Fridays during Lent, my parents often took my brother and me to Long John Silver’s. I hated Long John’s, even though as a child I wasn’t able to articulate exactly why. I wasn’t walking around at eight years old like an entitled miniature Gordon Ramsay saying things like, “Dog shit. You know you’re supposed to change your fryer oil, yeah?” I just knew Long John’s was bad, uniformly bad. Everything it served somehow had a pronounced nothingness. The hush puppies seemed to be all texture and no flavor. The fries were mushy and lacked the bite of the ones at McDonald’s across the street, and everything looked way too... smooth. It was the first time in my life I felt hyper critical of food. Even as a kid, I knew something was amiss. My taste buds discerned virtually no difference between any of the buffed out proteins. Look at the menu: Even the chicken at Long John’s looks like seafood.
Every so often my parents would spare us Long John’s during Lent and take us to the fish fry at our church. Held in the basement below the cathedral, these were usually staffed by the core Catholic church demographic: old men who’d served in the Navy and sweet old ladies. These folks were also usually there on Sundays when the basement became a coffee shop that served doughnuts and milk after mass. I hated church, but I could stomach it if the promise of food was involved. Doughnuts and fish sandwiches felt less religious and more community-driven. Suddenly everybody was eating and talking instead of standing and kneeling in forced meditation. This felt spiritual. This felt like I was a part of something. Upstairs? That was too one-sided. My biggest hang-up about mass: It was a full hour of not talking. Listening to one guy speak at us with rehearsed lines for an hour prepared me to watch a lot of bad stand-up comedy. Every Sunday I sat in a pew like a prisoner, desperately wanting to talk to my brother, my dad, my mother, anybody. I remember thinking as an altar boy, “Why on earth would we go to mass when we could all just eat together?” Truly, everybody seemed so much happier. That basement made me realize food was what church was supposed to be. It was my independence and my community.
In western Pennsylvania, church fish frys are a big deal—of course they are. Food is exactly the type of thing people in small towns take personally. Potlucks are a sport, dinner is a competition, and fish frys are the playoffs, baby. Don’t believe me? Fish frys are such a big deal back where I come from that churches get reviewed for their food.
KDKA radio in Pittsburgh recently took a listener poll and released a list of the Top 10 Fish Fries in Western Pennsylvania, and you better believe it’s a point of pride to be on that list. I know Pittsburgh doesn’t exactly scream “fresh fish,” but these churches do numbers. Holy Angels Parish, voted best fish fry in Pittsburgh, goes through 2,000 pounds of fresh pollock on Ash Wednesday. I love that they use the vendible pollock. It’s what makes McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish and Arby’s Classic Fish Sandwich. Pollock is responsible for the indestructible frozen fish stick, and it’s the “crab” in your imitation crab meat. It’s ubiquitous because of its price and availability. U.S. commercial landings of Alaskan pollock are consistently over 2 billion pounds per year. It travels frozen for dirt cheap in giant shipping containers. It’s abundant, not overfished, and relatively healthy. It also tastes overwhelmingly mild, which is fine because the best application for it is what the fast food companies and churches are doing: the freakin’ fish sandwich.
What makes a good church fry fish sandwich? Well, let’s talk about the components. It’s the aforementioned pollock (cod also works), bread, processed American cheese, and tartar sauce. The fish is frozen, thawed, breaded, and fried. The breading is usually batter, not breadcrumbs. The American cheese on a fish sandwich doesn’t change—you’re not looking for flavor, but a texture to complement the breaded pollock. Any cheese with distinct flavor would be too much for the humble fish sandwich. Really, there are two ways to elevate a fish fry sandwich without entering into “gourmet” territory: tartar sauce and bread.
Having a conversation about tartar sauce is basically having a conversation about mayonnaise, and I am firmly in the camp of Hellmann’s over Miracle Whip. A good mayonnaise will lift even the most basic ingredients out of the dumps. I prefer my tartar sauce heavy on the onions with distinct lemon flavor, but truly I have never had a tartar sauce I thought was bad.
Bread is probably the biggest difference between McDonald’s and your local Catholic church. At a fast food joint you’ll see the most rudimentary bun, but I’ve found that many churches have commissioned a local bakery to bake the bread for them. That means it comes in fresh on Fridays from somebody you know down the street. Bread is paramount to a good fish sandwich. It is, after all, holy. For you foodies out there, that church fry has got some great locally sourced sacrament. Go get you The Body of Christ. Amen.
As you’ve probably guessed, a lot of these church fish frys are going to be takeout-only for the rest of this Lenten season. Like so many of my favorite things about food, the community has been sucked right out amid a global pandemic. The togetherness is gone. This whole thing has got me feeling like that kid in church right now, having to sit quietly in silent agony, shaking his knee with anticipation, waiting to go downstairs to eat doughnuts with his family and friends.
If there are any churches in your neighborhood doing a fish fry, show some support and grab some takeout.