What's with all the fish fries in St. Louis?
The tradition of eating fish on Fridays during Lent goes back a long way in the Catholic Church, but the origin of the tradition is disputed. Some say it’s a form of personal sacrifice meant to remember the death of Jesus. Others say it was the result of an 8th century papal decree to help the Italian fishermen.
There is no dispute, however, that fish fries are an immensely popular tradition in St. Louis. Some draw more than 1,200 people a week. There are multiple fish fry Facebook groups and blogs. The St. Louis Jewish Light newspaper has even reviewed them.
Frank Flinn is a professor emeritus of Religious Studies at Washington University, who still teaches religion classes for University College.
The first mention of fish in connection with Lent comes from Socrates of Constantinople, according to Frank Flinn is a professor emeritus of Religious Studies at Washington University. That Socrates — not to be confused with the Socrates — was a church historian in the third and fourth centuries and spoke about abstaining from meat and meat products, such as cheese and eggs, during the 40 days of Lent.
Though he can’t find a direct papal mandate for fish on Fridays, Flinn says it’s mentioned as a custom by Pope Gregory I, who was elected in 590. And that’s how it likely ended up in the Corpus juriscanonici — part of the law of the Catholic church.
“Later canonical law collectors tended to read earlier papal customary recommendations as ecclesiastical law. So, abstention from meat passed from custom to law as time went on,” Flinn said.
The symbolism of fish is also strong in the Catholic church, Flinn said. Most depictions of the Last Supper show a meal of bread and fish. Fish were also the only creatures to survive the flood in the Book of Genesis without being on Noah’s Ark. Finally, the Greek word for fish, icthys, is also an acronym for IesousChristosTheouYiosSoter, translated literally as "Jesus Christ of God Son Savior.”
A fry by the numbers
As a parish, Holy Name of Jesus in Bellefontaine Neighbors was formed in 2005, as a result of a merger of five (technically, five and a half) north St. Louis County parishes.
Three of the parishes hosted well-known fish fries before the merger. And church lay leaders made a conscious decision to continue the Friday night feast, taking traditions from those three parishes.
“We thought it was pretty important,” says Marialice DuHadway, who coordinated the fish fries at St. Jerome’s and continued that role in the merged parish. “It was very well-received. Because we have an older parish, they like to do service things, and so it really pulled them together. It really helped.”
Holy Name of Jesus holds its first fish fry on Ash Wednesday, and then on every Friday in Lent except for Good Friday.
Here's what a typical one looks like, by the numbers:
- 800-1,000 plates purchased
- $8 per plate, which includes a main course and two side dishes
- 400 pounds of fish
- 50 gallons of oil for frying
- 80 pounds of cole slaw
- 75 pounds of potato salad
- 60 pounds of spaghetti
- 20 restaurant-sized cans of green beans
The money raised benefits the parish school, Christ Light of the Nations, as well as the Holy Name of Jesus' lady’s and men’s guilds. (Editor's note: Christ, Light of the Nations School closed in 2020)
What happens when you don’t eat fish?
If you’re Susan Herzberg, you create your own “Un-Fish Fry.”
A practicing Unitarian who grew up in the Protestant tradition, Herzberg is among the original members of the Facebook group STL Fish Fry Crew. But as a vegetarian, she got tired of eating mac and cheese or cheese pizza every week.
So, she started a vegetarian version the community meal at her church, First Unitarian Church of St. Louis. Herzberg said she thought it would be a good way to bring people into the church in a relaxed setting, "as well as a way to promote vegetarianism, which is part of our overall core values, as a church."
The menu has often included falafel, hummus, dolmades, vegetarian chili, Mediterranean salad and other meatless dishes.
Here’s more about the birth of the UnFish Fry:
Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann