A Friday Tradition

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By: 
Matt Geiger
Leo Acker, Ron Schwab and Ruth Acker prepare cod on a Friday afternoon

It’s Friday afternoon and there’s a distinctive sound emanating from the kitchen beneath St. Peter Catholic School in Ashton. It’s periodic laughter and the percussive clunk of chopping as a handful of volunteers mix massive vats of coleslaw, trim hundreds of slabs of cod, and line up tray after tray of homemade cupcakes.

In a few hours, the sound will be replaced by a din rivaling that of any busy restaurant. Baskets of battered cod will be lowered into cracking oil, and more than 1,000 people will line up to take part in a Wisconsin tradition.

It’s a tradition that has been going on here, at St. Peter Catholic Parish, for four decades now.

Friday night fish fries take place in many different venues. Their origin, however, is linked to the devoutly religious European communities that settled in this region of the Midwest.

St. Peter’s pastor, Father Brian Dulli, said they grew out of the Catholic tradition of doing penance on Fridays.

“Traditionally Friday is the day on which you are asked to make some sort of sacrifice to honor the death of Christ,” he said. “For many generations, it was understood that abstinence from meat could be that sacrifice, even outside of Lent.”

While the Roman Catholic Church does not rigidly require giving up meat on Fridays, the idea of substituting seafood for meat caught on and spread far outside the religious community.

Now, people from across Dane County travel to the little rural parish on a hill just a few minutes outside Middleton.

Lori Meinholz, a member of St. Peter Catholic Church, organizes the event, which takes place seven times each year.

“We serve around 1,000 people in about three hours,” she said. “The goal is to make sure every one of them gets good, hot food.”

Meinholz is no stranger to feeding hungry mouths. She spends her days at her family farm, Blue Star Dairy, which is visible just to the west of the church. There, she cooks hearty fare for her farm hands.

But making sure the Friday night fish fry goes off without a hitch requires more than culinary skills. “We basically make sure everything gets ordered, make sure everything gets done,” she said. “I do everything except run the dishwasher.”

“We’re inspected just like any other restaurant,” said Meinholz, herself a licensed food handler. “All our equipment is up to snuff.”

Rotating volunteers from the church’s congregation gather a few hours prior to each meal, taste testing each batch of coleslaw and getting every detail ready for the impending rush.

“The menu has evolved over the years. Right now we have all-you-can-eat deep fried cod, baked potato or French fries, corn or green beans, fresh bread, a homemade dessert and coffee, milk or water,” Meinholz said. “It’s served family style, with ten people at a table together and a lot of food bustling about.”

“The batter’s a secret recipe, the coleslaw’s a secret recipe, and the tartar sauce is too,” she continued. Volunteer cooks whip up 300 pounds of coleslaw for each Friday night event; taste testing every batch to make sure it has just the right “zing.”

While the work is real, the volunteers chuckle and make wisecracks as they go about their well-established routines in the surprisingly roomy kitchen.

“I actually enjoy doing it – a lot of these people are my neighbors and this is how I get to see them,” said Meinholz. “It’s more of an enjoyable experience than it is a chore.”

While members of the congregation, aided by students from the school, do the prep work, the event succeeds because people from all walks of life are willing to traverse the rolling agrarian landscape in order to get their hands on the meals.

“I know people from Stoughton, Sun Prairie, Dodgeville, plus a lot from Madison and the [University of Wisconsin] come to it,” Meinholz said. “I think it’s so cool when I see a group of 10 or 20 young people come through the door. You’ll see someone home from college and he’ll bring a bunch of his friends with him.”

“From what I understand it’s a real Wisconsin thing,” she added. “People from elsewhere don’t seem to know much about it.”

The dinners raise money for St. Peter Catholic Parish and its school.

 

St. Peter’s Fish Fry dinners include deep fried cod, baked potato or French fries, a vegetable, coleslaw, bread, homemade desserts, milk or coffee.  Serving time is between 5 and 8 p.m. in the cafeteria beneath St. Peter’s Catholic School, 7121 CTH K in Ashton. Carryout meals are also available,

The cost is $11 for adults, $6 for children ages 5-12, $3 for children ages 1-4. Cash and personal checks are accepted.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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