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Why Do Fish Fries Catch All Kinds Of St. Louis Fans?

The tradition of eating fish on Fridays 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. Even the St. Louis Jewish Light has reviewed them.

So what exactly is the appeal of fish and beer in parish basements? 

Why fish?

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, he says, comes from Socrates of Constantinople, who was a church historian in the third and fourth centuries. Socrates speaks 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 – that is, 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 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.”

Forget the theology. A fry by the numbers

As a parish, Holy Name of Jesus in Bissell Hills has only been around since 2005, as a result of a merger of five (technically, five and a half) North 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 MarialiceDuhadway, 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.” 

Credit Rachel Lippmann/St. Louis Public Radio
A volunteer slices fish for frying at Holy Name of Jesus.

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 a numerical look of what it takes on any given Friday:

  • 800 to 1,000 people will buy a plate.
  • $8, the cost of the plate which includes a main course and two side dishes. 
  • 400 pounds of fish thawed. 
  • 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.
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 Steve Smith’s STL Fish Fry Crew. But as a vegetarian, she got tired of eating mac and cheese or cheese pizza every week. Here’s the inside scoop on the birth of the UnFish Fry.

Susan Herzberg on the creation of the UnFish Fry.

  Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.