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COMMENTARY

The fish fry: A beer-battered bridge that connects all Western New York

My wife and I met almost 40 years ago. She was from greater Rochester. I was living in Dunkirk, in a house my parents rented. We both attended SUNY Fredonia State, at a time when it was not so typical for students who lived on campus to date students who lived nearby, a nice way of describing a classic college town divide.

There was a natural gap between the kids in the dorms and those of us who were self-described "townies." They ate at dining halls and built their lives around the campus. We drove, walked or hitched to school and then left it at day's end. They had friends within their universe and we had friends in ours, and sometimes it all seemed galaxies apart.

Yet a beer-battered bridge soon opened between those worlds, one that my wife and I still join many of you in honoring, during Lent and all year long.

Not long after we met by chance at a picnic, during those early conversations when you talk about everything and anything, I learned from this young woman by the name of Nora Butler - raised in some faraway place called Irondequoit – how a memorable part of her childhood, near Rochester, was going out for fish on Friday.

Boom. There it was, a point of instant communion in every way that mattered. In Dunkirk, as in Buffalo or in West Seneca or in Cheektowaga – really, as in virtually every neighborhood in Western New York and across much of Upstate – if someone says, "You want to get fish tonight?" you know exactly what it means.

They are not talking about baked salmon or red snapper. It is usually said on Friday, and it refers to just one thing.

This means a fish fry, which in this town is all about haddock, served in a specific way.

This one goes deep, toward a shared piece of the collective regional soul. It is why I am hoping readers with great fish fry traditions might share their memories with me at skirst@buffnews.com, memories I will gather in a digital collection.

For many of us, the core of it begins in some version of this shared childhood experience in Lent. You were a kid in a family on such a tight budget that you rarely went out to eat, at a time when Red Barn or McDonald's still seemed like once-in-a-while exotic treats, but every now and then there would be a surprise. Your father would come home after 5 on some Friday in late March, weary after a day at the plant, evening air hanging onto that winter sting.

He would set down his thermos and his scratched-up black metal lunch bucket – crumpled wax paper and the remnants of a sandwich still inside – before he settled in at the kitchen table, with his cigarettes. Your mother also had the evening free, no work for her on this particular Friday at the drug store or Quality Markets or as a cleaning woman or at whatever part-time job she might have held at that time.

Abruptly, because these kinds of decisions were always hers, she would look at your father and say:

"Maybe we should go out for fish tonight."

We asked, you answered: Best places to get a fish fry in Western New York

It was Lent, it was cheap, it sounded really good, and she had loved fish fries since her childhood on Buffalo's West Side. Thus began an excursion many of you understand, exactly. You would climb into the back seat of the car for the drive through city neighborhoods of old two-story wooden houses, until you pulled up outside some corner tavern or social club or legion post.

Part of the ritual was that as soon as you opened the car door, you breathed in this rich smell that swept across you like an aromatic cloud, the overwhelming scent of deep-fried haddock in the early spring air that to this day, when I encounter it, speaks to me of home.

You would follow your parents through a glass door and into a dining room where Formica tables were set in neat rows. Some big guy in a button-down shirt would stand behind the bar, pouring glasses of Pabst or Genny or long-gone Koch's Golden Anniversary, each draft going for a quarter or 50 cents apiece.

Maybe he was the owner, or a club president, or a volunteer. He exchanged a nod with your folks and you found your way to a table, usually covered with a classic red-and-white checkered tablecloth. The server – an older woman who knew your mother from church or the PTA – would hustle over to memorize drink orders and ask if you already knew what you wanted. Maybe your folks would glance at the cardboard menu out of routine and courtesy, but there was no mystery. You were there for one thing.

The Buffalo Irish Center in South Buffalo begins its fish fry at 4 p.m. on Fridays. (Sharon Cantillon/News file photo)

Give us the fish fry, please. Give us the fish fry that comes with just a guilty touch of secret pleasure, because the truth was this: On those Lent Fridays when so many people followed church rules by going without meat, the "sacrifice" was getting fish, which was even better.

The next part is critical for those new to this phenomenon: It had to be haddock, not cod, because the great fish fries across upstate New York are always made with haddock, in a most specific way. If you need proof, just ask retired family members who have left for the Carolinas or Florida, places where they can find wonderful seafood but they struggle to find a classic Buffalo fish fry that comes even close to matching those at home.

The server would soon return to our table with big porcelain plates laden with coleslaw, another Friday art form when it shows up fresh and tasty, alongside french fries that at the best spots are browned and firm and steaming. Still, they were only superb supporting actors for the real star of the show:

There it was, the great slab of haddock, one end dangling off the side.

Families enjoy dinner together at a fish fry at St. Mark's on Woodward Avenue. (Robert Kirkham/News file photo)

This was not the place to dwell upon cholesterol. When it was good, the tartar sauce came in a cup – please, please, none of the prepackaged stuff – and you took the side of your fork and broke through that golden shell to find the haddock, slivers of fish so white and sweet, maybe a slice of lemon to make it even more exquisite, and then it became business all around the table.

You were eating fish and breathing fish, aroma strong enough to seep into your clothes, until you could barely put down another bite. Maybe your mother and father would each allow themselves a beer, and when you were done the server would return to write out the bill on one of those green-striped pads. Your parents would flatten out a couple of crinkled ones as a tip before they cashed out at the bar, leaving your mother to reflect while walking out:

We should get fish more often.

100 Things: Catch a Lenten fish fry with all the trimmings

If you had leftovers, you would bring them home on a paper plate, covered with foil, and for a day or two the scent would linger in the car.

All of it remains vivid, a ritual that wrapped in everything I loved about home and family. It was so obvious, such a part of the fabric, that I did not realize the full bonding power until the day I showed up at a picnic at Point Gratiot near Lake Erie, where I met this young woman from Fredonia State who soon told me about one thing she especially missed about leaving home.

As a reward for often babysitting her young niece and nephew, her older sister and her brother-in-law used to pick her up on Friday nights and take her to a place in Rochester called the Conkey Grill, where this wonderfully powerful cloud of an aroma wrapped in the whole neighborhood, a place where the fish was so good and so big it dangled off the plate.

I heard that, and it was not long before I asked the one question anyone with any brains would ask, the question being asked across Western New York, even as you read this:

You want to go out for some fish?

Like a prophecy, the woman I would marry said, "I do," a fish fry vow that we still have and hold on to every Friday night.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News who wonders if you have your own fish fry traditions. If so, email him at skirst@buffnews.com or leave those memories below, as a comment. You can read more of Kirst's work in this archive.

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