As an Evangelical kid with a bad attitude and a flair for the dramatic, I grew up endlessly jealous of my Catholic friends. They had centuries of tradition, raucous Lenten fish fries, and men in dresses who put wafers into their mouths. I had youth group on a carpeted basketball court and a pastor who wore flare jeans. I didn’t care about the spiritual aspect of Catholicism, but my theatrical nature drew me to the idea of a collective religious experience that went beyond my family’s after-church visits to Quizno’s.
Despite our cavalier consumption of the body of Christ (Saltines!), my family had one spiritual practice that approached the divine: our semi-regular pilgrimage to Captain D’s, which took place when my parents had simply Had Enough and wanted their screaming children to eat their dinner quietly in separate rooms.
Captain D’s is a fast seafood destination akin to Long John Silver’s, but better in every conceivable way, except that it’s mostly only in the South. Captain D’s and Long John Silver’s both claim to use wild-caught pollock. This is a fact I don’t care about at all. Long John Silver’s also boasts a diverse menu, which basically means they carry salmon. This is another fact I don’t care about, because salmon is grilled, not fried, and I left grilled fast food back in 2006 when McDonald’s discontinued its healthy Chicken Selects. No, the real difference between Captain D’s and Long John Silver’s is the breading. Long John Silver’s cuts its fish fillets into an inexplicable diamond shape, coating them in a uniform layer of batter until they look like giant hash browns. It’s unimaginative and I hate it. Captain D’s keeps it fast and loose, coating unevenly cut fish fillets in about a million layers of breading. And the more breading you have, the greater the chances that you’ll snap a piece off when you’re using the fish as an eco-friendly, flavorful coleslaw spoon. I call this a Sunken Treasure.
I’m not proud. I know fast seafood is not something you eat around other people. (Family members don’t count, because they must love you no matter what.) And honestly, that’s fine with me. While other fast food restaurants tempt customers with misleading photos of impossibly juicy burgers, fast seafood joints are transparent about what they serve. It’s fish. It’s frozen fish that’s been reheated and covered in crispy batter. They know it’s gross, we know it’s gross, but more importantly, we all know it’s going to taste fantastic every single time. And I’ll ask you this: If everyone thinks Captain D’s is so gross, who’s keeping the business afloat other than my depraved family?
One could point to the Catholic community, as Catholics eat a ton of fish during Lent. But while Captain D’s might experience an influx of hungry Catholics in late winter and early spring, someone is keeping the captain afloat during the other 44 weeks of the year. I suspect it might come down to desperate families like my own—families who want their rowdy kids to retreat to their bedrooms for some peace and quiet. And nothing does the trick quite like Captain D’s. I’m still unclear on my religious beliefs, but I do know that deep-fried drive-thru fish is monastic food: best eaten in solitude.
I used to love solitary foods. Right now, I live completely alone for the first time in my life, and dinner usually involves slathering a Greek-seasoned chicken breast in ketchup, sticking it on a fork, and eating it like I’m a busty grog wench ripping into a turkey leg at the Bristol Renaissance Faire in Kenosha, Wisconsin. But how do you enjoy eating in solitude when every food is suddenly a solitary food? There’s choice inherent in the bliss that accompanies a guilty pleasure—but there’s no choice right now. We’re in the middle of a pandemic, and I miss things I didn’t think I’d miss. Like drive-thru seafood.
We don’t even have Captain D’s in Chicago. There’s something called Captain B’s Shrimp House, as well as Captain Hooks Fish and Chicken. There’s a Long John Silver’s directly south of me, but now is not the time for uniformly battered fish. I don’t even have a car to hit the drive-thru. It’s a cruel irony: Everything is scary and uncertain, which makes this the best time to hunker down with the ultimate comfort food. But I can’t, because I left Captain D’s in my home state of Missouri along with my family that I can’t visit because I might infect them.
We’re approaching the end of the Lenten season, but I have a feeling our parade of solitary meals is just beginning. I’ve got to hand it to the theatrical Catholic god: Life right now does feel ascetic. The Catholic church a block away from me rings its bells five times a day as a solemn call to prayer. But I’m not even sure who I’d pray to. I can’t pray to the Evangelical god, because He still casts wives as subservient to their husbands and has zero good snacks. I can’t pray to the Catholic god, lest I anger my radical Huguenot ancestors who slipped out of France in ramshackle boats blaring “We’re Not Gonna Take It” over primitive loudspeakers. None of this is what I had in mind when I asked for a religious experience. I’d rather be meditating over a three-piece fish meal, hunched over my coffee table and rewatching The Terminal and maybe going out afterwards. In the meantime, I’ll improvise. I’ll cruise through my stockpile of frozen shrimp, deveining in lieu of clutching rosary beads. I’ll kneel at the altar of Will Shortz and try to get better at the Saturday crossword. And then, someday, two women will roll the stone away from my tomb, where they’ll find me, pale and blinking and clutching greasy napkins. “She is risen!” they’ll cry. I’ll look around me, satisfied that the world is once again as it should be.
Then, like a good Christian, I’ll forget everything I’ve learned and probably go back to bed.