It happens at the close of every week. You hear the beating of wings, catching the glint of spectacles as they circle the grocery store deli: flocks, hordes, an entire legion descends upon the hot bar with a ravenous craving for flesh. But not just any meat will do. They crave the bounty of the sea, filets of fish swimming with the grease of the deep fryer.
I was a week into a new cooking gig when I first heard the term “Fish Vultures.” They were the bane of Friday nights, and the serving staff groaned at their every approach. But where do they come from, this particular breed of customer, and why are they so damned cranky? Years after I first set foot in a deli, I embarked on a quest to find out.
As many readers might know, most practicing members of the Catholic faith abstain from meat on Fridays. This custom has ancient roots, and I’m not going to go into it here. But even now, this has a significant effect on menus in predominantly Catholic communities.
This wasn’t so much of a thing when I was living in New Mexico, but that probably has something to do with the fact that I was, you know, in the middle of the desert. Here in Central Wisconsin, the Friday Fish Fry is almost a religion in and of itself.
Let me be clear: There’s absolutely nothing wrong with going pescatarian every week. It’s a good choice, in fact, for both health and environmental reasons. But if we’re going to agree to eat fish together, can we at least be civil about it?
Seriously, I’m asking. Because through my years of food service, no other item carries as much rancor as Friday fish. In an effort to validate my flashbacks, I visited three different delis. In each case, a few questions to the folks behind the counter was all it took for confirmation: People get downright mean about this stuff.
Sometimes, the Vultures claim the fish is not fresh enough. This is usually untrue, as the product sells out before it has a chance to get old. Other Vultures protest that the cooks aren’t using a particular species of fish. Here’s a news flash—deli servers have no control over the whims of grocery supply chains.
And may the holy mother help you, deli workers of America, if the Friday fish runs out. If it does, you shall be subjected to angry squawks for the rest of the night.
“I have to tell them, ‘There’s no more in the back, I’m not hiding it from you,’” one employee told me. “I’ve been doing this for twenty years. And that’s all I can say.”
The Vultures, it seems, make life harder for everyone who must deal with them.
“I’m getting ready to quit,” said an attendant at another deli location. “People are just so mean. And it doesn’t matter if you’re in the middle of doing something. They’ll yell at you all the way from the counter.”
Not even the cooks are safe. All through the dinner shift, the phone rings with a repeated question: “Can you save me some?”
Yes, that’s possible. But in my experience, it’s going to be pretty gross by the time you come to retrieve it. Sealed in a container and set in a holding oven, the trapped steam can reduce the filets to a pile a vaguely seafood-ish… something. But if there’s enough fish on hand, cooks will usually brave the claws of the Vultures to save some fish mush for polite folks with the forethought to call ahead.
Look, we all have our favorite junk food. And if you enjoy the taste of hot bar fish, more power to you.
But seriously, folks, can we be a little nicer about it? It’s just cheap haddock or cod, dipped in the same Tang-colored breading used for the fried chicken. Six minutes in the oil, and boom: the simplest fried fish you can get, served without lemon, tartar sauce, or anything to brighten up the taste.
And if you find yourself facing an empty steamer tray, don’t take it out on the deli staff. Chances are that your local community is packed to the gills with Friday alternatives. Here in the Midwest at least, restaurants, drive-thrus, and even gas stations offer fried fish options on par with what you’ll find at the grocery store.
So, don’t be a Vulture. Be something happier, like a dolphin. Or maybe a sea cow. Something less screechy.