RAbout 73% of adults in Ohio identify as Christian and 18% consider themselves Catholic, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey.
And it’s debatable whether all 18% of those Catholics reside in the Greater Cincinnati area, especially during Lent, when fish fry hysteria descends on the city.
In Christianity – and more specifically Catholicism – Lent is a religious observance that takes place between Ash Wednesday and Easter. It honors the 40 days and nights Jesus spent wandering the desert, fasting, praying, and enduring various tests and temptations from Satan before being crucified and resurrected.
Christians imitate Jesus’ earthly trials by giving up something luxurious for 40 days, usually chocolate, soda, or alcohol. Catholics also refrain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent. It represents both an act of abstinence and also a kind of connection to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross – he gave up his flesh on a Friday (aka “Good Friday”, the not-so-good day he was crucified), so no flesh for Catholics. (Church doctrine actually prohibited Catholics from eating meat every Friday of the year until the guidelines were changed in 1966.)
And that’s why Cincinnati smells like fried cod for six Fridays every spring.
This year’s fish fries are particularly exciting for locals, as many are returning to in-person dining after taking two years off or only doing take-out due to the pandemic.
An example is Mary Fried Fish, Queen of Heaven (MQH) in Erlanger, Kentucky. This is one of the area’s favorite fish fries (CityBeat once named one of the 101 things every Cincinnadian should do), in part because of the existence of its “Codfather” mascot.
The Codfather is the alter ego of John Geisen, CEO of local deli chain Izzy’s and parishioner of MQH. Each year, Geisen dresses up in Mafia gear, grabs a stuffed plush fish, and heads to the fry to socialize, take photos, and host various games and trivia while parishioners and fish-lovers eat. Like most fish fry, proceeds from this event benefit the church and its associated school.
Geisen became involved with MQH after they asked him to use his restaurant experience with Izzy’s to revamp their Lenten tradition.
“I was a member of Mary, Queen of Heaven parish and became good friends with the pastor. And he said, you know, they used to have fried fish here, but that stopped for a few years,” Geisen says. “He said what would you think of restarting it? And I said, well, I don’t know much about fish fry, but I have some cooking experience. Let’s get a group of people together and see what we can do.
So Geisen applied his restaurant knowledge to the fish fry format.
“I knew good fish, I knew good bread and good tartar sauce,” he says.
MQH’s menu items center on Atlantic cod, says Geisen, which, despite being frozen, features a special batter for frying. There’s a cod or a “Holy Haddock” option, both of which come as a platter or sandwich with fries, coleslaw, and tartar sauce. The baked cod is served with new potatoes, green beans and coleslaw. The fish and chips meal includes strips of cod battered in beer. There are also fried butterfly prawns, grilled cheese, breadsticks, dessert and beer for sale.
“A good cod sandwich and an ice-cold beer kind of go together,” says Geisen.
Within a few years, Geisen says MQH was recognized by local media as having the best fish fry in Greater Cincinnati. And as word of mouth spread, other local parishes began to seek his advice.
“I thought, you know what, this is a great fundraiser for the parish or for whatever organization might be putting it on,” he says. “I’m not going to hide anything, everyone should be able to enjoy it.”
And a visit to another local church helped cement her status as a fish fry icon.
“I remember going to a ward in Cincinnati, I can’t remember his name, but walking into the group this guy said, ‘Oh my God, here’s the Codfather,'” Geisen said. .
He liked the name and started building a character out of it.
“I went and put on a suit – a gangster suit – and held my son’s pillow, which is a big fish, and (a professional MQH photographer) took some pictures of it, showed it to the media, then it exploded.”
Geisen says the Codfather was born around 2005 or 2007 and was fully embraced by MQH.
“I was walking around during fries with my costume on and I got a reputation, and it has multiplied since. People literally come from all over to see the Codfather, strange as it may seem,” Geisen says. “I’m a bit of a ham anyway, so the more cameras and exposure we have, I feel like a movie star, so that’s great.”
He says 10-20 people a night ask for a picture with him; some even want him to sign their menus.
These days, the fry — which is offering takeout, takeout and drive-thru this year — “does more (business) in four hours than an all-day Chick-fil-A,” says Geisen.
He says the drive-thru sees around 200 cars a night and the parish can accommodate around 400 people inside at a time. A team of volunteers takes care of everything from taking and processing orders to cooking food and more. A special computer system helps send online orders directly to the kitchen for a streamlined delivery process.
“These people put their heart and love into it,” Geisen says of the MQH volunteers. “Everyone is striving for the same thing: to offer a great product, a good service and to benefit the children of the school.”
And MQH isn’t the only fry Geisen is a part of. Izzy’s also offers a Codfather sandwich on Fridays during Lent.
“We don’t call it fish, we call it cod. It’s too beautiful to be called a fish. Just teasing,” Geisen says of Izzy’s fish.
The sandwich features organic Atlantic cod from the cold waters of Greenland. Geisen says the temperature gives the fish “a bit more flavor and crumbliness. There is a bit of sweetness. It’s then breaded, fried in vegetable shortening and sandwiched on a brioche bun with tartar sauce and Izzy’s famous pickles.
And while the MQH sandwich isn’t exactly the same as his Izzy’s Codfather, Geisen says there’s “no doubt in his mind” that his parish’s fish fries are the best in town.
Not everyone in Cincinnati is Catholic (obviously), but Geisen says the fish fries appeal to anyone from all walks of life for the food as well as the festive, charitable atmosphere. With Geisen’s Codfather character, one could also add joy to this list.
“That’s what it’s all about,” Geisen says. “Bringing the community together and everyone having a little fun, especially in today’s world where there’s so much turmoil.”
the Fry of Mary, Queen of Heaven operates from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday through April 8. The parish is located at 1150 Donaldson Highway, Erlanger. Get more information or order online at mqhparisish.com. Izzy’s brother sandwich is available on Friday at all locations. Learn more or find a restaurant near you on izzys.com.
Stay connected with CityBeat. Subscribe to our newsletters and follow us on Facebook, Instagram, TwitterGoogle News, Apple News and Reddit.
Send CityBeat a news or story tip or submit a calendar event.