This menu has everything for a traditional Lenten dinner you can enjoy without leaving the house.
If it was a Friday in March, there was no question where my mother would be. You’d find her and about a dozen other ladies in the basement kitchen of Trinity United Church of Christ on South Grand Boulevard in St. Louis, Missouri. While Mom was in the kitchen, Dad and his buddies manned the room for take out orders.
The church has since moved to a suburbs, and my folks and most of their friends are now gone, but oh, the Lenten fish dry dinners they created! These weekly meals fed church members and the wider Dutchtown community, while nourishing friendships that my folks carried on for years.
The menu never really varied; you had a choice of fried cod or jack salmon, mac ‘n’ cheese or spaghetti in red sauce, green beans, and our family’s own recipe for coleslaw. To this day, I can picture the cafeteria line and people holding trays waiting for a plate packed with great food. As a teen, I—and other youth group friends—bussed tables. Good times. Good memories.
And that’s one of the best attributes of food; it connects our memories to present day. Whenever I attend a fish fry, my body might be at Sacred Heart Catholic Church near my house, but my mind is back to Trinity on South Grand and I’m 14 years old again.
What’s Lent and what does fish have to do with it?
A Christian observance, Lent lasts for 40 days (not counting Sundays) that begins on Ash Wednesday and continues through Holy Saturday. Some Christian traditions really focus on fasting and “giving up something for Lent,” while others concentrate more on baptism vows, self-examination, and reflection. It’s a time for repentance and preparation for Easter.
Roman Catholic communities require its members to abstain from eating flesh meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all Fridays during Lent. It seems traditions of long ago allowed fish to be eaten, maybe because of the symbolism found in the early years of the church.
At any rate, when Catholic immigrants came to the United States—especially in Midwestern states like Wisconsin and Ohio where there is an abundance of good, local fish—fish fry dinners started popping up around the 1920s. Some stories point to Prohibition playing a part in the fish fry popularity. Local taverns, to stay afloat, served these inexpensive meals for Lent-observing Christian friends.
It didn’t take long for churches across the country to realize they could turn this tradition into a fundraiser, and it didn’t matter if the church was of the Catholic or Protestant persuasion. The good old American fish fry was here to stay.
It was interesting to me that a colleague on the West Coast, however, had never heard of a fish fry. I had to explain to her what it was all about and how my city (like many others) regularly updates where the dinners can be found and calls out what’s special about the various locations. It’s like a pub crawl but with fish, not beer, although some Catholic churches and VFW halls serve alcohol at their dinners. She was fascinated, and asked me several weeks in a row what fish fry I’d be visiting.
This year, COVID has put a big damper on the fish fry fire, but you can make tasty fried fish at home with all the sides. Heck, follow up dinner with a game of family bingo if you’re feeling particularly nostalgic for a church gathering.
How to cook up your own fish fry
Start with a good piece of fish. In the Midwest, cod is the most popular for a fish fry. This fish has white flesh with large flakes. Most of the time, you’ll find this fish cleaned and filleted, ready to cook. If purchasing fresh to take home and cook right away, look for firm flesh that’s either translucent or light pink in color. It should not have a strong odor.
Frozen fillets are super convenient. Look for the MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) seal to ensure it has been sustainably harvested. The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) recommends you inspect packages for any tears or crushed edges. Avoid packages that have evidence of ice crystals because it could have thawed and refrozen. Obviously, you shouldn’t be able to bend a package of frozen fish. Personally, I like to see the fish inside a package because I’ve purchased frozen fish without this visual element only to come home to tiny, thin fillets.
After good fish, you need a good batter (something with some flavor that will stick well to the fish). The above recipe comes from Diane Wiggins, former St. Louis Globe-Democrat food editor. If you follow the Kitchen’s Facebook page, you recognize this recipe that was featured in a cookbook, Food Editors' Hometown Favorites, from 1984. In the cookbook, Diane mentioned this was her mother's (Dorothy Raab) recipe.
I made this recipe to fry cod earlier this month and it turned out well. The beer and garlic powder gives the batter a good flavor but doesn’t overpower the delicate cod. However, a friend of mine commented that “no one fries in oil anymore” and asked if this could be used in an air fryer. I referred her to a recipe by Meredith Laurence (Blue Jean Chef), in which Meredith mentions battered foods can be a challenge in an air fryer, but the trick is to dredge it in flour after the batter.
Instead of Meredith's recipe, however, I tried one from Taste of Home's website. I tweaked it slightly, swapping crushed cornflakes for Panko bread crumbs and omitting 1 tablespoon of Parmesan cheese, replacing it with garlic powder. If your fillet is thin, turn the fryer down to 375 degrees.
You’re going to need sides for your at-home fish fry. To keep with tradition, if you choose spaghetti, do a meatless marinara (it is Friday, after all), but mac ‘n’ cheese or french fries work beautifully.
My family’s zingy coleslaw will take the plate to the next level. I give this recipe that once was guarded by the Trinity church ladies to the world! I know you’ll love it.
In the end, a fish fry—whether at a church hall or around your kitchen table—is as much about fellowship as it is the food, so savor the time together and have fun.
Looking for more meatless dinner ideas?