men of the Holy Name Society, who run the fish fry, set up a kitchen assembly line. Someone washes the haddock, someone batters it, a third man breads it, and another man thrusts it into the deep fryer.

After serving fish fries for 38 years, St. Mark's even has cleanup down to a science.

"We actually tear up cardboard boxes and line the kitchen floors with them," said Rimas Musteikis, a member of the Holy Name Society. "So when we're done, we just rip up the floor and throw it out."

Hustling out hot fish-fry dinners in St. Mark's kitchen, from left, are Bob Mucitelli, Tom Fuchs, Trey Gardner and Joel Rockensuess in the hall. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

St. Mark's is holding two more fish fries this Lent, on March 23 and 30. On March 23, the church's pastor, the Rev. Joseph Rogliano, will be there frying the first shift.

"It's hilarious," he said. "I've done it for years, at my different parishes. You've got guys who batter, guys who dip, we keep the orders going. It's such a great group of guys. I do it for an hour, I get greasy and smelly and then say 'Hey, someone else take it.' " He laughed. "And when we overcook one, it's a given that we can pick at it."

Fish fry social

Such camaraderie reigns, no doubt, at many church kitchens on Fridays in Lent. It also fills the kitchens of time-honored social clubs.

Before social media, these clubs were where people networked. At a Friday fish fry, that's the way things are again.

“They were a big deal. They were the Facebooks of their time. That’s where people networked and shared business things, social things, pictures of their kids. They were the Facebook of their generation,” said Dobosiewicz.

“Especially at Lent, there’s a social aspect to it. That’s why a lot of these Holy Name Society, the social clubs, the Polish Falcons, whoever it is, they use a fish fry as a fund raiser. Because people like to gather together. It’s similar to how places operated bingo on a regular basis. It’s kind of easy. There’s not a lot of prep involved. You cut the potatoes for the fries, prepare the salads and coleslaw, and whatever you batter the fish with, it’s a relative easy process. You set up an assembly line. There is a whole social element to that, especially at Lent.”

The Eldredge Bicycle Club (17 Broad St., Tonawanda, 693-3589), was founded in 1898 and is still in its original location. It serves fish fries from October until the Friday after Easter.

"No one gets paid," said club member Mike Baker, who often does the breading or the broiling. "We have members and officers who help out. The club has 350 members."

Joe Warthling scoops a serving of macaroni salad for a fish fry from Eldredge Bicycle Club. At left is potato salad and on right is cole slaw. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

The club doesn't serve exclusively fish on Lenten Fridays. "We also have a meat special for non-Catholics," Baker said.

But in Lent, the fish are really jumping.

"We don't use haddock. We use cod," Baker said. "During Lent we're going through about 150 pounds a week. We definitely do a bigger volume during Lent. We get people during Lent who aren't here the rest of the year."

The club welcomes the newcomers.

"We're in the process of trying to get more creative as far as letting people know that the club is open to the public," Baker said.

Other clubs, too, see Lent as a chance to draw in new people with their fish fry. Two historic North Tonawanda options are Dom Polski (576 Oliver St., 692-8327), and the Third Warders Club (147 12th Ave., 692-7357).

In South Buffalo, the Southside Athletic Club (444 Elk St., 825-9264) has a Friday fish fry praised for its huge portions. The Buffalo Irish Center (245 Abbott Road, 825-9535) offers a Fenian Fish Fry. Non-Irish need not worry about the name. It's the same meal everyone knows and loves.

Impressively, the Leonard Post VFW Post (2450 Walden Ave., Cheektowaga, 684-4371) serves fish fries Wednesday, Thursday and Friday during Lent. Its haddock fish fry, offered on Fridays year-round, is cooked by a professional catering company.

The post takes care of the drinks, serving beer from the bar. It is another scene unchanged by time. Someone could come back from the 1950s, grab one of Buffalo's down-home fish fries, and marvel that besides the price, little had changed.

The Leonard Post VFW server Melissa Courtney presents a beer-battered fish fry accompanied by German potato salad, cole slaw, macaroni salad and rye bread. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Father Rogliano, of St. Mark's, said today's fish fries are pretty much the same that he remembers from his boyhood in Springbrook. Huge? Yes. Penitent? Not exactly.

"It's fried fish and as many carbs as you can fit on the plate," he laughed affectionately.

"It's a wonderful tradition. If you're a carnivore like me, there's a sacrifice that's there. But you don't leave a fish fry hungry."

Not just for Lent

Certain Buffalo taverns keep the spirit of the grassroots Friday fish fry glowing all year long.

Among them are cozy Wiechec's Lounge (1748 Clinton St., 823-2828) and the whimsical Polish Villa II (1085 Harlem Road, Cheektowaga). The Eagle House (5578 Main St., Williamsville, 632-7669), which dates to the John Quincy Adams administration, has had centuries to perfect its fish fry.

In Buffalo, the Polish Cadets (927 Grant St., 875-3211) also serves a Friday fish fry year-round. So does the Swannie House (847-2898) built to cater to Irish grain scoopers. On Buffalo's East Side, the Happy Swallow (1349 Sycamore St., 894-4854) is charmingly old-school.

Wiechec's beer-battered fish fry comes with macaroni and potato salads, french fries, cole slaw and rye bread. The fish are served breaded, broiled or Cajun-style.(Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Who knows? Having whetted your appetite during Lent, you might want to embrace that year-round fish-on-Friday habit.

The old Friday rules are still in effect among Catholics in some other countries, including Poland and Great Britain. Moleski said that even here, the Catholic Church still strongly suggests year-round meatless Fridays.

"When the rules were relaxed, the church said, you should adopt some other penitential practice. So you are supposed to do penance on Fridays," he said. "I didn't learn that until I began teaching at Canisius 28 years ago.  It's a discipline that has gotten lost."

After trying a few other things with little success, Moleski decided that giving up the meat year-round on Fridays was the way to go.

"It's easy to remember, and it works," he said. "It makes Fridays different."

And even fun -- thanks to the fish fry.

"It's too bad that people wait until Lent," Dobosiewicz said. "Because it's a cool thing all year round."

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