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Where Y’Eat: At Lenten Fish Fries, A Humble Dish Finds New Power

The Lenten fish fry is a sign of the season in south Louisiana that brings more than flavor to the table.
Ian McNulty
The Lenten fish fry is a sign of the season in south Louisiana that brings more than flavor to the table.

In Louisiana we have the food seasons that nature gives us, the harvests so prodigious that clearly the only logical response is a feast, a fest or at least a party.

Then there are the food seasons that we make ourselves, through tradition, through custom that becomes ritual.

We are reaching the peak of one of those culture-made food seasons right now at the intersection of Lent, the local skill with fried seafood and the tendency of good times to coalesce wherever New Orleans people gather around food.  

It’s not exactly hard to find a plate of fried fish in this town on any given day. But the Friday fish fry gives a humble dish structure and a new meaning. It changes it from something we eat, to something we do.

It could simply be the lunch order for the office where someone hauls back a teetering tower of food cartons and the whole group takes that lunch break together, because it’s fish fry Friday. Or it could be the outing to the neighborhood church, the one you attend or the one you just always drive past. On fish fry Friday, everyone is together.

It is a tradition maintained by small communities, and the conviviality that people put into them.  

It’s the people at the fryers, the ones with sandy golden fish fry up to their wrists, the ones taking orders at the folding tables and even the ones who just show up to eat, with their kids freshly sprung from school or with their friends all rendezvousing to kick off the weekend. The character of the fish fry is in both the preparation and the partaking.

A plate of fried fish is not going to feel like much of a penance, not here and not with some talented Louisiana hands at the fryer. But with the tradition and the people and the community they create together, this time of year that plate of fried fish definitely has power. And with any luck, yours will come with some good potato salad too.

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

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