Lenten Fish Frys
Lenten Fish Frys
In an Irish Catholic neighborhood like South Buffalo the Friday night fish fry, during Lent, is a ritual as unbending and as regular as Sunday Mass. To miss either is something that just isn't done.
The tradition has its roots in a centuries old Catholic Church prohibition banning the eating meat, on Fridays, during the Lenten Season. Good Catholics, and some not so good, religiously obeyed. The "prods,” as we referred to our ecumenical Protestant brethren, coined the term "Mackerel snappers,” to describe us, and the event. Later, other disparaging heretics used the term as an all-purpose slur on Catholics in general. We didn't mind however, for we thought that they were heathens and didn't know any better.
Growing up, in a large Catholic family, meant sending one of the little darlings off to the fish market on Friday afternoon, for the weekly ration of Blue or Yellow Pike. In addition, cole slaw, potato salad, and a massive amount of French fries and rye bread were the usual accompaniments. Later, when Lake Erie died, we settled upon Haddock, as the fish of choice. The smell of grease cooking in the neighborhood was a pleasant reminder to us of who and what we were.
Later, as we grew older and married, custom ordained that we migrate to our favorite Tavern every Friday evening for the weekly fish fry. There, however humble the surroundings, could be found many of the neighbors partaking of this aquatic communion. Usually, a couple of Genesee beers accompanied the ritual. Sure now, what's the harm in that? Don't they have wine at the altar? The new age, and cholesterol consciousness, brought on the advent of "broiled fish." But, it wasn't the same. If the fish wasn't fried, and of heaping proportions, something seemed amiss.
The traffic on Friday nights, around the Taverns, is a hazard. You could get killed crossing the street. The lads had visions of getting to the event and securing a table promptly, on their minds. Driving and parking were secondary concerns. The dinner business was successful because of the volume served and the "barley sandwiches" (beer) consumed. Indeed, one could procure the raw ingredients, for the meal, for only a few cents cheaper at the fish market. The saloons made their profit margin on the beer that they sold, in large quantities. Many are the pleasant memories that I have, of arriving at one of these emporiums and being greeted by now grown childhood friends, sharing the custom.
They were honest and hard working people, indulging in a level of social intercourse that is tribal in its ritual and reassuring in its regularity. Everyone had their favorite place and was fierce in expressing their loyalty. Indeed, social clubs sprang up around the favored place and the camaraderie engendered there carried over into many facets of our daily life.
The saloons themselves were a smoky archipelago of warmth and companionship in an often difficult environment. Wielding the scooper's shovel all day and bitterly resenting the fat bellied foreman barking the orders, was something that needed a bit of easing at day's end. The icy froth and beaded sweat of a tall schooner of beer was both long anticipated and much appreciated. Several hours later, most of the lads made it to their homes as best they were able. Sure, it was a hard evening spent discussing the events of the day. And herself, left waiting at home, was often ill amused by the condition in which the lad arrived at the kitchen door. The jokes didn't seem as funny at 3 A.M.. As we grew older, we could see the mark of the "creature" on some of the luckless souls. They were headed down into the abyss, God love them. Hard drinking was a problem that we all had seen close up in the larger families. We tried to be understanding, but the condition sat like the mark of Cain upon the poor lads. Each of the unfortunate souls knew, in his own heart, that he was doomed.
A frontier honesty pervaded the neighborhood and people rarely locked their doors at night. You could depend on the neighbors to watch over the castle if you were away. On the quaint, dead end streets people sat on their front porches and enjoyed the evening air, while watching the comings and goings of the neighborhood. And sure, the odd lad weaving down the street during the wee hours, like a sailor at sea in a gale, was the subject of much review around the neighborhood kitchen tables for days afterward.
We were fortunate enough to live across the street from the Cazenovia Park Bowl. I could sit on the porch and watch baseball games, on diamond number1, every afternoon during the summer. The older folks reminisced and told tales of professional softball, in the thirties. They claimed that 30,000 fans would line the surrounding sides of the "Cazenovia bowl" to enjoy the antics of legendary players like "shifty gears.”
I guess, in hindsight, we romanticize what occurred, long ago. They seemed like simpler times then and I am glad that I remember them that way.
Joseph Xavier Martin