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The history of the Buffalo fish fry

Thank the Catholic Church for your fish fry. Before Vatican II in the 1960s, Catholics were required to give up meat not just on Fridays during Lent, but on Fridays all year round. That called for creativity.

Japanese Catholics came up with tempura, deep-fried vegetables. The name comes from the start of the Gospel in traditional Latin: “In illo tempore,” or “in those times.”

The Rev. Czeslaw Krysa, the Diocese of Buffalo’s director of worship, said Catholics in Detroit had to get an indult centuries ago because fish there was scarce. In a rare ruling still in effect, they were allowed to eat muskrat on Fridays.

And one relatively modern development took place in Cincinnati, where McDonald’s was frustrated at how hamburger sales fell off on Fridays. Thus the Filet-o-Fish was born.

In Buffalo, the fish fry tradition is tied up with taverns.

“The fish we ate was merluzzi – whiting in English,” said Joey Giambra, the author of the play “Bread and Onions” and chronicler of Buffalo’s Italian culture. “They sell it frozen now, but it’s not the same.”

“Sargent’s, at the bottom of Ferry, had pan-fried fish. Across the street was another seafood restaurant called Roy’s. Roy’s was all buffet style, family style. Then all of a sudden these other fish fry joints came along with deep-fried fish.”

A cheap tavern meal in the Depression, fish fries were beloved by German, Polish and Irish Catholics.

“Polish people always had the best deep-fried fish,” Giambra said. “When I was a cop in the Riverside district, there was a place on Reservation Street that had wonderful fish frys. All the Polish ladies, you’d see them dipping the fish in flour, putting it in the deep fryer. That was in the late ’70s, ’80s.”

Our fish fry heritage is not unique.

“You find it all across the country in Catholic cities, from Minneapolis to New England,” said Andrew Golebiowski, chairman of the Polish Legacy Project.

But the tradition is especially strong here.

Golebiowski was surprised to find that a Puerto Rican woman he was dating, although she was Catholic, knew nothing about fish frys.

Janice Schlau, who owned the Williamsville Polish/German restaurant Prosit, lived in Lake Placid for five years. Every Friday she felt like a fish out of water.

“There was no fish fry anywhere,” she said. “It was so scary. You feel so isolated. There’s no beef on weck, and no fish fry. If you’re Polish, or you’re Catholic, and you move there, you think, ‘I’m in outer space.’ In Buffalo, everyone has a fish fry, not just for Lent, but every Friday of the year.”

In Rochester, where she also lived for five years, things were different.

“You’re not going to sit down in Rochester in a bar and have a shot and a beer and a fish fry,” she said. “It’s a different ball game.”

Whether you are Catholic or not, our Friday fish fry unites us.

“It’s embedded in our culture,” Schlau said. “You can’t erase it.”


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