At Lent, the Friday fish fry continues, with some changes

For several years, longtime Philadelphia journalist Thera Martin’s Good Friday plans were set: After her church service ended in South Philly, she’d make a beeline north, to the Sultan Jihad Ahmad Community Foundation’s annual fish fry at 19th and Oxford Streets.

“When you go to their fish fry, it’s just always a homecoming, a family reunion of sorts of community activists, community leaders, retired elected officials,” Martin said. “Everybody would come out.”

“It’s fun, but it’s also a lot of work,” said Harriett Ahmad, cofounder of the nonprofit and one of the few trusted cooks at the fish fry. She took over the job from her mother-in-law, who used to hold fish fries so she could buy her children Easter clothes. The North Philly nonprofit’s fish fry — postponed until 2022, “God-willing” — raised funds for cultural enrichment for local teens.

Friday fish fries are a Lenten tradition for many, especially further west, in Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Milwaukee. And some Philadelphia communities, both church-based and not, celebrate them like clockwork.

“We’ve been doing it for well over 15, 20 years,” said Sheila Lee, the president of the parish hospitality club at St. Martin de Porres Catholic Church in North Philly. Their Friday fish fries would take place weekly, sometimes after church service or before stations of the cross. Attendees could take a platter — pan-fried fish, two slices of bread, macaroni and cheese, and string beans — home for lunch or dinner, or stay and eat with their fellow parishioners. “Usually people will come in order at least four or five apiece,” she said.

Because of the pandemic, St. Martin’s will only hold two fish fries this year, on March 12 and 26. They’re paring back on staff, shifting prep work to individual homes as much as possible, and exclusively offering platters to-go. One thing won’t change, though: “The fish is cooked right there on the spot.”

Lee will be there cooking, as will her youngest daughter, who will most likely work the sides station, since frying is something you have to work your way up to, Lee said, laughing. “You have to pay your dues.”

Fish fries have a special significance for churches, said the Rev. Henry Busby, pastor of Solid Rock Baptist Church in South Philly. “Fish has always been a paramount emblem of gathering, of fellowship, of community throughout the church and throughout the community as a whole,” he said, citing the parable of the loaves and the fishes, as well as fish as a secret symbol that early Christians used to identify each other.

Solid Rock used to hold fish fries throughout the year to “encourage one another in the spirit of food, faith, and fellowship,” said Busby. But the congregation hasn’t physically gathered since last March, instead taking service to Facebook Live broadcasts and keeping in touch via phone calls. The return of its fish fries will have to wait at least a few months more.

Elsewhere, the fry is going on — even if it has to be boxed or bagged up and eaten on the road. “We’re pretty much streamlining it,” said Thomas Maksymiuk, fish fry organizer and board member of the Philadelphia branch of the Ukrainian American Youth Association. The event is taking pickup preorders at for March 12.

Maksymiuk launched the Philly UAYA fish fry seven years ago, after attending them at sister locations in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Buffalo. Initially held in the small bar area at the Ukrainian Educational and Cultural Center in Jenkintown, it was an instant hit. “I thought people would just eat their food and leave,” he said. “But we absolutely packed that little bar to the gills.”

The fish fry is a labor of love for Maksymiuk and a small crew of volunteers. He heads to Restaurant Depot in Langhorne to buy about 70 pounds of cod (he struck out with sole one year) the Wednesday beforehand. He procures coleslaw from the Dutch Country Farmers Market on Cottman Avenue. Come Friday, he spends his entire day in the kitchen at the cultural center: filleting, seasoning, readying the batter, defrosting mac and cheese, pan-frying the cod when the orders finally flow in. He bought two minideep fryers to make french fries, which he calls “the biggest headache from year to year.”

In normal times, UAYA fish fry attendees circulate the big hall, greeting old friends and buying raffle tickets while they wait for their food. People might linger for a couple hours. This year, customers won’t even get out of their cars. They’ll get their fish and go, but Maksymiuk and company will end the night the same way: scrubbing the kitchen clean.

For those who want a steady Friday fish-fry source, even after Lent, turn to Stargazy, the East Passyunk hand-pie shop from London native Sam Jacobson. Each week, he fries up fat fillets of cod and haddock, four at a time, to go on top of hand-cut fries served with a side of malt vinegar, tartar sauce, and minty mushy peas.

“I’ve been trying to make it more like what you would get at home [in the U.K.]. And certainly you would get a fillet rather than two or three pieces small pieces,” Jacobson said. Though he wasn’t raised Catholic, fish and chips is a Friday thing for him, too.

“It was just kind of a sort of subliminal thought, even in our house,” he said. “It’s synonymous with Fridays.”

Where to buy: St. Martin de Porres (2340 W. Lehigh Ave., 215-228-8330) fish fries take place March 12 and 26, starting at noon. The UAYA fish fry takes place March 12 from 5-7 p.m. at 700 N. Cedar Rd., Jenkintown; order by March 9 at Stargazy (1838 E. Passyunk Ave.) accepts 40-50 preorders each week or orders for 4 servings or more anytime; order via Square, found at the link at @stargazyphilly. jrladd

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