Sometimes, the food seasons of New Orleans arrive in all the gaudy glory of a king cake, and sometimes they register as the roiling boil of crawfish revving up in the backyard.
But for the particular niche upon us now, the signs show up as portable fryers, a haze of cornmeal and flour and great leaning towers of take-out cartons. It is of course time for the Lenten fish fry, and they are unfolding at parish halls and multipurpose rooms, fire station garages, parking lots and even in back of some bar rooms.
It is a ritual that can be devotional, it is a tradition that can be social. It might be a bargain, it’s usually delicious and it is everywhere, a sign of the season told in crispy fish and creamy potato salad, hopefully with a little plastic baggie of dessert thrown on top.
We all know the Friday fish fry here comes from the Catholic practice of meatless Fridays during Lent. And so, naturally, this sets up the old corny joke about what a penance it is to skip meat and instead eat seafood, here, in all places, Louisiana, the fishing net of American seafood.
But at the fish fry, there’s more in play than this dish over that, and it starts with the people. It’s the people at the fryers, the ones with fish fry up to their wrists, the ones taking orders at the folding tables and even, God bless them, the ones who just show up to eat. They’re all part of it, and they turn a simple food into a beloved tradition, keeping a practice vigorous and cherished. When you go to a fish fry you don’t just eat, you partake.
It is not exactly hard to find a plate of fried fish in this town. But at a Friday fish fry, they come with the pulse of pride and commitment from people cooking with a purpose. Sure, a Friday fish fry here may not be a sacrifice, but it does have meaning.