Comments & Curiosities: Serving up the facts on fish fries

Sixty-four years is a long time. That's how long Costa Mesa's annual Lions Fish Fry & Carnival has been around, and it is in full swing and full sizzle this weekend.

But do not delay, dawdle or procrastinate, because Sunday is the last chance for fish fry fanatics to do their annual deep-fried, carnival ride, kewpie doll-stuffed panda thing. In addition to the extreme fun factor, the Fish Fry raises about $50,000 for the Costa Mesa-Newport Harbor Lions Club, which supports a boatload of great organizations like the Boys & Girls Clubs, Sea Scouts, various schools and the Home for Washed Up Italian-American Mayors.

Not really. I made the last one up.

According to board member Mike Scheafer, the Lions Club has fried up more than $2.5 million over the years, which is a lot of fish.

The Lions Fish Fry may be 64, but fish fries in general were invented about two weeks after water. No one knows who was the first person that said let's clear these trees, set up some tables, get some oil really hot and fry up about a zillion fish, or as they say in the South, a whole passel o' fish.

I've never met anyone who knows exactly what "passel" means, but speaking of the South, that is a place that claims to be where it all began — fishing then frying then fun. Then again, so does New England, and the Midwest, and we shall deal with each in turn.

In the land of grits, moon pies and RC Cola, a fish fry was a big rambunctious family/town gathering, where everyone pitched in to churn out the battered fish, fries, cole slaw and hush puppies. Where I come from, hush puppies were suede shoes that were sometimes cool, sometimes not, but in the South they are deep-fried seasoned corn fritters that look like a little ear of corn if they make them in a trick pan.

In the Midwest, the Friday night fish fry is a tradition, either at home or out, with beer being a major player. The Friday night twist actually originated in Catholic communities, as a reaction to meatless Fridays, which are long gone, but the fish fry parties on.

In the Northeast, the fish fry is a cousin to fish boils, which are not something fish get if they ride their bikes too long, but one more version of a family or community rager with giant cauldrons over wood fires on the beach filled to the brim with seafood, potatoes and vegetables.

But whatever the region and whoever is frying it up, a common ingredient is the super confidential, White House clearance, if-I-tell-you-I-have-to-kill-you trade secrets for everything from fish to batter to oil temperature and, above all, seasoning.

It's all about the seasoning. Fish fry cooks get every bit as crazy about this stuff as chili chefs, if not more. Each cook's blend of seasonings is passed from one generation to the next in what I assume are super secret fish fry meetings where they wear special fish hats and repeat chants about Zatarains or Southern Star seasoning that are 100 years old, at least.

Is the Lions Fish Fry the biggest in the universe? Actually, no.

That honor belongs to the Paris Fish Fry. Not that Paris ... Paris, Tenn. Do you know where that is?

Neither do I. But they host the mother of all fish fries every year in the last week of April. Do you know when the Paris Fish Fry started? I do. 1938. Get out and shut the door. You could have knocked me over with a feather.

It was called Mule Day, don't ask, from 1938 to the early 1950s, when it became the Paris-Henry County Fish Fry, then claimed the title of the world's biggest fish fry in 1960, which is one of those claims you have to love because who is going to disprove it?

They now claim that they cook and serve more than 5 tons of fish in the Robert E. "Bobby" Cox Memorial Fish Tent, which I assume was named for a Civil War general who marched to Atlanta and became the Braves' manager. They do things differently in the South.

I believe that's it — fish, fries and hush puppies, fritters not shoes. Don't ask about the seasoning, they won't tell you and you could be fined and/or arrested.

The Lions Fish Fry, it's a tradition, it's fun, it's all low-fat and high-fiber, sort of. I gotta go.

PETER BUFFA is a former Costa Mesa mayor. His column runs Sundays. He may be reached at ptrb4@aol.com.

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