ASHTON — There were plenty of cooks in the kitchen Friday but not too many.
Don Marty and Marion Hellenbrand used an attachment on the front of an industrial mixer to chop cabbage for coleslaw. A few feet away, Beth Spahn and Jackie Hellenbrand stood before a pile of potatoes and wrapped each with a 9-inch-by-10-inch piece of precut aluminum foil.
Some packed coleslaw into five-and-a-half-ounce plastic cups, others worked at slicing loaves of homemade white bread and a few cut one-pound bricks of Alcam butter into quarters, placing each onto a small saucer.
At the sink, a team of six worked on the main course for the fish fry at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in the basement below the 151-year-old parish school. This is where they pried apart loins of cod before slicing the fish into three-and-half-inch long cutlets and sorting the chunks by thickness to ensure consistency at cooking time.
There was also plenty of good-natured ribbing, sips from cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon and Bud Light and a work ethic that has helped define this rural German enclave northwest of Middleton, whether it be in a field, barn or church kitchen during Lent while preparing the fixings for a Wisconsin tradition.
“It’s almost like an ant colony. Everybody’s got their purpose,” said Charlotte Wagner, 71, a 1959 graduate of the school who spent part of Friday placing forks and knives at each of the 200 place settings. “It makes everyone happy but you have to work hard.”
And work it is. Eight times a school year between October and Good Friday, which this year is April 14. There’s also a dinner on March 24.
In a good year, the event raises nearly $60,000 for the church and the school that requires a considerable time investment by parish families and more than a ton of food.
The supply list for each dinner includes more than 1,200 pounds of fish, 48 pounds (prior to adding water) of batter mix, 250 pounds of potatoes, 420 pounds of french fries, 360 pounds of cabbage and 500 cups of coffee as well as 95 loaves of bread and 60 9-by-13-inch cakes that are baked at church members’ homes.
Each Friday fish fry requires 120 volunteers and draws between 1,000 and 1,200 diners who pay $12 each to eat family-style in groups of 10 around banquet tables. They pass around platters and bowls filled with golden-fried fish, baked potatoes, french fries and green beans. There’s also a takeout counter where Styrofoam containers are filled and stacked into brown paper Pick ‘n Save bags. A two-piece dinner is $9.50 and a four-piece is $12. Each includes two slices of bread and a dessert.
“It’s quite the operation,” said the Rev. Tait Schroeder as he surveyed the busy kitchen. “There’s a real dedication to it.”
St. Peter’s isn’t alone when it comes to nonprofit fish fries. Scores of churches throughout the state have similar versions.
Just in the Madison area on Friday there were 11 others listed on the calendar posted on the website of the Catholic Diocese of Madison.
They included dinners at St. James and Maria Goretti in Madison, St. Joseph Parish in Baraboo, Our Lady of the Assumption in Beloit and St. Mary in Fennimore. St. Patrick School in Janesville will hold a fish fry this coming Friday while the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic men’s group, is in the midst of 12 fish fries in a row, with the finale on Good Friday.
The Knights of Columbus dinners are held at the Round Table, 1611 N. Bristol St., Sun Prairie, and include baked or deep-fried cod, shrimp and chicken tenders. Each fish fry benefits youth groups in the Sun Prairie area.
The Knights do the cooking but each organization helps with set up, serving, cleaning and promotion. The benefactors over the past 15 years have included Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts; softball, swim and bowling teams; and the high school drama department. Groups typically get between $1,000 to $2,600, depending on turnout.
“In a five-hour time frame, that’s a pretty good fundraising event,” said Bret Clostermery, who oversees finances for the Knights. “To get a good turnout, the groups need to put in the effort.”
St. Peter’s fish fry was the brainchild of Carrie Meier and Evelyn Acker, and began in the fall of 1977 to raise money for the church and school. Meier’s daughter, Jan Barman, is now in charge of the event, which has grown over the years into a tasty staple of the parish.
“You just show up and everybody does their job. We have a few glitches here and there but overall its good,” said Barman, who spent part of Friday mixing vinegar and oil into coleslaw. “This is a community get together. Everything works out good with God and hard work.”
The school’s kitchen was built years before the first fish fry and has been retrofitted to accommodate three ovens, four deep fryers that each hold 10 gallons of oil and two smaller fryers used for french fries.
Earlier this year, when one of the ovens malfunctioned, the oven in the rectory where Schroeder lives was commandeered to help bake potatoes.
The bulk of the nearly 20 volunteers who do the prep work arrive around 12:30 p.m. on the day of a fish fry. Most of the fish fry’s remaining volunteers arrive around 4 p.m.
Volunteers are divided into two teams of 120 and alternate fish fries. They do the same job each time they volunteer, which improves efficiency.
Volunteers will typically do multiple jobs in an afternoon. Some who cut fish later ran deep fryers for french fries or helped shuttle fried fish into warming containers. Those on coleslaw duty switched to filling tarter sauce while Don Marty, one of the few Swiss in the room, started out shredding cabbage and then helped out mixing batter.
“The secret is you have people that show up,” said Marty, a professional baker for more than 40 years. “But you can’t say anything bad about anybody because 90 percent of them are related. It’s a very close-knit community.”
The parish advertises that the dining room is open from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. On Friday, Lori Meinholz placed the first piece of battered cod into a deep fryer at 4:01 p.m.
By 4:30 p.m., more than 60 people were seated and eating. By 5 p.m. the main parking lot of the church and school was nearly full and a line had formed up the steps.
Maryellen Frey offered up $2.50 cans of beer and $1 sodas from a pair of coolers at the bottom of the steps at the entrance to the dining room while her husband, Roger, manned a fish deep fryer.
Other volunteers picked up the pace to shuttle food from fryers and ovens into bowls and platters and ultimately to tables where crosses with purple cloth served as centerpieces and a reminder of the Lenten season.
“We must be doing something right because people keep coming back,” Meinholz said as she covered pieces of cod with a light batter. “It’s all about the camaraderie with the people.”