Each Friday during Lent, churches around New Orleans are transformed into bustling community cafeterias, full of people, suffused with the aroma of frying fish and driven by the pulse of deep tradition.
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 a 98-degree 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 April 6 this year, the parish hall or some other facility 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.
For instance, visit St. Augustine Catholic Church, the historic church that dates to 1841, and you’ll find a fish fry in touch with the musical heritage of its Treme neighborhood. As church volunteers assemble their take-out cartons of fish, music plays through the room, choir members might break into song if so moved and it’s common for musicians who live nearby to drop in and break off quick, impromptu sessions for the crowd.
Another favorite fish fry destination of mine is Our Lady of the Rosary up on Esplanade Avenue in Faubourg St. John. This fish fry includes a drive-through for people swinging by on their way home from work, before the church opens its cafeteria for dining at communal tables. Given this church’s location, however, one new tradition among my friends is to get some boxes of fish and shrimp and make a quick evening picnic of it 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.
1210 Gov. Nicholls St., New Orleans, 504-525-5934
Fish fries each Friday through April 6, 2012, from noon to 6 p.m. Plates are $8.
3366 Esplanade Ave., New Orleans, 504-488-2659
Fish fries on March 2 and March 9, drive-through from 5 p.m.-6 p.m., cafeteria open from 6 p.m.-8 p.m.