Around New Orleans, Friday seafood and renewed faith in each other

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The combo platter of fried oysters, shrimp, and catfish at St. Bonaventure Church in Avondale. Churches around the city are holding the Lenten events mostly outside because of the coronavirus. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

Entering year two of the pandemic, many of the things we love about New Orleans life are again being postponed, pushed back or thrown into doubt.

And yet, some food traditions do continue, giving us that needed connection to each other even through all the protocols we abide by to protect one another.

One has been on display each week, the Friday seafood tradition. Yes, of course it comes from the Catholic practice of meatless Fridays in Lent, which inevitably brings up all the jokes about the “penance” of eating seafood in a land famous for it.

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Billy Abbott and John Richard man the French fry station.

But the tradition by now is broadly cultural, too. It is what many people here do on Fridays, from the boiling pot to the fryer.

This year, some church fish fries continue in drive-thru mode, bringing back the people who always create the food and the people who convene for it, albeit in the now-familiar terms of social distancing.

What’s so impressive to me about the Friday seafood tradition in Louisiana is the way it brings people together for a common purpose, and that feels more important now than ever. After all, the classic church fish fry is a fundraiser for the community that hosts it.

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The Lenten fish fries continue, but are drive-through affairs this year because of continued restrictions on gatehrings due to COVID-19.

This year there’s a different extension of that idea running through restaurants. It’s a campaign called Fish Fry Fridays and it has a double bottom line: driving business to local restaurants that surely need a boost and also raising money, with a portion of the ring going to a crisis fund for hospitality industry people, run by the United Way and the Louisiana Hospitality Foundation. You can find menus and details at fishfryfridays.org.

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A Buffalo catfish sandwich is a Lenten special at Blue Oak BBQ, one of more than 40 New Orleans restaurants taking part in the Fish Fry Fridays campaign.

Now that we’re at about the midway point of Lent, what’s come shining through all this are enduring qualities of the season — the welcome, the gratitude and the flavor you get from Louisiana people doing what they truly love.

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Handmade advertising on the neutral ground near St. Bonaventure Church in Avondale for the first Fish Fry Friday on Friday, February 19, 2021. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

No two fish fries are really the same. Churches have different menus, the cooking teams have different techniques, and now these restaurants are putting their own signatures on their weekly seafood dishes, from whole fish to elaborate chef specials.

No, it does not feel like a penance, but it sure feels significant, especially this year. It feels like us, and I’m ready for the next plate.