In last week’s blog, I casually mentioned Friday night fish. Only after I posted the blog did I realize that readers might not know the significance of this ritual in the state of Wisconsin.
My family moved to Green Bay when I was seven years old. We were one of three families in our working class neighborhood who weren’t Roman Catholic. My brother, my sisters, and I were the only kids on our block to attend public school. Everyone else went to St. Bernard’s (pronounced bern’ erds, not ber-nards’).
When I was a kid, Catholics weren’t allowed to eat meat on Fridays. As a result, every restaurant in town and every neighborhood bar with a kitchen served deep-fried fish on that day. In Green Bay, before the demise of the Lake Michigan commercial fishing industry, deep-fried fish meant only one kind of fish, and that fish was perch. As a kid, I thought all breaded perch cooked in a vat of vegetable oil tasted the same. To my dad, however, there was only one place in town worth paying restaurant prices when we could catch our own perch out of the lake. That place was a hole-in-the-wall bar called Maricque’s (pronounced Merricks) – and the only thing that Maricque’s did differently from any place else was that it gave the customer the choice of perch as boneless fillets or perch-on-the-bone. According to my dad, people who knew how to eat fish properly ordered perch with bones and then picked the meat off with their fingers.
About sixty years ago God or the Pope (actually it was Vatican II) decided that it was okay to eat meat on the day of the week that Jesus died, but the tradition of Friday night fish remains strong in many parts of Wisconsin.
Fish on Fridays was one of the less weird things my Catholic friends were taught at their Catholic elementary school. They were also told by the nuns that the sky gets dark at 3pm every Good Friday. For a couple of years, my friends and I paid careful attention to the weather on Good Friday and then wondered how cloudy the sky had to be before it could be classified as dark.
The most troubling bit of Catholic propaganda, troubling to both the Catholic and the non-Catholics kids in the neighborhood, was that I, as a non-Catholic, was destined for hell. By all measures that we could come up with, I was like everyone else, yet I was doomed. We all agreed it wasn’t fair.
I remember the exact moment when my Catholic friends realized that nuns might be fallible. Bobby Nistler’s parents were personal friends with one of the nuns, and Bobby and his mom dropped in on her unexpectedly one day. When they walked into her quarters at the convent, she was wearing blue jeans and a tee shirt, ironing her habit, and drinking beer from a bottle she precariously balanced on the end of the ironing board. Whether it was the blue jeans, the ironing board, or the beer, my Catholic friends discussed the incident and concluded that nuns might not know any more than the rest of us.