When I was a kid, Friday evenings during Lent meant fried fish sandwiches. My dad and brother and I would drive up Braddock Avenue, into Swissvale, to the M&M Lounge. It was tucked behind a sad little shopping center with a Ben Franklin and a Shop & Save. The sky overhead was always heavy with dingy clouds, at least in my memory. But March in Pittsburgh is never known for its blue skies. Even as a kid, I could tell the M&M was not a place you wanted to stay and eat. The walls were scuffed, the few tables were laminate, and I think the place was carpeted, years of frying captured in the yarns of that rug. You ordered at a tall counter—four fried fish sandwiches with French fries—and waited around with the other dads and their kids picking up their Lenten meals. I’m sure you could have gotten something other than a fried fish sandwich, they must have had a larger menu, but in my mind, this place existed only for these Friday nights, for this one meal.
Ten minutes later, a couple of bulging paper bags were handed over the counter and we escaped to the fresh air of our car. In the five minutes it took to get home, grease spots bloomed over the bags and their contents kept our laps warm. At home, we’d dump out the French fries and unwrap the foil around the sandwiches—soft hamburger buns dwarfed by two or three curling pieces of breaded haddock. The table was set with ketchup (Heinz, of course) and malt vinegar and our glasses of milk. It was a feast.
In our town of Lambertville, there are two places to get your Friday night Lenten fix—the First Presbyterian Church and the Columbia Fire House. We haven’t tried the church’s supper yet, but last Friday we went with friends to the fire house. It is like walking into the pages of a National Geographic article on small-town America, circa 1976, or an early Saveur spread. Wood-paneled walls, fluorescent lights, long tables covered with red plastic tablecloths and set with upside-down coffee mugs on their saucers and baskets of rolls and butter.
When we sat down, a volunteer brought out bowls of stewed tomatoes and macaroni and cheese. The boys ate all the bread and butter in about 5 minutes. We were dismayed to find out they had already run out of cole slaw. In the back kitchen, the firemen were frying away, sending out plate after plate of fried and baked fish, fried shrimp and French fries. People chit-chatted with their neighbors, passing tartar sauce and cocktail sauce up and down the tables. Our group of eight got a table to ourselves, and as happy as we were to be with our friends, I think we all know that part of the fun of these things is getting to talk with strangers. Still, we gladly sipped the beers that we had brought, laughed at our boys, and ate enough fried food to last us for a year. Dessert was your choice of chocolate, vanilla or butterscotch pudding, which was scooped out of industrial-sized cans and festooned with Redi-Whip. It was a feast.
During the evening, we learned that this will be the last year of fish fries. The fire house is closing, consolidating with the larger house on Main Street, and the building will soon be going up for sale. Walking out into the chilly March evening, we speculated about it becoming a great neighborhood restaurant, or a gym, or how it could be converted into a house. We stopped at another friends’ house and talked on their porch for a few minutes, as the streetlights came on. Sometimes, our sweet little town feels a little too little, a little too provincial, for me. And sometimes it feels just right.