Bigger Fish to Fry

“Fish fry” was not on the list when we moved to Ohio. This list, often amended, had two columns: PORTLAND and MARIETTA.


  • Mt. Tabor
  • Quince trees
  • Excellent drinking water
  • Winco
  • Family
  • Friends
  • Big, dirty river


  • Aldi
  • Cheaper rent
  • Even cheaper water bills
  • best homegrown tomatoes ever
  • Ramps
  • Family
  • Friends
  • Big, dirty river

I grew up here, in Marietta, but I never went to a fish fry until moving back over a year ago. Catholic churches have them as fundraisers on Friday nights during Lent. My parents had been raving about the St. Mary’s fish fry for ages.

The key to an optimal fish fry experience is acid. Bring half a mangled Meyer lemon and a nearly empty jar of herbed mustard from home. Squeeze the lemon all over the fish, stir a generous dab of mustard into the plastic cup of tartar sauce. Eschew the roll and the baked potato. Focus on the fish, the exterior of which is crispy and salty and greasy but not oily. The flaky flesh encased in the light batter steams when you bite into it. The church volunteers tell you it’s pollock. The baked fish option is not pollock, but one does not attend an all-you-can-eat fish fry for the baked fish.

There’s a table with desserts, crumbly and dry sugar cookies from the grocery store topped with brightly colored globs of icing. Do not go to this table. For dessert, eat more fried fish. Your husband may suggest to sneak in a beer, but that’s making it too complicated. Drink the beer at home, later, for your Hobbit-like second dessert. At $8.50 per adult, the fish fry is not only a steal. It is the best dinner in town that does not generate from my kitchen.

The PORTLAND/MARIETTA list plagues me. Portland—that Portland, the one in Oregon with its own quirky sketch comedy show—thrums with vitality and creativity. It’s a slam-dunk food town, with its zillion food carts and photogenic farmer’s markets and hidden pockets of ethnic restaurants. We lived there in a succession of little rental houses, where I tended gimpy garden plots and cranked out frugal dinners on electric stoves. I had an engaging job with an acclaimed public library system and a free transit pass.

But. There was the rain, so much of it, over and over again. There was mud, and unpaved streets with no sidewalks, and warped windows in our various bedrooms that the heat seeped through. Nine months of the year I was chilled to the bones, no matter how many sweaters I wore or how much hot tea I drank.

I wanted to love Portland, and I did. I wanted to love being there, and I couldn’t. Years passed; my mood darkened. Portlanders adore their city, and for a fellow Portlander not to feel the same way doesn’t compute to them. I felt isolated on our sodden, potholed street far off from the trendier neighborhoods where our friends lived.

We moved to Ohio just when things were looking up: I was in line for a promotion, my husband was finally getting calls from his oft-circulated resume. But I insisted.

It’s a small town, Marietta, in one of the whitest regions in America. Instead of the meth teeth I spotted on many Portland library patrons, I see Mountain Dew teeth. Our rental has, once again, an electric stove, but the house’s insulation is excellent, and we keep it toasty warm without sky-high utility bills.

The St. Mary’s fish fry is just blocks from this house. In Portland, we never would have pulled our little daughter in a wagon to the Catholic church fish fry on a Friday night. We never would have been excited to see a bulb of fennel at the grocery store (clumsily labeled “anise”). Our heartbeats would not have quickened at hearing a language other than English.

It’s unreasonable to compare the two cities, the two places, the two lives. And yet. I do, compulsively, measuring out our gains against our losses. The happiest glimpses of our time in Portland were when I was incredibly in the moment, soaking up goodness without overanalyzing it. Picking raspberries with Frances, walking to the playground across the street from our shitty house, drinking beer on a patio in the sun. Same goes for here. Same goes for anywhere, really. You find the joy you find, even if it’s not the joy you’d pick out for yourself. Even if “fish fry” is not on your list.

The St. Mary’s All-You-Can-Eat Fish Fry runs through April 11. BYO Meyer lemons and herbed mustard.

This article originally appeared on Food Riot, where I contribute regularly.