Bigger fish to fry
Lent brings an already popular tradition to the forefront
The history of the North American fish fry echoes that of many food traditions: it’s a telescoping tale littered with tangential side notes and complicated caveats. To keep it simple, we’ll focus on the Great Lakes, the proverbial epicenter of the fish fry as we Buffalonians know it.
Here in the upper Midwest, a unique sequence of events and circumstances align to create our fish fry legacy. An abundance of lake fish, pulled from local waters, was an affordable solution for turn-of-the-century Catholic immigrants charged with abstaining from meat on Fridays year-round. Germanic settlers, in particular, fried their Friday fish, serving the crispy fillets with an accompaniment of rye bread and warm, acetic potato salad.
Many early taverns served a complimentary lunch as a way to attract customers (historians cite free lunch practice as fundamental to the origin story of Buffalo’s beloved beef on ’weck), and owners within proximity of fish-filled lakes adopted the fish fry as part of their regular lunch menu. When Prohibition arrived, taverns once focused on attracting thirsty factory workers between and after shifts quickly learned the benefit of serving meals to the middle class as a way to stay in business without access to alcohol. Soon, taverns became common places for family meals, and the Northeastern fish fry was a popular Friday night offering.
By the 1940s, Birdseye had perfected freezing fresh fish fillets, iceboxes finally came equipped with reliable freezers, and over 18,000 new-fangled refrigerated trucks hit the road, delivering affordable frozen foods to supermarkets and restaurants across the US. Fish frys were everywhere, and, by the mid-sixties, when the Pope suggested an adjustment to the tradition of sacrifice and fasting, many Catholics altered their abstention from every Friday of the year to Ash Wednesday and Lenten Fridays. In cities like Buffalo, the Lenten fish fry became a key component to Catholic parishes.
Today, around the Great Lakes, almost every fish fry is battered, served with some kind of potato, an assortment of additional sides, and a lemon wedge or tartar sauce. (See our fish fry chart for regional comparisons.) Here in Buffalo, we don’t pull too many fish out of our Great Lake anymore; for several decades oceanic varieties have floated our boat—haddock and cod have been our fish to fry for a long time.
When, exactly, the first church or VFW hall decided to undertake the cooking of Lenten fish fry is undocumented, but the practice remains a community cornerstone for many cities, catering to both practicing Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The persistence of this tradition is likely attributed to the many benefits afforded by a fish fry. As a church fundraiser, the fish fry is a winner. Parishioners do the cooking, putting the profits right back into the church. It’s filling and affordable, a comfort, given the freezing temperatures and other dietary sacrifices made by believers during Lent. Finally, the church fish fry has nearly supplanted actual Sunday services when it comes to the communal benefits of belonging to a congregation. A fish fry allows families, seniors, and residents of all kinds to venture out at the end of a long week during the coldest and darkest part of the year to enjoy fellowship and camaraderie in cozy basements, rectories, and rec centers.
If you’ve been enjoying your hang-off-the-sides-of-your-plate fish fry from a steamy takeout box instead, we can’t blame you: it’s easy and reliable. We don’t know any self-respecting Buffalonian who won’t staunchly defend their preferred go-to to-go fish fry. But whether you’re Catholic or Protestant or neither, we urge you to venture to your local place of worship to soak up the real- trimmings of a Lenten fish fry. No, it’s not the homemade mac salad or the extra side of tartar at no charge, it’s that a good fish fry is a microcosm of all the things that make us the city of good neighbors—lemon-scented and huddled together over a deep fryer. (P.S. remember to bring cash.)
Get chef James Roberts Roberts expert opinion on the variations in handling and quality of both of Buffalo’s favorite fish fry species, haddock and cod, by clicking here.