The town of 5,600 that I grew up in had five Catholic churches.
One was Irish, one Italian, one Polish, one Lithuanian and one something else. German, I think. Our predominantly Lithuanian family, of course, attended the Irish church since it was just across the street.
Growing up Catholic in a predominantly Catholic town in the 1960s and 1970s meant two things: church every Sunday and fish every Friday.
At our house, fish predominantly came in one of two forms: sticks or cans. Faced with feeding a ravenous litter of six, my mom usually opted for the latter. A huge yellow Pyrex bowl of tuna salad was her default dinner. And whatever wasn’t eaten Friday night ended up as sandwiches on Saturday.
Occasionally we’d have salmon, either in a loaf or patties. My mom, of course, had the good sense to keep us out of the kitchen anytime she opened canned salmon. She realized if we ever saw that lump of pink horror straight out of the tin, we’d never eat it. Occasionally she’d press sardines on us. But try as she might, there was no way I was going to eat one of those things.
The ubiquitous sticks were the kids’ favorite option, served with a homemade tartar sauce of blended mayonnaise and chili sauce. Once in awhile, we’d have “fresh fish.” Back then, that meant frozen filets (our butcher only sold meat from animals with feet), which my mom would thaw and then bake or broil.
I don’t think I ever had fried fish until I was in high school, and even then it probably came from a McDonald’s.
So it was kind of a revelation when I moved to Joliet in the mid-80s and found a town flowing not with milk and honey, but with beer-battered cod and catfish.
At least during Lent. Because in Joliet, like most suburban towns across the Chicago area, fish fries were a rite of Lenten passage.
Things have changed a lot over the last three decades. A few years ago, I wrote a story about the dearth of fish fries in many of the Chicago suburbs.
Many, especially in the inner and northern suburbs, had sputtered out of existence when their local American Legion and VFW halls closed due to aging membership, or when their local service organizations simply discontinued hosting them.
Not so in the south suburbs, where Friday night fish fries continue to flourish. Especially in Joliet, which I’m pretty sure has more Lenten fries than anywhere else in the state.
My wife and I have attended just about every one around here over the last 10 years. They’re all pretty good and I’d be hard pressed to say which is our favorite.
We probably hit Cantigny VFW Post 367’s fry most often since it: 1. Helps to keep the post up and running, and 2. Like my childhood Irish church, happens to be closest to our house.
So instead of cranking open that can of tuna next Friday, you might want to check out one of these local fries:
Knights of Columbus Council 4400, 1813 E. Cass St., Joliet. 815-723-3827. 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fish, chicken, shrimp. Carryouts available.
Stone City VFW Post 2199, 124 Stone City Drive, Joliet. 815-722-7122. 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Cod, catfish, lake perch, bluegill, shrimp and combos, burgers, grilled cheese. Carryouts available, dining room opens at 4 p.m.
Moran Athletic Club, 1207 Nicholson St., Joliet. 815-722-5713. 4 to 8 p.m. Baked or fried cod, shrimp, catfish, or fried chicken. Prepared by Chefy’s Kitchen. Dine in or carry out.
Joliet Elks Lodge 296 (176 Catering), 250 S.E. Frontage Road, Joliet. 815-955-4968. 4:30 to 8 p.m. Baked and fried cod, fried shrimp, combo and burgers.
Ingalls Park Athletic Club, Bond Road and Park Street, Joliet. 815-727-7217. 4 to 7 p.m. Fried cod, shrimp, catfish and chicken tenders, French fries and bake potato. Dine in or carryout.
Cantigny VFW Post 367, 826 Horseshoe Drive, Joliet. 815-722-5398. 4 to 8 p.m. Karaoke 8 p.m. to midnight. Cod, walleye, catfish, chicken and combos.
Croatian Cultural Club, 1503 Clement St., Joliet. 815-723-3154. 4 to 7:30 p.m. Baked or fried cod, shrimp, catfish or chicken breast. Dine-in or carryout. Music starts at 7:30 p.m.
St. Mary Immaculate School gym, 15629 Illinois 59, Plainfield. 815-436-2651, ext. 841. 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. Cod, shrimp, grilled cheese, cheese pizza. Non-perishable food donations requested. Carryouts available. Raffles.
Harry E. Anderson VFW Post 9545, 323 Old Hickory Road, New Lenox. 815-485-8369 5 p.m., karaoke begins at 8:30 p.m. Baked or fried cod, shrimp, combos, chicken.
• Bill Wimbiscus, former reporter and editor for The Herald-News, has lived in Joliet for 25 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.