As Clevelanders we like to think we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We’re laidback, casual — and dare we say, even a little old-school. That’s why every year when fish fry season starts, we embrace the culinary event like a pair of dad jeans.
From the workmanlike breaded planks of baked scrod or fried Lake Erie yellow perch, to the sides, meant to stick to the ribs and stay firmly there: mac ‘n’ cheese, pierogies, green beans. The food is often doled out on a buffet line. By Boy Scouts or senior citizens. In a church basement.
But to us, that’s no knock. In fact, the fish fry’s nonchalant nature is why we flock to it, year after year. Fish fries are the genuine old-fashioned thing in an age of culinary trend-chasing, an openhearted embrace of community, both spiritual and secular, and Lake Erie’s bounty. They are a break from the world’s demands and a place to commune with friends old and new. They are Cleveland’s anti-frills way of eating — breaded, fried and eaten with glee.
“I think [fish fries] are really the best and brightest thing that Cleveland has to offer,” says chef Rocco Whalen, owner of Fahrenheit in Tremont. “Because, get past all the bells and whistles, we’re just really great people that love food and appreciate where we’re from.”
Though the fish fry tradition has grown into a secular creature, with many bars and social clubs holding their own, it hatched from the row of Catholicism. Most fries occur during Lent, the six-week period of prayer, penitence and fasting that this year starts Feb. 26 and stretches into April.
“Lent is a more intense pilgrimage in our Christian faith, and so on Fridays we recall the passion and death of our Lord,” says Rev. James Mayer, pastor of St. Rocco Roman Catholic Church. “We’re just supposed to abstain from meat, really. Fish becomes, though, the popular thing to eat.”
Every church has their own twist on the fry. The Church of St. Dominic in Shaker Heights plans to regale this year’s diners with barbershop-style singers. St. Mary’s in Collinwood, a traditionally Slovenian parish, serves strudel for dessert. And at St. Rocco, a parish established as part of a West Side Italian enclave, they serve sides of pasta fagioli. There are high-class restaurant varieties too, like Fahrenheit, where Whalen puts seafood specials on the menu during Lent, such as an Icelandic cod, battered with tempura and fried. With diners flopping around the city in a feeding frenzy, the competition gets fierce.
“Anywhere in town on Friday nights from March to April, as a chef, you better come correct and better bring your best,” says Whalen, “because every church around the neighborhood is going to.”
Indeed, even though most church fish fries use the money they earn to fund charity or community work, the drive to get diners in the door can still be intense, since many people try out different fries over the Lenten period, weighing this one against that one, this parish against that bar.
“Catholics look to go surfing, so to speak, to different churches to check out their fish fries,” says Mayer. “It breaks up, I think, the long period of Lent with something different.”
The fish fry season is a busy time for fishmongers too. Winter and early spring is traditionally slow, says Catanese Classic Seafood vice president John Catanese. But then Lent arrives and the orders pour in, especially for walleye and Lake Erie yellow perch, buoying the business until warmer weather.
“It really is a celebration of our lake,” says Catanese. “We’re so lucky to be on this big, fresh body of water. “
Fish fries won’t win Cleveland any Michelin stars, or boost the city onto the pages of Bon Appetit. But they shouldn’t have to — because fish fries aren’t for the award-bestowers and the trendsetters. They are for us.
“You go to a fish fry and put your cellphones away. There’s no Snapchat. There’s no Instagram,” says Whalen. “It’s just a church community fish fry, a time for you to embrace the church for what it offers, and hopefully have a chance to have a good conversation or two, [and] give back in the same process.”
Click here to read our full list of 38 Fish Fries We Love.