While working at a rival paper 10 years ago, I was given a breaking news assignment of vital importance: compile a list of Lenten fish fries in and around Chicago and the northern suburbs.
Now you'd think tracking down this kind of information would be fairly easy. Yet when I started scouring the web looking for event listings to plagiarize, I found most of the information was either incomplete or years out of date, forcing me to call, town by town, dozens of Catholic churches, Knights of Columbus halls, VFWs and American Legions. And the one answer I received more than half of the time was: "We don't do that kind of thing anymore."
Here's what I learned: as its church-going membership declined, the Chicago Diocese was forced to shutter many of its low-attendance churches, and/or combine them into other parishes.
The American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars faced a similar culling. Because as more and more World War II and prior war veterans died off, a lot of the self-standing VFW and Legion posts they built, supported and volunteered at became unsustainable. Many were either shut down or sold, with surviving members left to meet once a month in conference rooms at their village hall or local library.
It was a phenomenon I came across in town after town in many of the inner and northern suburbs. Yet it was a far cry from how things work down here in the boondocks, where most of the churches, veteran halls and fish fries have remained solvent.
Why is that? Simply put, the Joliet area has a lot of Catholics, a lot of veterans and a lot of people who like deep-fried cod.
The religious connection is one that can't be discounted, because there is one universal truth held sacred by all Catholics, both practicing and non-practicing. And it's not about accepting the infallibility of the Pope. Or practicing the rhythm method. Or saving the pagan babies.
It's simply this: you don't eat meat on Fridays during Lent. It's one of those rules they drill into you as a child that you never forget. I know adults who haven't seen the inside of a church for decades who still abide by it – either out of reverence or maybe just out of a hankering for catfish.
Fish fries also are a great way to bring the community together. On any given Lenten Friday, places like the Knights of Columbus and Ingalls Park Athletic Club end up packed to the gills, with a line waiting to get in.
They're also an effective fund-raising activity. At Joliet's Cantigny VFW Post 367, the fish fry has helped keep the doors open at an organization celebrating its 100th anniversary on March 28.
Even now it's easy to come up with a short list of at least 10 area fish fries:
• Knights of Columbus Council 4400, 1813 E. Cass St., Joliet.
• Cantigny VFW Post 367, 826 Horseshoe Drive, Joliet.
• Croatian Cultural Club, 1503 Clement St., Joliet.
• Ingalls Park AC, Bond Road and Park Street, Joliet.
• St Paul’s School, 130 Woodlawn Ave, Joliet.
• St. Joseph Park, Joliet.
• Lockport VFW Post 5788, 1026 E 9th St., Lockport.
• Harry E. Anderson VFW Post 9545, 323 Old Hickory Road, New Lenox.
• Mokena VFW Post 725, 19852 Wolf Road, Mokena.
• St. Mary Immaculate gym, Plainfield.
Most of that list I plagiarized from The Herald-News, and I'm pretty sure it's by no means comprehensive. Also I it didn't include what was once one of the most popular (albeit commercial) Lenten fish destinations in the U.S.: the Joliet Long John Silver's.
Back at the turn of the millennium, Long John Silver's on Jefferson Street was rated among the company's top 20 franchises nationally during Lent. The fast-food restaurant would go through 20,000 slabs of fish each Friday. Cars used to be backed up onto Barney Drive to access the drive-through, while a squad of wait-staff armed with walkie-talkies took your order and payment.
Over the last 30 years, I've eaten at most or all of these places. Which serves the best fish? I can authoritatively tell you ... I'm not going down that road. They're all pretty good in my book.
So get in the car and go figure it out yourself. There's still five Fridays left.
• Bill Wimbiscus is a former reporter and editor for The Herald-News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.