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Catching a Friday fish fry near Arlington may require a penitential drive in traffic

The annual fish fry at St. James Catholic Church in Falls Church (courtesy photo)

Locals looking for a good fish fry this Lenten season will have to cast their nets outside Arlington.

People won’t have to go far to indulge for Fat Tuesday — which is today — whether that’s with King Cake from Bayou Bakery or Cajun food at Ragtime. But getting to a fish fry may involve a drive into Falls Church or Fairfax County.

Catholics and some other Christian sects fast on Ash Wednesday (tomorrow) and certain days during Lent, the 40-day period leading up to Easter. Traditionally, that involves abstaining from flesh meats, such as chicken, beef or pork, on Fridays.

Over time, the fasting tradition turned into the church fish fry, often run by a local Knights of Columbus chapter to benefit charity or a parish to support their various ministries. The menu typically includes baked and fried fish, French fries, coleslaw, mac and cheese, other assorted sides and dessert.

But Midwest and Northeastern transplants to the D.C. area have noted their beloved fish fries aren’t as popular in and around D.C.

“I found that fish fries are mostly up north, as I have a lot of family up that way,” says Myles McMorrow, who sits on the board of Arlington’s chapter of the Knights of Columbus on Little Falls Road. “[For] me, personally, I have never heard of a fish fry in the D.C. metro area and I grew up here.”

He says the local Knights observe Lent by dropping meaty meals from its council restaurant’s menu. Some local churches in the Diocese of Arlington host meatless soup suppers, including St. Agnes Catholic Church in Arlington.

Those who are Catholic, curious or culturally homesick are told their best bet for finding a fish fry is to drive deeper into Virginia.

Fish fries are mostly a Midwestern and Rust Belt phenomenon because European Catholic immigrants relied on the abundant fish of the Great Lakes to observe their religious fasts. Over time, the tradition may have blended with an African-American tradition of gathering together for fish fries, which began on plantations and continued after Emancipation as families moved North.

Churches in the Diocese of Arlington had to sacrifice Lenten gatherings in 2020. In 2021, options were sparse, but this year, a number of parishes have resurrected fish fries and soup suppers.

The closest for Arlingtonians is hosted by St. James Catholic Church in Falls Church. It was started in 2010 by a group of parishioners that included a homesick Ohio native.

Every year, hand-battered fish and scratch-made potatoes, hush puppies, coleslaw and carrot cake reel in pilgrims from D.C. to Fredericksburg. People can buy T-shirts emblazoned with the year’s slogan, which is always a fish pun. (This year’s is that the 13th annual fish fry “is trout of this world.”)

“I remember this couple who drove in from D.C.,” says parishioner Karen Bushaw-Newton. “They said, ‘We just heard there was a fish fry and we came to check it out.’ We know a lot of the parishioners who come — and we have a lot of regulars and families — [and] we have people like that couple who just wanted to see what a fish fry was like.”

When COVID-19 hit, the fish fry turned into a drive-thru that, on some Fridays, served more than 1,000 meals in three hours.

“I highly encourage anyone and everybody to come. We don’t ask your faith when you come in the door — it’s just a way to come celebrate,” Bushaw-Newton said.

For those who want to go farther afield, there are a number of other Northern Virginia fish fries, though each would require a longer drive in Friday rush hour traffic. Below are a few of the options.

St. James Catholic Church in Falls Church (830 W. Broad Street)

  • Every Friday in Lent (March 4, 11, 18, 25 and April 1 and 8)
  • Time: 5-8 p.m.
  • Limited in-person seating at St. James Catholic School, drive-thru option available
  • Suggested donation: Adult, $7, child, $5, or entire family, $25
  • Food distribution for families in need: March 4 and April 1

Our Lady of Good Counsel in Vienna (8601 Wolftrap Road)

  • Every Friday in Lent
  • Time: 4-7 p.m.
  • Sit-down and to-go options, online ordering available
  • Price: $10-15 for combo platters

Our Lady of Good Hope in Sterling (46639 Algonkian Parkway)

  • First Friday in Lent
  • Time: 5-7 p.m.
  • In-person
  • Suggested donation: $18 for adults and $8 for kids

St. Lawrence Church in Alexandria (6222 Franconia Road)

  • Every Friday in Lent
  • Takeout only
  • Time: 5:30-7:00 p.m.
  • Price: $12.00 for a full platter, $8 for a half

St. Timothy Church in Chantilly (13807 Poplar Tree Road)

  • Every Friday in Lent
  • In-person at the St. Timothy Catholic School cafeteria
  • Time: 6-7:30 p.m.
  • Voluntary donations

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