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Whale of a project — weekly Fish Fry events require squadron of volunteers, months of planning, preparation: Photo gallery

Troy Marino, left, and Frank Lane cook fish during the Fish Fry at St. John the Beloved Parish, Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. Dialog photo/Don Blake

By Karen James
For The Dialog

Many Catholics are familiar with the Lenten tradition of enjoying a fish fry dinner at their local parish hall — complete with baked or fried fish, and a side of mac and cheese, green beans, cole slaw, rolls and dessert. But the preparation for that Friday night tradition doesn’t start earlier that day. It starts months beforehand, so that come 5 p.m. on that first Friday evening Lent, up to 250 dinners can be served in two hours flat.

It’s quite the ‘whale of a project’ — so to speak, and The Dialog took a “behind the scenes” look at the process that takes place at St. John the Beloved in Wilmington and St Mary of the Assumption in Hockessin to bring the fish fry dinners to parishioners and the community at-large.

The planning starts months ahead of time in November and December, when the Knights of Columbus Council #6768 of St. Mary’s and #11796 of St. John the Beloved gather their fish fry committee to discuss everything from food orders to volunteer recruitment to food prep, and kitchen setup. All fish fry dinners are run by members of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization dedicated to promoting and conducting charitable works.

The initial meeting involves an overview of the previous year’s fish fry program from start to finish.

It was a full house at the Fish Fry at St. John the Beloved Parish, Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. Dialog photo/Don Blake

“We discuss what worked well last year, what didn’t, and are there any food adjustments that need to be made, or any changes in costs,” said John Bordonaro of St. Mary’s.

After that, the email notifications are sent to Knights Council members to mark their calendars and gear up for what roles they’ll carry out, said Ralph Paulus of St. Mary’s.

“In January the advertising begins with dates of the fish fry dinners being shared on parish websites, in church bulletins, and with the State’s Council for Knights of Columbus, the Ladies’ auxiliary, and to some local businesses as well,” said Paulus. Some churches also place ads in local newspapers, and on social media sites such as Facebook.

Once the dates are set, then the Fish Fry team orders and picks up supplies from different food distributors, said James “Jim” Gestwicki, a Knights member and the kitchen supervisor for the St. John’s dinners.

“The fish, cabbage for the cole slaw, mayo, you name it — we get it fresh and cook everything for each fish fry,” he said.

“Only the kids’ fish sticks are frozen – we don’t mess with what the kids are used to,” joked Bordonaro.

Hundreds of pounds of fish and several dozen pounds of the side dishes* (See sidebar for amounts) are ordered and delivered to the churches’ kitchens. In addition to the food, condiments, napkins, sweeteners, Ziploc bags and takeout bags are also bought in preparation for either the sit-down or take-out dinner options, said Joe Koskol, hall supervisor of the St. John the Beloved fish fry.

To prepare the food and serve the meals during each fish fry, dozens of volunteers happily step up to help. “For one fish fry, we need to fill 130 jobs,” said Koskol. “We have about 80 people who volunteer, with several of them doing more than one job.”

From December through the first Friday in Lent, Koskol estimates he receives about a thousand emails from people who want to help out in some capacity.

Gestwicki added that “it’s not just the Knights who are doing the work – it’s the wives of the Knights, the school kids,” as well as Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and teenagers who are looking for service hours to fulfill for their school. Gestwicki noted that his volunteers range in age from 6 (putting flowers on tables) to 96 years old, a man who used to cook the fish, but is now the “baked fish and potato advisor” so he can remain safely seated throughout the evening.

The week of each fish fry, there’s a ‘huge team that gathers to start preparing the fish,” said Gestwicki. The Sunday before the dinner, the fish is thawed out, and on Thursday, the pasta is boiled for the mac and cheese and the cole slaw is started, said Bordonaro.

Friday at 8 a.m., the fish is washed, dried and laid out. The afternoon of the dinner, halls are cleaned, tables are set and volunteers who will be serving the food are “schooled” on how a fish fry night evolves.

After months of planning and hours in the kitchen, Koskol said although it can be exhausting, it’s also rewarding.

“Everyone’s bone weary at the end of it – but it’s worth it. How often do you get to have 600 guests over for dinner?”

Karen James is a freelance writer.

Grocery run for typical Fish Fry

*The range is different for each parish, depending on anticipated number of people in attendance

Fish – 100  – 270

Green Beans – 60 to 130

Mac and Cheese – 24 to 100

Crab – 70

Cabbage for cole slaw – 50

French Fries – 40 to 360

Rolls – 40

Cooking Prep:

About 25-30 hours a week for 6 weeks