Fries that Bind

Each snowflake feels like a pinprick. Over the past three days, the best the city has been able to do is turn a massive amount of snow into slush. Cars slip and slide.

And, because this is Cleveland, that’s not the worst of it. Dick Goddard is telling us to prepare for more.

A half-dozen folks are under the fluorescent lights at St. Mary Romanian Orthodox Cathedral on Warren Road. Some plop tartar sauce into containers. Others drag knives across blue pike, the signature fish that’s made this church a destination on Fridays during Lent.

“You hear about the snowstorm this weekend?” asks Judy Khoury.

“And freezing rain,” adds David Salanty.

“If it hits, we could be in trouble,” Judy says.

Scrape. Scrape. Scrape. A quick sigh.

“We’ll be all right,” Jean Dobrea says, dismissively, like a mother calming her children. She’s been through decades of this. St. Mary is among the largest and oldest fish fries in Northeast Ohio. She claims her church was one of the first to open its fry to the public, making it one of the biggest fundraisers of the year.

On a typical night, they serve 500 to 600 dinners. They’ve sold as many as 920.

This is the Thursday before the second weekend in Lent. Last week, they didn’t advertise, told no one it was starting. Five hundred people showed up, says George Dobrea, basking in the tradition that puts pride in his voice and fish scales on his cheek, shirt, hands and peppered on his jeans.

As suppertime approaches, they call it a night. You can only do so much the day before.

In the old days, the pies filtered in all day Friday, fresh from the home ovens of volunteers.

Logistically, it can’t work that way anymore. More people come for the meal and less people bake. Jean Dobrea explains this as she opens the Sysco box of frozen pies. “As our older ladies died and our younger ladies went to work outside the home, we had to resort to bringing in the pies.”

She hates to give away that piece of information. She doesn’t normally tell anyone, unless they carefully craft their question.

“You know, a lady saw me in Giant Eagle and asked if we bake our own pies,” she says. “I said, ‘Well, yes. Webake the pies.’ It’s not a lie. We do bake them in our ovens. It’s just not thewhole truth.”

The first volunteers file in around 10 a.m., six and a half hours before the first plate is served. There’s much to do, and everyone seems to know their role. If they don’t, Jean reminds them.

In addition to the Canadian walleye pike (which they market as blue pike), they serve whitefish, shrimp, cabbage and noodles, macaroni and cheese and coleslaw.

David Salanty hangs over a huge bowl of noodles, stirring. “How many noodles did you buy me?” Twenty pounds. “Hmmm.” A pause. “Umm ... ” Jean looks over her shoulder. “That’s more than enough.” David nods — if Jean says it’s OK, it usually is.

St. Mary added pierogi to its menu a few years ago since it is a staple at Cleveland fish fries.

“We tried pierogies for two weeks,” Jean says, rolling back her eyes and throwing her hands up. “Can you imagine a bunch of Romanians cooking pierogies? It was a farce. They were awful.”

And folks told them so.

The menu has changed little in the 29 years they’ve fried fish. Last year they changed breads, and Jean anticipated an uproar.

“I was worried about how the dining room would react,” she says. “Change is generally not accepted. Well, people have been asking me where we got the new bread. They love it.”

David announces he is going to leave soon. He’s been giving updates every half-hour or so. “I have to leave in 15 minutes!”

Jean shoots him a look. “If you tell me one more time, I’m going to spit.”

David shrugs: “But I do. I have to leave in 15 minutes.”

Jean can’t help but smile. “I just realized why you keep remindingus — soyou don’t forget.”

More volunteers stream into the kitchen with a few hours to go.

John Gibb, 91, strolls in with worry on his face. “I hope we get a good crowd today. The roads were bad around here this morning, but they’re good now.”

What do you think, Jean? Good turnout ahead?

“Got any dice in your pocket?” Jean asks. “Shake them up. Who knows how many will be here? It’s a crapshoot. It depends on the weather, if this is a payday for people and God only knows what else.”

Some of the cooks arrive.

Three generations of Avramauts have worked this fish fry. The late John Avramaut was one of the originals. Nick Avramaut, his son, met his wife, Marie, while working in the kitchen. Their son, Nick Avramaut Jr., has wanted to work the kitchen ever since he can remember, and they’ve finally let him run the fryers.

This is the only time Jean gets nervous. Four o’clock. Half an hour before the doors open. Will all the volunteers show up?

A line of 32 people has already formed.

At 4:10, the first fish is dropped in when Avramaut Jr. gets the go-ahead from his dad: “We better start now. These go fast.”

The church kitchen becomes a dance floor with 16 people performing intricate moves around each other.

Bethany Avramaut and Jessica Francu, two 16-year-olds, report to Jean. They are ready to wait tables — one of the coolest things ever. They started at the bottom, both declaring one day they’d be here. “When we were little, we hung up the signs. If we were really good, they would let us help clean up. Only if we were really good, though,” Bethany says.

“REALLY good,” Jessica emphasizes.

They take out the plates. The fish is crispy, but not overcooked. The pike is light, flaky and not too pungent. The tartar sauce is a luxury. You don’t need it when fish is this good. The mac and cheese is creamy but firm — a perfect fork companion to the fish. The mayo-based coleslaw tastes fresh, and the flavors of the cabbage, radicchio and carrots stand out separately.

Robert Fristik, the first man in line, savors his. He’s been to a lot of fish fries, but he always finds himself back at St. Mary. “They’re all over the place now, but this one is still the one I like. It’s tradition, but the tradition would end if it wasn’t so good.”

More and more people file in. Despite the weather, they reach their average. They don’t run out of cabbage and noodles.

And next week, they’ll do it all over again.
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