I grew up in Lorain County, Ohio. If you aren’t familiar with it (and why would you be? Who are you, Atlas McGee?), it is the county directly to the west of Cuyahoga, where Cleveland is located. When I was a child, this area was primarily Irish, Puerto Rican, Italian, Eastern European; in a word, Catholic. Catholic meant Lent. Catholic meant finding out at a young age that for six weeks you wouldn’t be having meat on Friday. You’d probably be having fish (which, let’s be honest here, is meat), but if you’re one of three picky children who think that fish is stinky and usually get your way when it comes to food, no meat just meant no meat, whatever it may be. As a result, our Friday Lent routine fell into four buckets (which we then ate out of. It saved on dishes. I’m kidding, Mom), two of which I’d call “fish adjacent.” What follows is a typical post Ash Wednesday, pre-Easter Friday in the Bilancini household.
Fish sticks (fish fingers and custard, hold the custard, for our British fans) were the closest 8 year old John would venture to fish. They were breaded, like chicken nuggets, and they looked like mozzarella sticks. Plus, if you drowned them in enough ketchup you were essentially eating ketchup sticks. Meanwhile my parents were five feet away eating actual fish, carefully prepared and voluntarily consumed while silently rethinking their decision to reproduce three times.
Long John Silver’s
When was the last time you set foot inside a Long John Silver’s? Cool, cool, cool. Outside of the “Nevers” I think I heard a couple “25 years agos” in the back. Yep, sounds about right. Against all odds, my childhood Long John Silver’s still exists and is still open. I’d chalk it up more to the stagnation of commercial rent rates in Lorain, Ohio, than sustained popularity. I’m convinced that Long John Silver’s would not experience a significant depreciation in sales if only opened for Lent and shuttered the rest of the year.
Long John Silver’s was my first ever seafood restaurant, and 30 years later I’d still prefer not to go to one! Given the option between fish and “stuff, including fish” I say give me the stuff. Long John Silver’s served the same purpose as the fish sticks above did. There was enough breading going on that if you squinted hard enough you could pretend it was something you actually wanted to eat. I assume my parents realized this fairly quickly and determined they could accomplish the same outcome with a $4 package of Gorton’s, which is why we didn’t go very often.
The third in my four buckets of fish adjacent Lenten options, fish fry are insanely popular in northern Ohio during Lent, during all of Browns season, pretty much whenever fried perch, walleye, and sometimes haddock can be procured. I’m willing to state with full confidence based on no research, like any good American does, that northern Ohio is our nation’s fish fry capitol. We sometimes did Lenten fish fry when I was a kid, usually in conjunction with the ones offered at my Catholic elementary school. My uncle also usually had one or two coinciding with Browns games, but we’re focusing on March/April here. The reason we didn’t partake of them too often, and the reason there are only two fish adjacent buckets, is because it is much more difficult to hide that there’s fish inside of the breading when you’re starting with actual perch fillets. This is less fish adjacent than it is full-on fish. This, plus the occasional presence of scales and bones, sent young John into a swoon befitting a southern belle. Keep the fish out of my fish, please.
We’ve reached option #4. It is the least fish-like meatless Friday option, and by default my favorite one. Also it’s frozen pizza. What kid doesn’t love frozen pizza, regardless of circumstances? This was the most frequent Lenten Friday option because my parents realized there’d be no objections or whining. Plus it followed the rules. A frozen cheese pizza is meatless, making our meal choice technically correct. The best kind of correct. We did a lot of Tony’s, a lot of Red Baron, a lot of Tombstone. It didn’t really matter which brand, as long as the pies didn’t have scales. We were difficult, whiny, picky children, myself worst of all, but at least we delayed pissing off God for a couple more years.
Did you observe Lent as a kid? Now? If so, let us know here or on Twitter what your Friday meals looked like.