The glorious fish fry
If you are Catholic, the title says it all. I know Lent is supposed to be all about sacrifice, and I
guess that's what the guys at the top thought they were imposing when they dreamed up the idea
to forbid meat on Fridays.
That hardship led savvy Catholics everywhere to develop the Friday Fish Fry. Where I grew up,
around Buffalo, New York, and when - the 1960s and 70s - every Friday, all year long, was
supposed to be meatless. My dad stuck to the rules. Gotta tell ya, that meatless Friday was the
best day of the week, and never mind that there was no school the next morning.
My mom made a fantastic seafood chowder. She made macaroni and cheese. She made stuffed
peppers (OK, I have to admit, I hated those green peppers stuffed with tomatoey-spicy rice, but it
was a kid-taste thing; as an adult, I can tell that Mom made great stuffed peppers). And she made
Pancakes.... Oh. That's for another time.
Then there were those fish fries.
For a long time, Mom fried fish in her own kitchen, but I know she didn't like the mess.
Nevertheless, Mom made great fish fries, so I always loved to see her haul out her deep frying
As we kids grew older, however, we went out more often to any of dozens of local churches for
their Lenten fish fries. It wasn't long before local restaurants realized they could cash in on the
fish fry phenomenon year-round, so our choices expanded.
But at the churches, you shuffled through a long line in the church basement or social hall. You
got a chunk of deep-fried fish, tartar sauce, some kind of potato or potato salad, coleslaw -
always the white, creamy kind - a piece of bread, and a piece of cake or pie made in the home
kitchens of the good ladies of the parish. And oh, heaven had come to earth for a short while that
Some people think a proper fish fry features fish fried in seasoned flour. Others think it's cracker
meal. The fish is supposed to be catfish or walleye, or crappie (really, I have a problem even
thinking about eating a fish called "crappie"), or what have you. Some think it's right only if it's
pan fried, others say it must be deep fried.
One way or another, it's not a good, American Catholic fish fry unless the fish is coated with
something and fried.
Among western New York Catholics, it was firm white fish - cod or haddock - and beer batter. I
thought that was the only way to cook a fish fry. I was quite astounded, when I moved away from
the area, to discover that other people had different ideas. But I loved exploring their version of
Here in central Nebraska, fish fries aren't so readily available. I was disappointed by a couple we
tried - they were phony fish fries, using pre-breaded, frozen fish of indiscernible origin, and
reconstituted potatoes. Some tried to pass off oven-baked fish.
Sorry, that fish don't fry with me.
Then Ron and I discovered the fish fry at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in York.
Now, out here, York is practically our home town, being only about 20 miles distant from where
we live. It's a big town, too, with a population around 8,000. And with only one Catholic church,
it has twice has many Catholic churches as Stromsburg.
A few parishioners there grew tired of having to travel 40, 50 miles in one direction to get a good
fish fry, and they founded the St. Joe's Friday night Lenten feast. These are guys, and good
eaters, so they came up with something mighty tasty.
In fact, I wrote a short article about the St. Joe's fish fry for the York News-Times. (Read the article here. )
I wrote a Coffee with Kate column, too, not having gushed enough in the article. (Read the
column here. )
It's not a western New York fish fry, and it's not beer batter, but I'll tell you what, they use a
firm white fish, they coat it, and they drop it into a deep fryer. It definitely qualifies as a proper
American Catholic fish fry.
So, for a few weeks in Lent, Ron and I enjoy the whole fish fry experience, shuffling through the
line in St. Joe's gymnasium, salivating as one lady shifts several chunks of golden-fried pollack
into the largest section of our divided foam plates. The next lady whops a big spoonful of
coleslaw into another section, and a third lady finishes it off with a big serving of scalloped
We move farther along the line to pick out a slice of bread - potato bread, or white, or rye, or
nice, dark pumpernickel - and add tartar sauce to our plates from a big vat of the stuff, then we
pick up a styrofoam cup of water or iced tea. We find a seat at the cafeteria tables pushed into
long rows, and sit down to chat for a while with total strangers, all of us smacking our lips over
that tasty fish and already grieving the day, just a few weeks hence, when the last morsel will be
served and we will have to wait another year to taste it again.
And no matter how good it is, always, always, deep inside, I am hoping that next week, when I
come, the seasoned flour coating will have been replaced by a rich, crackling, irresistible beer
batter, and I will be able to taste, once more, a good old western New York-style fish fry.
Beer-batter fish fry
Now, what else you choose to serve with this puffy-crunchy-malty fried delight is up to you, but
if you're doing it right, you'll have a side of coleslaw, some big, fat, fresh, mealy-crisp french
fries or some creamy au gratin potatoes, and some kind of good, soft bread - unless you've got
the guts to make good ol' Southern hushpuppies. I have no problem with mixing fish fry styles,
so long as I get me at least one good beer-batter piece of fish each Lent.
So you're on your own, for now, with the sides. Here, I'm concerned with the fish.
Beer batter needs a piece of fish that can stand up to it. I prefer cold water cod, but that's getting
harder and harder to come by, these days. Any kind of firm white fish, the thicker the better,
works for a beer-batter fish fry: cod, pollack, haddock, that sort.
The beer batter itself is ridiculously easy. Here's the recipe I use when I make a fish fry at home:
2 c. flour
1 Tbsp. baking powder
1 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
12 oz. beer
Mix all ingredients; beat until smooth. Refrigerate for 15 minutes to an hour before using.
That's it. Those are the basics. This recipe should easily coat one to two pounds of fish.
You can add Old Bay seasoning or cayenne pepper. You can use fresh-ground black pepper. You
can kick up the spices however you like. Some beer batter recipes include a couple of eggs and
cut the baking powder back to 1-1/2 teaspoons.
Some specify brown beer, and I can't argue with that - I love Newcastle Brown or
Leinenkeugel's Fireside Nut Brown. I also love Old Milwaukee, or at the other end of the
spectrum, Leinenkeugel's Creamy Dark. It really doesn't matter, so long as you like the beer.
Make sure your frying oil is hot. Some recipes say 350 degrees; sometimes my deep fryer needs
to be hotter than that, about 375. Fry the fish in small batches, so the oil can circulate around it.
Dredge the fish in corn starch, dunk the fish in the beer batter, then ease it into the fryer. When
the batter is set and golden brown on one side, turn the fish over and finish it off on the other
side, usually about two minutes.
How do you know when it's done? The thicker the fish, the longer it takes to cook, but honestly,
if it looks good enough to eat, it should be done. If you're not sure, break into the thickest piece.
If it doesn't look white and firm-set, dunk it back into the hot oil briefly. Drain the fish on a stack
of newspaper covered with a clean paper towel.
Then eat it, already!