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Among the Friday-night fish-fry cognoscenti, St. Ferdinand’s fry is legendary. That’s for two reasons: it’s open every Friday night, through the whole year, for a slightly more devout stripe of Catholic; and it’s mad-popular.
How popular? St. Ferdinand grosses about $20,000 each Friday during Lent, and $9,000 every weekend during the rest of the year, said Father Jack Schuler of the church. It’s the most lucrative fry in town, he said.
That’s big bidness, baby. The annual budget for the church would shrink to a sad number indeed if the fish-fry operation were not pumping fresh cash into the coffers. That’s true for plenty of parishes, but perhaps more true for St. Ferdinand than St. Anybody Else.
“The fry causes a lot of havoc for the parish school,” added Schuler, “but we tell them there would be no school without it.”
In fact, the St. Ferdinand operation is sufficiently large that they hire outside employees to staff it. The fry requires a bunch of volunteers, but over and above that number, said fry manager Joni Snider, there are 25 paid staffers and even some area high-schoolers fulfilling a community-service requirement working the huge, hot church kitchen each Friday.
And they’ve been doing what they do for quite some time. At 223 years old, this is the oldest parish in the County -- and the fry is kicking along in its 58th year.
Three generations of parishioners have volunteered and eaten at this one.
With all this popularity and history, it’s a little surprising that the St. Ferdinand gym is not terribly large. It’s even more curious that the gym’s seating capacity is effectively chopped in half by the peculiar arrangement of the serving lines. It’s probably a reflection of the strategy we learned about last week at St. Peter in Kirkwood -- keep “turning over” the tables, get new butts in the seats, create demand, and generate as much volume as possible.
More from the same playbook: make money from selling beer, which St. Ferdinand does from a cute little kiosk in the corner, and have no weekly specials, which might dismay the gourmet fish-fry hopper, but makes each week’s menu just the same as the last, helping to streamline the operation.
The fried cod (which is sliced and prepped by volunteers beginning at 3 a.m. each Thursday, said Snider) is tasty, with a pleasantly salty batter, but like so many other fry’s, the catfish at this one is actually a little more rewarding. That catfish, which comes in both regular and Cajun batters, is a good bet, with its tender fish and flavorful crust.
Something else that sets St. Ferdinand apart: everything is sold a la carte, including the fish (cod and catfish are both $11/lb.). That invites the customer who wants to feed his or her whole family to fill a Styrofoam to-go container with a pound or two, and get carryout, a very popular option (below left). Three years ago, recounts Father Schuler, someone bought $400 worth of carryout fish and had it shipped to California. Such is the power and nostalgic pull of the St. Louis church fish fry.
Sides were mostly adequate, and in fact, the church spaghetti (above right) was better than most.
Another rarity: desserts are all made in-house at this one. Baker Kathy Eagan comes into the church kitchen to bake lemon cake, “brownie pie,” German chocolate cake, cherry pie, coconut cake, and a dozen more. If you’d like, you can top them with frozen yogurt in chocolate, vanilla, or swirled flavors.
Like all the fry’s, the chance to mingle with friends old and new is a big part of the draw. “The best thing about this is seeing my relatives here; otherwise I might not see them until the next funeral,” Father Schuler quipped.
If you miss St. Ferdinand’s Lenten fry’s, consider the weekly Friday fry at other times of year, starring fried chicken, and green beans slow-cooked with onion and bacon bits.
But if you go during Lent, look closely at the cod for a sign from the heavens. At last week’s fry, one of the volunteers excitedly shared her find with her friends: a piece of fried cod “that looked just like an angel.” (see left)
As a skeptic, I asked her if she’d ever seen Jesus in the catfish.
She grinned and replied, “We’re looking!”
St. Ferdinand Fish Fry
3 to 7:30 p.m. Fridays during Lent; 3 to 7 p.m. all other Fridays