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Where Y'Eat: The Lenten Fish Fry

Ian McNulty

It may be easy to practice meatless Lenten Fridays in Louisiana, but a lot of hard work still goes into the traditional fish fries at churches all across town.

The Lenten season has begun, which means the Catholic practice of meatless Fridays is underway, which means, of course, we here in south Louisiana have by now heard more than a few renditions of that perennial joke about what a penance it is to have to eat seafood. The old saw seems as inevitable at this time of year as the neighbor who approaches in the middle of an August swelter to ask “Is it hot enough for ya?”

Yes, truly, it does not seem like such a sacrifice in a community so rich in delicious seafood to forego meat for a few Fridays a year, or even for the whole 40-day Lenten season as some faithful still do. Which would you rather have, another hamburger or a heap of boiled shrimp? Meatloaf or some grilled drum with crabmeat?

But, there’s quite a lot underpinning this Lenten seafood tradition that the “oh what a penance” joke doesn’t take in. To see what I mean, just visit any of the many Friday fish fries held at churches across the area. From now until Good Friday, which falls on March 29 this year, the parish hall, the parking lot or the multipurpose room at these houses of worship are transformed into bustling community cafeterias, full of people, suffused with the aroma of frying fish and driven by the pulse of deep tradition and the pride and commitment of the people who make it all happen.

It is not exactly hard to find a plate of fried catfish with a scoop of potato salad in this town. Even outside of Lent, seafood is the default Friday special at countless neighborhood restaurants. Still, for me there is something very special about these Friday fish fries. Our New Orleans neighborhoods are celebrated for being so distinctive and unique and colorful, and the same holds for the many of the church communities that call them home. You can see how this plays out at the fish fry. 

While they spring from the same tradition, these events can vary widely from place to place, following different schedules, different types of service and, perhaps most importantly, offering different menus. Across the New Orleans area, I’ve seen “fish fries” that actually feature seafood gumbo, shrimp stew, white beans and shrimp, fried oyster plates, grilled fish, baked fish, crawfish pies, fish tacos, seafood pastas, shrimp Creole, stuffed crabs, shrimp and corn soup and even soft shell crabs.

Even if you’re committed to one church parish, it’s fun to try the variety around town and sometimes spin-off traditions can form in the process. For instance, one of my personal favorite fish fries is served at Our Lady of the Rosary, up on Esplanade Avenue in Faubourg St. John. They serve fish and shrimp and homemade desserts and people often gather at long, communal tables for early suppers together. Given this church’s location, however, a group of my friends like to get our meals boxed up to make a quick evening picnic before sunset along Bayou St. John or in City Park.

No, it might not be such a penance for us in south Louisiana to partake in more seafood than normal during the Lenten season, but with rich traditions like the Friday fish fry alive and well at our neighborhood churches it sure is a pleasure I look forward to each year.

Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church

3366 Esplanade Ave., New Orleans, 504-488-2659

Fish fries on Feb. 22, March 1 and March 8, 5:30 p.m.-8 p.m.

Ian covers food culture and dining in New Orleans through his weekly commentary series Where Y’Eat.

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