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Voyeur of 'Midwest culture' dives in at St. Albert the Great's fish fry

Loads of spaghetti, mashed potatoes, fish, coleslaw, hash browns, and bread crowd a single plate at St. Albert the Great.

Loads of spaghetti, mashed potatoes, fish, coleslaw, hash browns, and bread crowd a single plate at St. Albert the Great. Dan Samorodnitsky

The tartar sauce in the kitchen at St. Albert the Great is everything I’d dreamed of. It quivers in a huge bowl, doled out from an enormous jar. They’re going to need that jar and more. People are coming for this meal: They’re going to serve 900 people 120 pounds of cabbage and 30 pounds of sour cream (among other things) before the first Lenten fish fry of 2020 is through. (This was pre-social distancing, of course.)

I just moved here a year ago from New York, and I love, voyeuristically, what I imagine to be “Midwest culture.” Wood paneling, “Bless This Mess” needlepoint hanging on the walls, ranch dressing. It’s goyishe. It’s a hidden part of my personality; I don’t decorate my home this way, nor do I openly boast about my tackiness, except for right now. But now I’m here, in the Midwest. And what better time and place to indulge in my voyeurism than at St. Albert the Great’s Friday fish fry, one of the most popular in the Twin Cities?

Maybe it’s obvious by now but I’m also Jewish. Since I became aware of Lenten fish fries, I’ve metaphorically stood outside churches and fogged their windows. I’ve never even been in a church except in a tourist capacity, though I’ve been dying to go. Crisp fish and wet coleslaw are signifiers of this culture that is new but warmly enveloping me more each day. I have to go.

So on Friday, February 28, I… go.

A man in a cowboy hat—holy shit! a cowboy hat!—greets people at the door. St. Albert’s fish fry is so popular that attendees are led down to the cafeteria in stages, leaving people milling around in the sanctuary. I see hugs, small children running around, and a guitar-and-flute band called Light of the Moon playing. I’m already feeling a buzz of excitement, and I’m just sitting in the pews staring at people. It’s open and happy, without the somberness I’m used to in places of worship.

The second person I make eye contact with sits with me for 15 minutes. They talk about how open St. Albert’s is, how they had moved here from another parish that had gone in a less progressive direction. “This parish is love,” they say. I mention that this was all new to me, and that I was Jewish. They exclaim, “Oy gevalt! Oy vey! Baruch atah adonai elohenu” in a way that I suppose was meant to be funny and welcoming. At the time, I laugh along but think about this incident for days afterward, wondering why I just sat there while he, essentially, mocked me to my face. What compelled him to do that?

Nevertheless, upon walking down-stairs, I am immediately overwhelmed. There are just so many goddamn people here. I ask multiple times which way to go, where to get a ticket, how to get food. Everyone is happy, everyone is serene. Everyone looks healthy, everyone is laughing.

I am viciously out of my element, which is saying a lot since I don’t have an element. There isn’t a Jew in sight. These people aren’t just gentiles, they’re goys. It’s goy on goy. A sea of goy.

I forget to ask who decided to serve spaghetti, mashed potatoes, hash browns, and bread on the same plate. I sit down next to Terri and Larry. They watch as I take a dozen photos of my food and, when I tell them why I’m there, immediately introduce me to Bryan, the volunteer who’s in charge of the food. He puts his hand on my shoulder and proudly leads me through the kitchen.

It is pulsating in there, like a legit restaurant kitchen on a hopping Friday night, but staffed by retirees and the occasional small child. An industrial stand-mixer constantly whirs through instant mashed potatoes. Four stock pots are filled with spaghetti. The fryer never stops spitting out fish. Bryan’s hand, like Jesus’s, stays on my shoulder, except for when I see another volunteer dolloping out the tartar sauce. I rush over to take a picture. It’s sublime.

This is the stuff of dreams.

This is the stuff of dreams. Dan Samorodnitsky

I finally sit back down to my fish that is, miraculously, still crisp. Eating it with some of that tartar sauce and washing it down with lemonade is thrilling. Terri tells me about her great-grandparents, a Lithuanian Jewish woman married to a Scot, who ended up living on an Ojibwe reservation in northern Minnesota. She and her husband, Larry, guard my slice of blueberry pie after Bryan comes back to give me a history of the church.

Bryan also makes a point of introducing me to Mike Levey. Mike wears white gloves and a top hat, dressed as a 1940s elevator man because he’s working the elevator, which has three stops. He’s the only other Jew in the building, so far as I know. He’s been volunteering at St. Albert’s fish fries for seven years for all the same reasons everyone else is there: He likes the community. I promise to ride the elevator on my way out and chat with him, and he seems happy when I do.

I want desperately to feel angry or resentful at St. Albert’s but I’m not. There are no breads of affliction here and there never will be. Isn’t that strange?

This church is a surreal celebration, the gargantuan meal one smashing victory after another. A hash brown on top of a pile of spaghetti bathed in tomato sauce, next to mashed potatoes, next to coleslaw, all surrounding fried fish in the center of the plate. That’s not even to mention the shooter of lobster bisque, a warm piece of crusty bread, a brownie, and a slice of blueberry pie with the filling spilling out the sides. It’s all delicious.

Even though anger is banished, alienation isn’t. I can’t help feeling bitter toward these warm, friendly people. They pass me from person to person, each one nicer than the last, telling me what they love about St. Albert’s, or the community, or the fish fry itself, and my through-the-looking-glass feelings don’t shrink. I hate that I feel this way. I sit there and try to imagine a Seder this happy, this cacophonous, this void of reminders of suffering.

Now I’m cured. Not of my lust for chintz, which will always be there. Bury me in a carpeted coffin. But now I’ve seen the inside of a church, been at the center of a fish fry where a crowd of nearly a thousand people all seemingly tore at my clothes. I don’t need to wonder what the gentiles have going on in the church basement anymore.

They’ll happily show me, even include me. But it’s not for me, and never will be. At least now I know I don’t want it.