It can be easy to forget that, in some cities in this country, the citizenry does not order cod and catfish in bulk during the lead-up to Easter. Kansas City, for example, does not have competing "Fish Fry Finder" maps on every news station's website. The good people of Oklahoma City do not spend 40 days debating the culinary output of parish kitchens. And while Des Moines does have a handful of church fish fries, the city is not crisscrossed with blocks-long lines on chilly Friday nights in February.
When it comes to God's Cod, we St. Louis residents are the chosen ones.
Dozens of churches through the metro area open their basements, meeting halls and gyms during the "season," happily serving Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Anyone who's ever slurped a giant margarita for 45 minutes outside of St. Cecilia (906 Eichelberger, 314-351-1318) while waiting for the opportunity to buy jack salmon and a single chile relleno knows there is plenty of demand. It's partly the food (seriously, those chile rellenos!), but also the tradition and common bond. There's something about crowding elbow-to-elbow around shared folding tables, dessert ticket in your pocket, while little kids dance like maniacs to a family band of questionable talent that makes everything right for an hour or two. It's all so goddamn earnest, it'll break your heart.
It's not just St. Cecilia, though its Mexican-inflected fish fry may be the city's most beloved (and jam-packed). It's also a pleasure to slide a chair across the multicolored tile floor in the basement of St. Pius V (3310 S. Grand Avenue, 314-772-1525) and squeeze in among what seems to be every single person who lives within the church's three-block radius. Somehow, you'll find yourself holding your breath as you watch an aging parishioner crank a metal shaker full of tickets round and round, waiting to see if this is the day you finally win a 50-50 raffle.
Maybe people in other cities don't understand the appeal of pairing a hunk of flaky cod with spaghetti and green beans. But if it wasn't part of the divine plan, please explain how the dinner at St. Ferdinand (1765 Charbonier Road, Florissant; 314-837-3165) continues to draw huge crowds after more than six decades.
The St. Louis fish fry is a righteous ritual. The rest of the world can keep missing out; we don't need affirmation. Their loss just means more food for us.