Friday night fryers

On the South Side, the end of the week means fish fries

4:15 p.m. Friday. John Marshall is standing in line waiting to pay for a ticket at St. Pius V Catholic Church’s fish fry. By this time, he knows what to expect.

Marshall, 79, has been partaking since his family moved into the parish in 1953. As a student in the parish grade school, he volunteered at the fish fry. Except for one 10-year period when his family belonged to another parish, he’s gone to the fish fries more or less continually ever since.

He usually gets catfish, macaroni and cheese, potato salad and apple sauce.

“It’s good, very good,” said Marshall, a retired quality engineer and electrician. “It’s pretty much the same since they started it.”

Around the Southside, at churches and American Legion Halls, thanks to lots of volunteers and humongous fryers, everything is ready around 4 p.m. on Fridays for a Lenten tradition. At St. Pius V, the person responsible for making that possible is Jennifer Croke.

“On average, we do about  700 meals a week over six weeks,” said Croke, who runs the fish fry at the church at 3310 S. Grand Blvd. with her husband.

Each week, the fish fry in the Tower Grove East neighborhood church goes through about hundreds of pieces of fish and about 100 pounds of potatoes for potato salad. Mac and cheese is an especially popular item, as is a new feature, cheese pizza for kids.

Each year, the event raises about $28,000 for causes like the outreach for homeless and the ministry for immigrants.

“We need 100 volunteers each week to make it happen,” Croke said.

Fortunately, Croke can rely on lots of helpers like her father, Gene Konold. His duties include frying the fish and the cooking pizzas for the kiddos. He’s a member of Seven Holy Founders Parish in South County, but says he does this volunteer work at St. Pius V to help a less fortunate parish and to spend time with his daughter.  

On this day, Konold’s grandkids Sam and Maddie munched the kids’ pizza at a table, while his wife, Colleen Konold, supervised. Later, members of the church’s Clan Jameson choir would provide musical entertainment.

4:45 p.m. Seated at a long table in a crowded cafeteria at St. Stephen Protomartyr Catholic Church, Dottie and Donald McCutchen celebrate a find.

“We’re from South County. We come here because we think it’s the best one,” Dottie McCutcheon said. That conclusion came from checking out the offerings at all kinds of churches, she said. Besides, her daughter lives close to the church at 3949 Wilmington Ave., in the Holly Hills neighborhood.

“I was born and raised two blocks over,” Donald McCutchen said. “It just feels good to come back to the old neighborhood.”

Close by, Ginger Williams paused the consumption of her fish feast to observe that she lives in the neighborhood and comes about three or four times a year to the St. Stephen fish fry.

“It benefits the school and the church, and it brings the community together,” she said.

Williams’ husband, Donald Williams, has lived in the neighborhood for 62 years. He attended nearby Woerner Elementary School, at 6131 Leona Street, and Cleveland High School. A Lutheran, he attends Epiphany Lutheran Church at Holly Hills Boulevard and Leona Street.

But, like his wife, Williams thinks coming to the St. Stephen fish fries is a good way to support the community. Besides, he said, “It’s good food.”

5:30 p.m.: Steven Fitzpatrick Smith, proprietor of the Royale Food & Spirits, 3132 S. Kingshighway, arrived with about 10 friends at the annual UnFish Fry at First Unitarian Church of St. Louis, 5007 Waterman Blvd.

The event in the Central West End neighborhood church would disappoint lovers of fried fish. It’s all vegetarian. The mayor was there trying out the unfish fare. Smith and his crew sit in the auxiliary chapel, complete with big beautiful windows.

“They used real plates. The crowd is very fun and hip,” Smith reports via Instant Messenger. Kids bus tables. Unlike what you’d find in the typical Catholic fish fry, the items in condiment bar were freshly made.

“It was great,” Smith messaged. “I had hummus, ‘Victoria’s Mediterranean Salad’, dolmades, vegetarian chili and apple cranberry crumble pie and some cookies. And a beer. That was great. I may have eaten too much but I had fasted as a good Catholic should. Even though I’m not sure I qualify as a good Catholic and I was at a Unitarian church. And I’m not sure if you call the Unitarians a church anyway.”

Smith started visiting fish fries when he was a kid and has been going around with groups of up to 15 for years. The sights he recalls are of children running around the school and parents drinking beer and toasting to their health.  “It’s more about community than it is anything else,” he said.

5:30 p.m. An assemblage of mostly old vets gathers around a fryer at pavilion next to Rollo-Calcaterra American Legion Post, 5703 Bischoff Ave. in the Hill neighborhood. A blue tarp keeps away much of the cold, allowing the group to keep frying the cod and shrimp on a chilly day when the temperature dropped below 40. When it gets colder  — as it sometimes does early on a Friday night in Lent — the workers keep warm by starting a fire in a 55-gallon drum.

When it’s cold, it’s still bearable, said Post Commander Lou Venegoni, 83, who served in the Army from 1961 to 1963

Charlie Oldani, 72, keeps the post stocked with food for each fish fry. He shops and buys 80 pounds of cod, 40 pounds of shrimp, 20 pounds of pasta and five gallons of coleslaw. “We sell out usually,” said Oldani, who was in the Marines from 1967 to 1971.

Oldani’s son Charlie Oldanai Jr., 35, helps out by doing dishes. “I am on KP duty,” he said. “My job is to do the dishes so the vets can rest and relax after it’s done.”

The fryers include Jeff Bailey. “It’s not so hard. We joke with each other,” said Bailey, who was in the Marines from 1985 to 1989. “Those of us that were Marines like to mess with those that weren’t Marines.”

6 p.m.  A reporter on assignment to write about the South Side’s Friday night Lenten delights puts down his pen and notebook and prepares to join his wife and brother in a fish dinner inside the Rollo-Calcaterra American Legion Post.

Jim Merkel

Author: Jim Merkel

Born and raised in St. Louis, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of four books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis. For more about Jim, visit www.jimmerkelthewriter.com.

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