New Orleans Restaurants Band Together to Continue Local Lenten Tradition
The fish fry, a beloved Lent tradition, is usually a community-based event; in a year when many traditions are on hold, New Orleans restaurants are stepping in to fill the gap and raise funds.
For many in New Orleans, spring means Lent and church fish fries: plates of fish, hush puppies, and mac and cheese, picked up on your way home from work. But people are still reluctant to gather amid the pandemic; some churches remain closed; and even if everyone was game, not all communities have the resources to pull it off right now. Thus, Fish Fry Fridays.
A combined effort to preserve tradition and raise funds for areas in need of relief, more than 30 restaurants have signed on to sell their own spin on the usual meal with $1 from each entrée sold benefiting Hospitality Cares, a partnership between the Louisiana Hospitality Foundation and United Way of Southeast Louisiana. Chef Nicole Mills of Peche signed on for a second year, after joining in 2020 when everything first closed. Fish fries, she says, "are simple, but they support the community and let you see your neighbors." In the absence of that option, gathering at a restaurant or picking up some familiar food to go and sharing with family may be the next best thing.
Mills says that the bonus of letting a restaurant do the work is that you get high quality. "We're frying whole fish, which many don't have access to. We know these fishermen who get the really fresh fish from the Gulf," she says. While most church fries feature catfish or something similar, restaurants often go for the wow factor. "We can get snapper, flounder, tilefish," Mills says, adding, "Frying a whole fish at home is a lot."
While a restaurant-made meal might be a splurge, the purveyors do everything they can to respect the fish and make sure nothing is wasted. "We try to use the entire fish," she explains. "We break it all down, even serve the collars. Those make really nice snacks," Mills mentions. They also elevate the typical fish fry to something special. Instead of relying on the usual sides, for example, Pêche serves a kumquat slaw with Meyer lemon aioli, homemade tartar sauce, and potatoes with confit garlic, as well as traditional hush puppies.
If you are tempted to try your own whole fish fry, Mills has a few suggestions for getting restaurant-level quality. "Some telltale signs are whether the color is vibrant, the eyes are clear, and the gills are dark maroon, not brown," she says. For those accustomed to the aroma of a typical fish counter, she's setting the record straight: "It shouldn't smell like anything but ocean water. If it smells fishy, it's not fresh," she states. And if you can touch the fish, it should feel firm. "If it's been on ice for a while, it's probably gotten soft," she says.
Mills laughs that, while she doesn't often get Fridays off anymore, she happily joined the line at their local parish church or participated in a crawfish boil back in the days when she spent Friday nights with family. "We like to put as much as we can on it," she shares. "Onions, celery, garlic, lots of citrus—oranges, lemons—and lemongrass, which makes it really fragrant. And, obviously, a lot of salt."
The taste of home is always special but putting a new twist on a cherished tradition can help navigate this year's challenges and make them all the sweeter in the future.