Fish fry is not just a food. Fish fry is a sacrament, a religious and cultural duty carrying with it a freight of comfort and damnation. To some kids (like this kid) who grew up in certain families in certain neighborhoods in the gray twilight of dying working-class towns filled with Kennedys, Reardons, McGinnitys and McKennas, fish fry is like a snake in the memory — something dark and scaly curled around the base of the brain, just waiting to be awakened by a touch.
Fish fry was what some devout Catholics (mostly Micks, though a few Italians and Polacks, as well) ate on Fridays, when no meat was allowed, when accidentally eating a cheeseburger could get your heathen ass sent straight to H-E-doubl e-hockey-sticks. Fish fry was what you ate even if your folks had fallen away from the faith, because it was still a custom, now stripped of its religious significance and imbued instead with a cultural burden. Fish fry was what you ate because, after a time, it felt strange not to.
It was a participatory ritual: thousands of fathers coming home through the purple dusk, stopping in at the neighborhood bar for a belt or two, a couple footed pilsners of Genny, and stepping out again — a few minutes or hours later — with a bloom on their cheeks and a plastic bag full of Styrofoam takeout boxes smelling of fryer grease and fish oil, malt vinegar and sour, already warming tartar sauce going quickly rancid in the sweating heat of the bag. For some families, there was a hard undertone to the Friday fish fry — a remembrance of the Famine and a celebration of plenty, like look how well we've done that, on Friday, we can have fish rather than boiled potatoes, and fried potatoes rather than nothing. For others, it was just a kind of spiritual cover: Check it out, Jesus — we might be a bunch of wife-beating, cop-dodging, barley-drinking fucktards the rest of the week, but we're eating the fry-up tonight, just like you asked us to.
I had a childhood friend, long out of touch now, but the proudest I ever saw him was when he was twenty or so, a new father, estranged but bringing home the family's first bag of Friday takeouts from Mark's on Monroe Avenue — providing the way his dad had, keeping to the ritual. I remember him with his chin out, his head up, swollen with dignity that he might not have even understood, going to sit at the tiny kitchen table with the girl he'd knocked up and the baby they'd made, popping open the styros and eating together in strange, almost reverent silence.
In my neighborhood and those I frequented in Rochester, every restaurant, every bar, fried fish on Friday. In Buffalo, one day a week they'd devote a Frialator normally used for dunking chicken wings to frying up 10,000 fat cod or haddock filets and 10,000 orders of fries. In Cleveland and Pittsburgh and Boston, on Bainbridge Avenue and Vinegar Hill, it was the same. It's been a long time since I've been back home on a Friday, but if I close my eyes, I can still recall the smell of block after block of bars and restaurants throwing out clouds of fishy, greasy steam, of dining rooms full of families all eating the same thing, of fire-hall dinners and church basements. I can still see and hear the crunch of winter snow underfoot and the crinkle of cheap plastic bags full of fish.
Denver is different. I can go a year here and not think about fish fry at all. I can go to the Celtic Tavern on a Friday night and have mine be the only table outfitted with the stack of napkins, the bottles of malt vinegar and ketchup, the platter of fish and fries and tartar sauce.
The Celtic fries cod — big filets, but thin. A cod fry just doesn't tickle me the way a haddock fry does. Done properly, a haddock fry has almost no flavor at all beyond the fryer grease, the beer batter (a thick jacket, crisp as potato chips and laced with a delicate filigree around the edges) and the vague essence of sea creature within. When poked with a fork, the steam will rush out, rising up like a mushroom cloud: a tiny fish Hiroshima. Cod has a sense of uppity-ness — it's just slightly more expensive than the rock-bottom cheap haddock — and leaves a greasy aftertaste, an oily feel in the mouth. The Celtic fries its cod until the batter is thin and crisp, but its fry tastes of fish rather than batter — not a bad thing, just not what I'm used to. And in a strange sop to traditionalism, the tartar sauce here always comes warm, as if a bucket has been sitting in a corner of the kitchen just waiting for some unfortunate sucker to order the fish fry. And while, yes, I fondly recall the warm tartar sauce from my own innumerable bags of takeout fish fry, I've become more cautious in my old age — and warm, mayonnaise-based sauces make me nervous.