Punishment for Gluttons

Tony Nelson

"If this is what fasting is like, then I guess I'm okay with it." Thus speaketh one contented parishioner, his plate heaped with fried fish, canned green beans, and a foil-shrouded spud. A volunteer waitress cruises past with a pitcher of punch, dutifully filling glasses until every child within a three-table radius is tweaking on sucrose. For a few moments, conversation is minimal; everyone's tucking into his or her supper with laserlike focus. Perhaps the definition of "fasting" needs a postmillennial update.

Here at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Robbinsdale, the fish fry is equal parts prayer circle, social hour, and Def Polka Jam. Held in the gymnasium adjacent to the church each Friday during Lent, the fry attracts hordes of churchgoers ravenous for God's forgiveness and deep-fried walleye. This certainly ain't no hunger strike, though it is a ritual grounded in religious tradition: Lenten fish suppers have been a staple of Catholic parishes since time immemorial. Designed to make an ascetic practice (abstaining from meat) seem like a rollicking good time, fish suppers stand alongside hot cross buns and Advent chocolate in the grand canon of Catholic comforts.

If you suspect this ritual is nearing death, note that nearly every fast-food joint in town features specially priced fish items on Fridays; when a non-secular practice affects your Happy Meal, you know it's widespread. Over 20 area churches are hosting fish suppers this season (one creative iglesia in St. Paul dishes up cheese enchiladas instead.) Clearly, the Friday fishstravaganza is alive and well.

Tonight, as always, local polka king Bob Gacek is stationed in a corner of the gymnasium with his accordion. As Gacek sings robust standards like "Who Stole the Kishka?" and "Happy Wanderer," a toddler staggers across the gym floor in a dogged attempt to boogie. Three teenaged boys hang out near the periphery of the dance floor, looking like unlikely participants with their facial piercings and mall-punk clothes. But when asked if the fish fry is a decent place to meet girls, one replies, "Excuse me? This is, like, church!" Bless you, child. At the other end of the gym, two women man the ever-popular brownie table. "The polka is my favorite part of doing this," one of them says earnestly, cocking her ear toward Gacek's groaning bellows. "It's the music that keeps bringing me back," a kitchen volunteer offers, cautiously pulling a cart loaded with (real!) dinnerware. Churches can always be counted on to have actual plates and glasses.

In the gymnasium's kitchen, the scene is one of controlled chaos. As the cooking crew slaves over a blistering deep fryer, volunteer servers queue up to fill their trays with fish, bread, and veggies (there's also spaghetti for that authentic taste of Minnesota Eye-talian.) "We always have fun," a breathless kitchen slave declares. "I've done this every week (of Lent) for eight years." A trio of Girl Scouts loiters nearby, hoping to lure sated participants to their cookie table for dessert. "You should buy some Pinatas," one of them insists. "They're so good." Lead us not into carb consumption, badge-laden temptress!

A surprisingly efficient cadre of middle-schoolers has been dispatched to wait tables and clear dishes. One of them smiles relentlessly, baring a mouthful of azure braces. When questioned as to why any red-blooded kid would volunteer to sling hash on a Friday night, she replies, "I'm doing it for my confirmation hours. We have to do a certain amount of community service before we can get confirmed." Does it suck? Not according to these future leaders. "I like serving people," a young boy in a rock tee explains. "It's just a nice thing to do." Nearby, a group of much smaller children plays an anarchic game of tag. None of them are able to explain why Catholics don't eat meat on Fridays, but they seem appropriately guilty about not being able to answer the question.

One of the fish fry's longtime organizers attempts an explanation: "Fish is kind of a sacramental thing," she offers vaguely. "Meat is a happy thing. During Lent, we're supposed to feel what Christ felt on the cross." Full? Historical basis notwithstanding, a fish fry inevitably brings out the faithful in droves. Self-denial can be delicious.

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