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Friday Fish Fry a Popular Custom in Many US Parishes
Mark Pattison
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Friday, February 22, 2013
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Couples enjoy conversation during a fish fry in the parish hall of St. Mary's Church in Altoona, Pa., Feb. 16.
WASHINGTON (CNS) — The Friday fish fry is a big deal to lots of people in Catholic parishes, especially in some sections of the United States.

One audience is, of course, the customers, who like supporting their parish and its organizations and groups with reasonably priced suppers. Another audience is the volunteers who bake, grill, fry and deep-fry the menu items. A third audience is the parish or organization that benefits from the proceeds.

While there are those parishes and Knights of Columbus councils that partake in the fish fry during Lent, others offer it on an expanded schedule, some even year-round.

The only ones possibly raising an objection might be the fish, with cod being a popular choice. But in late January, the New England Fishery Management Council took protective steps against overfishing northern cod, decreeing severe restrictions on the cod catch for 2013 in a bid to restore depleted stocks of what had once been a staple in the north Atlantic.

The Gulf of Maine cod catch was slashed 81 percent, and the Georges Bank cod catch was cut 61 percent, bringing great worry to New England fisheries and towns dependent on the revenues generated by fishing as their economic engine.

With cod certain to grow more rare, its price will inevitably go up. "It's gone up considerably since I've been doing it," said Kris Borkenhagen, a volunteer who runs the seven-times-yearly fish fries at St. Mary Parish in the Milwaukee suburb of Hales Corners, Wis.

And she should know. Borkenhagen, 51, has been running the fish fry for 25 years. In fact, she had to raise prices last fall.

"The seniors, they do say something," Borkenhagen told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview from Hales Corners. "But at McDonald's, the Filet-o-Fish costs $4" — when there isn't a Friday special during Lent — "and you're getting a meal here." Icelandic cod or shrimp, baked or fried, a small meal costs $8 and a large costs $10, and that comes with French fries, cole slaw, parsley-buttered potatoes, milk or coffee, and the buyer's choice of a homemade desert.

The prices haven't scared away too many parishioners. The parish serves about 550 dinners at each fish fry.

One possible solution to the cost of cod is to drop it altogether.

"We've never served cod. We serve haddock," said Msgr. Tim Stein, pastor of St. Mary's Parish in Altoona, Pa. He also is the editor of The Catholic Register, newspaper of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnson.

"Cod has never been a big thing around here. If you don't serve haddock to the western Pennsylvania audience, you're not going to get a big crowd," he added, noting his parish does fish fries on Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent.

"I'm the chief fish fryer. But we are fortunate to have a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in New York (in the parish). We do a seafood buffet, with fried fish being one of the choices. We have chef's specials each time out. There's always something new and interesting."

Prior to being assigned eight years ago to St. Mary's, Msgr. Stein for eight years cooked the featured dinner at his previous parish — turkey dinners.

Good help can be hard to find for the parish fish fry.

Blessed Sacrament Parish in Milwaukee typically holds fish fries throughout Lent, but last year the only fish fry was on Good Friday, because last Tom Adamski, the parish business manager who arranges the fish fries, had "some serious surgery," he said, on one of his ankles.

"It's primarily getting volunteers together," Adamski told CNS about putting on the dinners. One source of volunteers is "the maintenance crew at our church, some young guys." Others come from the nearby public high school. "Some of them help out," Adamski said. "There's a ROTC group, they help out clearing tables. Some of them are the children" of parish families.

Adamski said breaded and baked cod is on the Blessed Sacrament menu — he added he hasn't noticed any price pressures — as well as French-fried shrimp. One relatively recent menu addition came about when "nine years ago," courtesy of now-Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York. He was Archbishop Dolan of Milwaukee at the time.

"(He) came over here unannounced. He said it was good enough but there was something missing which he always had before (growing up in St. Louis): mac and cheese."

So Blessed Sacrament put that on the menu right away. "Cardinal Dolan came over the following week and he loved it. We've had mac and cheese ever since," along with children's portions of the entree, "and they loved it," Adamski said.

The altar society at St. Mary in Hales Corners used to sponsor the fish fries there, but as time and age whittled its membership to a dozen or so women, the parish took it over. Each fish fry needs about 55 volunteers, and Borkenhagen can call on a volunteer corps twice that size to pitch in.

She's been able to take part in virtually every fish fry in the past quarter-century — even with giving birth to and raising a child, and coping with a diagnosis of breast cancer and undergoing a lumpectomy.

Borkenhagen remembers one of her helpers who started volunteering when he was in eighth grade at the parish school, "and now he's 30 and he's going to run the parish festival." She and her husband will run a bratwurst and hot dog booth at the festival, leaving it to another parishioner to run the concurrent fish fry.

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