Fewer stops on this year’s Friday church fish fry circuit, but at least you can do takeout
The pandemic prompted some churches on my usual North Side circuit to cancel this Lenten tradition. But others are carrying on with carryout and curbside pickup.
Around this time last year, I paid homage to the traditional Friday night Lenten fish fry circuit, sharing my plans to spend the next six weekends chowing down at Catholic churches around the Chicago area.
What’s the saying? Man plans. God laughs.
There would be no six Friday nights of fish fries in 2020. By the third week of the season, COVID-19 pretty much had closed them all down, along with church services and restaurants and so much else.
If you foresaw way back then that we would still be dealing with this a year later, then you’re a smarter person than I am.
But I have good news for those seeking a semblance of normalcy in their lives.
Some churches have decided to proceed with their fish fry dinners this year, albeit on a carryout basis.
Missing will be the camaraderie of gathering with friends, neighbors and strangers in church basements and gyms while small armies of volunteers fry the fish and serve the food amid the din of garage bands and Irish dancers.
But if you’re mostly just in it for the fish, or to support a good charitable cause, then there’s still good value in 2021’s pared-back version of this seasonal tradition.
The fryers were heating up early Friday at St. Benedict’s Catholic Church in Blue Island, which boasts one of the area’s oldest fish fries, now in its 51st year.
St. Benedict’s is unusual in that it serves both Friday lunch and dinner during Lent. Most churches do only dinner.
But St. Benedict’s is typical in that the folks who frequent it say it serves the best food.
“Everybody says that. It IS very good,” said Dennis Ziolkowski, who was answering the phone Friday while his wife Nena ran the operation.
For those unfamiliar with the concept, a church fish fry is nothing fancy.
St. Benedict’s serves up three fried fillets of Alaskan pollock, french fries, coleslaw and tartar sauce. On top of those basics, St. Benedict’s throws in beets and rye bread. All for $10.
If you want to be healthy, they’ll give you baked fish instead of fried. To which I say: What’s the point?
Some fish fries serve cod instead of pollock. A few offer an option of perch or shrimp. Some give you only one or two pieces of fish. Most stay in the $10-$12 range, dessert extra.
The fish fry dinners serve as church fundraisers and as a means of welcoming the community.
Ziolkowski said St. Benedict’s plans to hold its every Friday night during Lent except Good Friday.
At St. Jude Catholic Church in New Lenox, where the Knights of Columbus runs a popular fish fry that normally would serve 550 people a night, the plan is to try the carryout approach for a couple of Fridays, then reassess before deciding whether to continue.
“We really don’t know what to expect,” said James Werner, one of the volunteer workers.
Among the complications this year is estimating how much fish to buy, Werner said.
Two aspects of the St. Jude fish fry that help make it popular — the salad bar and a dessert bar — had to be eliminated because of COVID-19 restrictions.
But Werner touts the fried fish sliders that were added to spice up this year’s menu.
The churches that are going ahead with fish fries are confident they can safely serve carryout customers.
“Everyone is wearing masks. We’re all social distancing. We’re taking every precaution,” said Lara Hess at St. Symphorosa-St. Rene, 5940 W. 62nd St., where the addition of pierogi adds a neighborhood flair to the menu.
St. Eugene, 5220 N. Canfield Ave., and St. Petronille in Glen Ellyn also are among those holding fish fries this year.
But many of the fish fries on my usual North Side circuit were canceled because of the pandemic: St. Andrew, St. Ben, St. Alphonsus and St. Ferdinand.
“We didn’t feel it was going to be possible,” said Mike McGovern at St. Ferdinand, 5900 W. Barry St., usually one of the largest events.
Also canceling: St. Christina in Mount Greenwood, where organizers announced they decided it would be better to support neighborhood restaurants at this time than to compete with them.
That’s a valid point. But I don’t fault the churches that see a benefit to their communities in moving ahead.
Let’s hope that by this time next year these sorts of choices will be behind us, and we can concentrate on the important stuff. Like what’s for dessert.