Shortly after moving to Indianapolis in the mid-1980s, I noticed a sign advertising a local church fish fry. Great, I thought, I’m always up for that. So when Saturday came, I went, paid my $5 -- and was thoroughly appalled. This is what Indianapolis called a fish fry? One measly fish square on a bun?? I’d grown up in rural northwest Indiana, where “fish fry” meant just one thing: all-you-can-eat lake perch.
At that time, the 1960s and ‘70s, community fundraisers were a big part of the social landscape. I remember pork chop and chicken barbecue dinners but by far the most common and popular were the fish fries, held usually in the spring and fall. Churches, Lions Clubs, band boosters — no matter what organization or town was hosting, the LaCrosse Lions were always called in to do the actual frying, in an old school bus that had been painted blue and yellow and converted to a mobile kitchen. Three dollars and fifty cents entitled you to as many yellow lake perch filets — among the most heavenly of all foods — as you wanted, along with standard sides and a slice of homemade pie.
In the 1980s, Lake Michigan’s perch population went into serious decline and the fish fries disappeared for a few years, eventually making a comeback, using lake perch from Canada. Although the events were as popular as ever, the greater expense of importing the fish meant smaller profits. One by one, the churches and civic groups switched to pollock or other cheaper (less tasty) fish. Today, one last lake-perch fry remains, sponsored by the United Methodist Church of Hanna (in southern LaPorte County), held annually, the first Saturday in October.
Though it’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Indianapolis, I attend whenever I can. For me, it’s a uniquely primal experience: a cherished childhood memory, that not only can I revisit, but that remains unchanged in every detail (well, except for the price tag) and, against all odds, every bit as good as I remember it. How often does that happen?
The big day arrives and a line begins forming at the church’s community building in the middle of the afternoon. Doors open at 4:00 sharp. As seats open up, you are invited to choose your dessert, a slice of pie or cake, prepared by the ladies of the church. Seating is at cafeteria tables laden with unvarying side dishes: potato salad, cole slaw, bread. You get your choice of lemonade, ice tea, or coffee. Servers circulate around the room, filling your plate, almost as quickly as you can empty it, with the star of the show.
I’m often hesitant to invite out-of-town friends to this feast, simply because it seems like no one could possibly enjoy it as much as I do. Inevitably though, guests come away raving, often calling it the best fried fish they’ve ever had. I wouldn’t go quite that far (fresh pan-fried blue gill may be the single greatest of God’s inventions), but it is without question the best deep-fried fish I’ve ever tasted. Indeed, you can hardly believe it actually is deep fried, the texture is so soft and greaseless. The light breading, perfected years ago by the LaCrosse Lions, perfectly complements the mildness of the perch. These Lions know what they’re doing — there’s a reason no one around here thinks of holding a fish fry without them. (And yes, they still use that blue-and-yellow bus.)
The annual United Methodist fish fry is a key event in Hanna’s social life and the sense of community that surrounds it is pretty hard to miss. Yet it regularly draws crowds of 800 to 1000, many more than the town’s population. Several families from as far away as Hammond and even Michigan never miss it. Even so, it may not be around forever. Church elder Glenn Wallace reports that rising fish and fuel prices are taking their toll. Six hundred pounds of fish are required every year and the decision of whether to stick with lake perch is, for now, a year-to year one. So take advantage this Saturday while you still can and enjoy one of the most down-home — and delicious — experiences Indiana has to offer.
What: Hanna United Methodist Fish Fry
Where: 101 W Hopper Street; Hanna, Ind.
When: Saturday Oct. 4; 4 - 7 p.m.