The art of frying fish to feed the masses

If you teach a man to fry fish he just might fry nearly 800 pounds of it per week during the Lenten season. But even that's just the beginning. 

Those nearly 800 pounds of fish will entice a few other dedicated men and women to spend their Thursdays and Fridays preparing homemade macaroni and cheese, baked potatoes, sheet cakes, fruit crumbles, and all the other fixings that go along with fried fish. 

Their hard work will feed over 1,000 of their friends, neighbors, coworkers, and fellow Isabella county residents each week. 

And when those 1,000 friends and neighbors show up, just $13 per person in-hand, for the authentic home-cooking offered at the local fish fry, the proceeds will be enough to help fund a school's athletic association.

At least that's the story coming out of Mt. Pleasant Sacred Heart Academy this Holy Week. 

Volunteers work together to prepare Macaroni and Cheese on the morning of Friday, April 11
Since the early 1980's volunteers at the parish have been cooking up some of the best lenten fare central Michigan has to offer. It was just a handful of meals per week in the beginning; sixteen or seventeen to start. That number grew to 800 in the early 2000's, and tops anywhere from 1,000 to just shy of 1,200 today. 

All of the meals are served within about a two-and-a-half hour window on Friday evenings. The official hours for the fry are 4:30 to 7:00 p.m., but Terry Coughlin says it's not uncommon for a few regulars to show up even earlier to beat the rush. And a rush it is. 

The parish hall is frequently packed to the gills once dinner service begins and a line can form out the door on especially busy days. Volunteers contend the only way the fry could continue to grow is through take out orders. To serve more people in-house, they'd need a bigger dining hall. That's not in the plans, but neither is turning people away as long as there's fish to batter. 

Fish fresh out of the fryer rests momentarily in the kitchen at Sacred Heart

Many volunteers at the weekly fish fry dinners have kids who attend Sacred Heart Academy; many also once attended the school themselves. When it's time to serve dinner a small army has to be assembled to make sure things run smoothly, but it also takes a core group of people who come back year-after-year to make the operation a success. 

Frozen fish is delivered weekly from a company in Saginaw. Light preparation begins on Thursday and continues Friday morning. The sheet cakes on offer for dessert each week take over three hours alone. Batter is mixed up in stainless steel bowls so big they could just as easily be called a vat. Coughlin and others who have been around since the early years keep meticulous records of it all, and when the season for Friday night fish fries is over the proceeds are tallied up and earmarked for use by the Sacred Heart Athletic Association and the student-athletes who represent the school in athletic competitions around the state. 

Volunteers enjoy lunch together after completing prep for the week's Fish Fry at Mt. Pleasant Sacred Heart

The final fish fry of the 2019 Lenten season is this Friday, April 19 at the Sacred Heart Parish. Diners can enter through the south-facing doors off East Illinois Street just east of downtown Mt. Pleasant beginning at 4:30 p.m. Dine-in adult plates are $13 each. Seniors age 62 and older can eat for just $12, and anyone can order a take-out box from the side window for that same price. Kids five and under eat free, while older kids between the ages of six and twelve are just $7.00 each. 

Read more articles by Diana Prichard.

Diana Prichard is a freelance journalist who has reported from seven countries on three continents, and the Managing Editor of Epicenter Mt. Pleasant.