Saturday, March 20, 2010

Mary Queen of Heaven Fish Fry

I was raised Catholic in various Midwestern suburbs. As a kid, I dutifully gave up drinking soda or chewing gum during Lent every year. I didn't eat meat on Fridays. I didn't think much about it, just that it was something that had to be done and once Easter came around, we were rewarded with chocolate and a long, boring mass. Then we'd forget about it and do it all again next year.

I'm not a practicing Catholic now, I'm not a practicing anything unless Target has a religious sect I could join. Every year during Lent though, I'm reminded of the religion I grew up with as fish frys spring up all over the city.

When I was actually Catholic, I don't think I went to a single fish fry. I guess they weren't as big of a deal in Minnesota, or my family was just content getting a Filet o Fish and calling it a night. Cincinnati, however, has a much deeper, richer, and louder tradition of fish frys than I ever remember encountering as a child.

A couple of weeks into Lent, Alex and I became convinced that we should go to one of these fish frys. But which one? We started off with the most convenient - St. Cecilia in Oakley. Not bad, but not really inspired. And they didn't serve beer. Next week, we agreed, we'd find a better one.

I stumbled across a conversation on Facebook proclaiming Mary Queen of Heaven as having the best fish fry in the area. A quick glance at the menu and I was convinced that we should head to Erlanger for our next fry.

While not exactly a long drive from Cincinnati, I still felt as we headed past the 275 belt that we were going pretty far for some dinner in a Catholic school gymnasium. Why did I drag us out of the city, away from many potentially excellent fish dinners, to go to Mary Queen of Heaven?

I doubted. I was weak. But my faith was restored when we pulled up to the parking lot and a man in a vest with a fishing rod waved us in. Then we saw it - the Codfather. We were in the right place.

We parked, made our way through the entrance and past the girl scouts selling cookies, and got into line. Before long, a man selling cold bottled beer passed by. Not much longer after that, we picked up a tray and selected a dessert before we placed our dinner order.

If Mary Queen of Heaven isn't the best fish fry in Cincinnati, then it has to be the best organized. They take credit cards. Once your order is placed, you're given a number to place on your table. And, of course, they had basketball projected onto a huge screen in the gym. We armed ourselves with condiments, found a table, and right on cue a strapping young Catholic child found us and delivered our food.

Mine: Fish sandwich platter on white. Fries and coleslaw. Flavorful and not greasy. The fish was not at all tough. Pretty much everything I wanted.

Alex's: Shrimp platter. Same deal. Delicious.

The Codfather himself was there, circulating through the room. A kid dressed in a gold fish costume waddled around peering out of a gaping fish mouth. Each volunteer wore a shirt calling theirs the "Best Fish This Side of Heaven." Everyone, at every table, seemed content. We finished our dinners, split a piece of chocolate cake, and headed back toward the parking lot. The line had grown even longer while we'd been eating, but nobody seemed rushed or impatient.

As we headed back out toward the highway, Alex and I waved to the faux fisherman. In a way, it's a nice reminder of what was good about belonging to a church. The people at Mary Queen of Heaven didn't know I was a kind of ex-Catholic with no plans of attending mass again, but they welcomed me anyway with cold bottled beer and fried fish. They treated us with warmth, fed us, and we went on our way. I was always under the impression that that's what church should really be all about. Mary Queen of Heaven does that, and they do it well.

There's one more Friday left on the Lent calendar. If you're looking for a fish fry, I suggest heading down to Erlanger. You'll know you're there when the man with the fishing pole guides you into the parking lot. Religious or not, it's an experience worth driving out of the city for.

Some recommended reading: Liz posted an excellent article last year about her experiences with religion and going to a Cincinnati fish fry for the first time.


liz said...

thanks for the shout out! i can't wait to try MQH next weekend. fyi, lots of fish fries are continuing for 2 more weeks just in case you guys want to try a couple more.

Anonymous said...

Glad to read you had a good experience...You are so right...My little ones attend MQH and we always feel welcomed and appreciated...The people (staff and parishioners) at MQH are truly the best. See you next Friday!