A recent column in the Buffalo News by Sean Kirst explored the iconic fish fry heritage we have here in the Buffalo area. So, it seems like a good time to dust off a piece I wrote back in 2014. This piece has a special place in my heart, as parts of it were published in the Buffalo News’ “My View” column. It was my first official publication in that column, and I can still recall what a thrill it was for me to learn that something I wrote would appear in the paper. Don’t be surprised if you feel the need to find a local tavern or veteran’s post this Friday for dinner!
FISH FRY… or FISH “TAILS”
By: Karen Wielinski
I am proud to say that I am a Buffalonian. Where else can you click on the local news website and find not only a “Pothole Map,” but a “Fish Fry Map.” What a combination—you will be able to dodge those potholes and eliminate wasting any time getting to those fish fries.
A recent article in the “Buffalo News” by Michelle Kearns indicated that “if any dish has a chance of surpassing chicken wings as Buffalo’s signature meal, it might be a plate of steaming fried haddock—Buffalo’s fish of choice for fish fry—with a heap of potato salad, coleslaw and a roll.” Lovers of this Buffalo culinary staple will be dismayed to learn that the “Atlantic haddock haul is down,” which means the price for partaking of this tasty dish will no doubt go up.
Is nothing sacred? First gas, then milk, and now haddock fish fries will make us dig deeper into our pockets to satisfy our needs?
Fish Fries are a part of Buffalo life.
When I was a kid, growing up in the 50s and 60s on the east side of Buffalo, it was a rare occasion when our family went out for dinner. When it did occur, we would usually head to a local gin mill run by the Gillouster family. The “Family Entrance” would be reached by heading down a narrow alley. There never seemed to be a waiting line, and shortly after ordering, our fish fry would arrive. The meal would be washed down with either birch beer or orange pop. Their coleslaw was the best—German-style made with vinegar and a bit of sugar.
Of course, these family dinner outings always took place on a Friday. At that time, Catholics could not eat meat on any Friday; that restriction is now only required during Lent.
My sister and I rented an apartment in the late 70s in Hamburg, and discovered a treasure trove of establishments that offered this traditional dish. My favorite was The Cloverbank Hotel. It was almost a given that you would have to wait at the bar, or on the front porch for a good half hour or so before you could secure a spot inside the dining room. The wait was worth it, though, when catch secured that plate laden with fish, fries, and coleslaw was set before you.
I admit that I sometimes strayed from my loyalty to the fish fry at The Cloverbank. Their chicken wings were decadent—dripping with butter.
The craving for fish fries continued after Doug and I were married. One Good Friday, after working on our house in Eden, we visited The Armor Inn in Hamburg. We were starving after observing the Catholic rule of fast and abstinence on that day, which dictated that we could only have one full meal. A fish fry would tease our minds all day, and we ignored the growl of our empty stomachs until dinner. Of course, there was a long line of people also waiting for that one full meal. We endured the delay by enjoying a beer at the bar. I kept wondering if the church allowed the drinking of alcohol on Good Friday, but what better appetizer to prepare the way for that fish fry. Actually the words “fish fry” are usually accompanied by the word “beer.”
We said good-bye to the haddock fish fry when we moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. Cincinnatians commit an act of blasphemy when uttering “fish fry.” Catfish does not belong on a fish fry plate. We lived in Ohio for 14 years and were never able to find a true haddock fish fry.
We experienced fish fry withdrawal that could only be relieved by visiting Buffalo—OK, we did go back to visit family too. My dad was a life-long member of the VFW Leonard Post, and he would always treat us to a dinner (on Friday, of course) when we returned. He understood the deprivation we endured, and he also liked to show off his grandchildren to his friends. We were thankful for the much needed antidote.
The Clarence Center Volunteer Fire Department always has their fundraiser fish fry on Good Friday. Tickets are sold in advance and go quickly. If you wait until the actual day of the event, you could be turned away at the door (fish fry rejection—very sad). It became a family tradition to gather together at 6038 Long Street and walk down the street to the fire hall. We enjoyed a delicious dinner and saw neighbors and friends. We felt like part of the community. I miss the tradition and the community.
Over the years, I have developed a number of “pet peeves” regarding the fish fry:
– The worst way to ruin a fish fry is to chomp on bones. From that moment on you tentatively poke through your fish to avoid another encounter. This is not enjoyable.
– A fish fry deserves to be served on a bigger plate. I do not appreciate dissecting my meal to look for the macaroni salad and coleslaw. I do not enjoy trying to retrieve food items that are about to fall off my plate on to a paper placemat or a questionable oil cloth. Could you please give each food item a little space to breathe?
– More places need to offer a half-fish alternative. Many of us do not want to consume a piece of fish the size of an oval plate. In my opinion, leftover fish never tastes good; plus my cats do not get table food.
– You really need to go to a bar for a great fish fry. It’s tradition, and must be part of the German culture.
You will have to excuse me now. I need to check out that “Fish Fry Map.” Suddenly I am very hungry.
P.S. I found a bone in my fish!
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Karen Weilinski is a freelance writer who has lived in East Aurora, New York since 2010. Along with the love of her daughters and grandchildren, her involvement in a local writing group continues to be a source of inspiration and strength to her.
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One On The Ground is Karen’s debut book.
One on the Ground is Karen Wielinski’s compelling memoir, based on her experiences resulting from the crash of Flight 3407 into her Clarence home. When her husband Doug died along with 49 passengers and crew he become identified as the “One on the Ground.”
February 12, 2009 was an ordinary evening at home for the Wielinski family of Clarence Center, New York. Karen said good night to her husband Doug as he left their family room. Minutes later her world and her home came tumbling down around her. This compelling memoir is the story of life before, during, and after an unthinkable tragedy.