Lent was always a favorite period in Gray’s Ferry. Not necessarily because of the penitential acts required by the Catholic Church during the Lenten period, but because of the gustatory varieties offered as the alternative Friday meals. Of course, during the Lenten period, modern Catholics, namely since the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, have had to observe abstinence from meat on Fridays during the liturgical season of Lent. For most of us, prior to those changes Fridays were always days of abstinence from meat products for Catholics year around.
With that said, it is the first Friday of Lent and the Irish Diaspora from Gray’s Ferry, mostly located within Washington Township, New Jersey will without a doubt observe the rules of the Catholic Church regarding abstinence from meat today. Within the McNichol household in Delaware, McFish is usually an easily procured and consumed Lenten Friday meal. However, I long for the days when my maternal grandmother would prepare such delicacies such as oyster stew, fried smelts and of course the ever present fried flounder as part of the Lenten Meal. These dishes were usually accompanied with freshly made coleslaw, the omni present potato (note not Dan Quayle’s spelling,) and sometimes my maternal grandfather’s favorite, pepper hash. I am not really sure where one might get pepper hash these days…but if anyone knows, shoot me an email. So for a Lenten supper, the fixings were pretty good. Abstinence cloaked with cardiovascular disease…good thing we were good Catholics, after all this cholesterol we might have met the Maker on a Friday in Lent.
Another great favorite in my family was to have a meal of crab cakes, deep-fried (another need for beta blockers today), made at Bill’s Bar in the back kitchen. In those days, there used to be a separate entrance for ladies on the sides of local bars or tap rooms as they were commonly known. Children were never allowed in the front part of the bar, where this day God only knows what the front of Bill’s Bar looks like, I don’t. We would be dispatched to the side door of Bill’s Bar where we could stand in the ladies area of the bar, order 4 or 5 crab cakes, that were priced at two bits ($.25 cents, or a quarter for the Y2K generation.) On occasion, we were sometimes offered a Coke, on the house while waiting. The pervasive scent of fried food permeated the air in the Ladies section at Bill’s Bar. What a great alternative to flounder on a Friday in Lent, and to top it all off, they even gave you two slices of pickle to add to the sandwich as a garnish! Wow, this was great abstinence! Today, the local places we go to for crab cakes could take a lesson from Bill’s Mom, who was the cook, they range anywhere from $12.95- $15.00 for a crab cake platter, including french fries, and a small container of what is in my opinion institutional coleslaw as the grand event.
Most likely today, the first Friday of Lent, my daughter will opt for pizza as her meal. If I ever attempted to suggest smelts as part of the dining experience, the Delaware Child Services Police would most likely be called; simply because smelts constitute, “cruel and unusual punishment!’
If I suggested she try a good oyster stew, I would be sent to the electric chair! Oh well, I guess that’s why fast food have overtaken our Lenten Friday lives and meals. For the most part, Gray’s Ferry always observed family meals. Our fathers worked various shifts, but in those days, our mothers were usually homemakers that provided for all of the daily needs of the family. Supper was usually around 4:30 PM, because that is when the local factories and mills moved to the second shift, fathers came home and the house was complete again. You didn’t need to be reminded of when meals were, they were the same time every day, and you were there. Today, I need to text my daughter to come to dinner, even if she is upstairs in her room! For anyone that remembers Mrs. Moran on 28th Street, you will attest that she used to call out for, “MARY VIOLET……..” at the top of her lungs when she was late for dinner. That was pre-texting. Mary Violet Moran got the message, so did everyone else in Gray’s Ferry, after all it was dinner time!
I miss those familiar calls and sounds of living in Saint Gabriel Parish in Gray’s Ferry simply because life was unvarnished and very very human. We knew our neighbors, our neighbors knew us and everything that wasn’t right in the neighborhood, everyone knew about it. Today living in a sanitized, suburban neighborhood, I never hear my neighbors shout for their children to come home for dinner. For that matter, I really don’t know my neighbors other than a cursory wave or nod. Children never play in the neighborhood in the street. They are tied to their video games, NetFlix, cellular phones or busy texting or face timing with their friends. We don’t even hear the church bells of our parish, because they don’t ring them! Really, what up with a Catholic Church without ringing bells?
As I anticipate my McFish for dinner, the colorful and varied people of Gray’s Ferry are in my mind. During Lent, they went to the Stations of the Cross on Friday. Today, stations are just designated frequencies on the television. Our parish on occasion does offer Stations of the Cross, but they are not the good old Saint Alphonsus Ligouri versions, but a modernized, secularized and Protestantized version that is politically correct and inclusive. BARF!
What we all need is to get the notion of a parish again, families that shout, children that play outdoors, Church celebrations that are not sanitized to be politically correct, but truly correct as Catholic.
Happy Friday in Lent. I have to go, the speaker at McDonald’s is shouting at me asking if I want fries with my McFish! Priceless!