Duke won. Easter’s over. Time to clean the fryers.
There are towns in America that are more Catholic. Brownsville, Texas, and its 80-percent Catholic population come to mind. There are Catholic towns that host more fish fries. In just one county of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, for example, more than 70 churches held fish fries over Lent this year. And, there are towns that go crazier for March Madness, like Lexington. But in the Venn diagram that is the March Madness Catholic Fish Fry, there is one town at the center and it is Louisville, Kentucky.
To curate the essential Louisville March Madness Catholic Fish Fry experience, we prepared a napoleon of calendar and map layers, dug in, and quickly realized that 2015 was going to offer us a rare taste indeed. Of the six fast-day Fridays of Lent (excluding Good), four were NCAA game days. The bracket looked good, so we took long odds on the most exciting possible scenario: a third-round win for the Louisville Cardinals leading to a Sweet 16 decider on Friday, March, 27, the last Lenten Friday of the year.
That game would find us not only in the middle of Kentucky basketball but at the epicenter of Cards country—home, if you will, of the college of Cardinals—on the last Lenten fish fry of the year. Sure enough, Louisville beat Northern Iowa the Friday before. We were down to a simple choice among Louisville Catholic churches that would show the game on TV during their March 27 fish fry.
The Parish Fish Fries database compiled by the diocese carries some surprising detail on about 50 churches’ worth, drilling down to the menu level (and, in some cases, beyond: note the gaming license numbers). But as easy as it would be to throw in a TV-shaped icon, the diocese does not reveal where, much less when, they would be warming up a plasma in the parish hall.
For that, we have Cousin Erin, and when we say “Cousin Erin,” we mean third-generation Louisville cradle Catholic, as in, Who needs a spreadsheet? Enrollment in Catholic schools is three times the national average in Louisville. Erin teaches English at an all-girl one of these. It’s called Assumption High School. We did not make that up. She thought St. Francis would have the game on.
“Of Assisi,” she clarified.
“Right,” we said, “the one with the school.” We dimly remembered that.
“Well, but Bardstown Road,” said Erin. “Not the other St. Francis school downtown, on Broadway.”
There is a density to Catholic Louisville that sometimes throws people from larger cities and the deeper south. Names, alma maters, even experiences—especially food experiences—overlap throughout and across generations in a way many associate with smaller towns and, say, medieval Belgium. It’s the parish system. It produces this thing called traditions.
Along one stretch of Bardstown Road, the nearby Catholic churches are so closely strung that if you started at 5 p.m., you could theoretically eat fish and drink beer in six consecutive churches, west to east, before game time. Cousin Erin was volunteering on the second shift at the St. Agnes fish fry that night. We would start there.
Loaves and Fishes
Tonight, some 750 dinners would be ordered, 90 percent of them deep-fried cod on sliced light caraway-studded rye with French fries, washed down with craft beer purveyed through a local distributor and followed by an a la carte piece of homemade cake that would help get the eighth grade to Chicago.
The menu was posted on the wall of a corridor packed with people all the way to the school cafeteria doors. Every other one of them seemed to have made special arrangements for dinner tonight. Instead of stating their choice to the order-taker, taking their order to the cashier, and paying, they were
1. leaving three prepaid tickets for the Gerstlers
2. ordering two Senior Specials, both fried, both slaw if they don’t have to pay the extra .50
3. not seniors but Barbara and Mary Pat Gerstler are and have said they don’t want the Senior Special.
In the kitchen, Erin introduced us to Linda, who suggested we talk to Eileen, whose husband, Terry, took us outside and round the back of the building and asked the six men manning the seven fryers if they minded a woman taking a few pictures.
That’s not smoke; it was snowing in the tent.
“Bourbon?” came a voice.
Gordon Food Services filled the fish order for frozen cod cellos, which get dusted, rather than breaded (i.e., no egg wash) with crunchy cornmeal, Green River Style, and go into separate fryers from all that is not fish.
We spotted a lone Dean in the row of tube fryers. Louisville is decidedly a Vulcan town, being the headquarters of Vulcan Hart Corp., and the home of the late Gordon Oates Sr., its former president and CEO, a University of Louisville alum, and the co-founder of the North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers.
St. Agnes owns these fryers, a man named Mike told us. It’s a low-maintenance, slow-depreciation situation. When the show’s over, they clean them out and store them till carnival time—the other big family fundraiser of the Catholic parish year. Meantime, there’s no need for a grease trap when Mike can haul the used oil off for re-use as biofuel.
We reminisced to Mike about a Germantown joint called Flabby’s, now closed, where one hot summer afternoon, church ladies in shorts had served us raw oysters with Bloody Mary chasers outside in the horseshoe pitch, and a young albino girl sang “Paradise” by John Prine.
“Mazzoni owned Flabby’s!” Mike said, referring to the locally famous owner of the eponymous Louisville institution. “In fact, we used to do rolled oysters here [at St. Agnes]—Mazzoni’s recipe.” They were going to do them this year, he said, but when two of the fish fries got called for snow, the oysters got 86’ed.
Keeping menu variation to a minimum is important in a fundraiser, but must strike a balance with the escalation inevitable in such a thriving market. Down Bardstown Road, St. James was offering shrimp. Not only that, but rumor had it some churches had listed their fries on Yelp!
Louisville is as sports-crazed as anywhere else in middle America and as college sports-crazed as anywhere in the SEC, and the rising tide of ad revenue from March Madness floats the fast-food franchise boats nowhere higher than in this town, home of Yum! brands, Long John Silver’s, Papa John’s Pizza, Texas Roadhouse, and of course KFC. Then there’s Brown-Forman distillers and the Kentucky Derby, all of which make hospitality a second language in Louisville.
Double Green Beans
When at last we reentered the cafeteria kitchen from the fry tundra outside, Eileen was tilting the griddle runoff into a bucket. “That’s it! No more breaded! Only baked!” she yelled in the general direction of the serving line. They never plan to run out, she told me, but they usually do—of fried fish, anyway.
“Then why not plan?”
“We’ve got 120 years of institutional memory behind this fish fry here at St. Agnes,” she said. (More if you count the Roman Catholic Church, we would add.) “It’s almost like it runs itself. People can’t really tell you how they know what they know how to do.”
The young girl serving was telling a firefighter at the head of the line that they were out of fried fish. Did he want baked fish? He turned to his fellow firefighters in the line and made a face. “I’ll give you double green beans,” said the mom in charge. “Do you want double green beans?” The firefighter looked about to burst into tears. It was 7 o’clock. If he cut bait here, there was no guarantee he’ll find fried fish before game time.
Even if attendance at Mass is down—and it’s not, in Spanish-speaking communities throughout the world, anyway—attendance at fish fries is on the perpetual up. And parishes such as Louisville’s memorably named St. Polycarp that get absorbed in consolidation can always serve to reinfuse the Catholic fryosphere with capital equipment. In this sense, the Church remains a comfortably closed system.
Yet here, tonight, it seemed more open than ever. While they waited for a seat in the steamy cafeteria, a group of millennials (photo, above) told us they meet at a different Catholic church fish fry every Friday of Lent “as a food thing,” they said. “Not a church thing at all.” We asked them whether they agreed with us that the diocese needs to develop an app for that: a way for multi-fry hoppers and “the unchurched” to check on queue lengths, menu items available, game broadcasts, stuff like that.
We raised a toast.