*Please note the update from the Rev. Kim Litsey at the end of this article. It was written prior to the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak.
The Lenten Fish and Chips Dinner at St. James’ Episcopal Church, Poquetanuck (Preston), is much more than an average fish fry. It is a sight to be seen, and to be honest, there are some fish to be eaten.
The community of St. James serves over 500 people every Friday in Lent, that is well over 3,000 each liturgical season of Lent. The Fish and Chips Dinner started 55 years ago by the Rev. Canon David Cannon, and has been feeding the community a choice of baked or fried Cod, French fries, coleslaw, and homemade desserts ever since. Oh, and you can have seconds, too!
This dinner is not only St. James’ largest parish fundraiser, but it is their largest community gathering, and according to the Rev. Kim Litsey, Priest-in-Charge at St. James, it is their largest church service.
“This is Eucharist in another way,” Kim said. “Community is created here and generosity is in abundance.” Kim is working to help the community shift their understanding of the event from thinking it as a fundraiser to thinking of it as church, and their roles from volunteering to serving. “A mission field comes to us every year during Lent.”
For the first time, Kim blessed the hands of the community who participate in serving at the dinner during the last Sunday of Epiphany. She blessed their hands so they may, “go and do God’s work.”
And doing God’s work they are!
The Friday night dinner is a well-oiled machine, and everyone has their place. Some people cover the drink station, offering lemonade, water, decaf and regular coffee, and hot water for tea. One woman is the designated hostess, who directs individuals in line to their seats and motions to the servers that a new person has joined. Others contribute by baking (and baking and baking and baking) all types of desserts the week before. And still others are a part of the “slime line;” the Thursday night crew who cut over 300 lbs. of fresh Cod each week. The “slime line” can then usually be found in the kitchen frying the fish throughout Friday evening.
“I am in a 5-year apprenticeship,” joked Kim about working (and earning her place) at the frying station.
One of Kim’s mentors is Andrew “Andy” Cannon, the son of Canon Cannon. The dinner has been a part of Andy’s life since he was 8 years old when he would help his father set up the wooden tables in the parish hall each week.
“Once I turned 14, I was allowed to fry the fish,” Andy said. Now 40 years later, he is still frying fish. “Seeing the integration of all walks of life is great. Some people have been [coming] here since they were kids, now they are here with their kids.”
The wide span of generations is quite noticeable; from babies to seniors, all were there. The community even celebrated a 1-year-old’s birthday!
“I learned to give my time back to the community from my father,” Andy said before heading back to fry more fish.
The preparation for a Friday night 3:30 – 7:00 pm dinner starts on Wednesday. A group of congregants help to set the tables on Wednesday evening, then the “slime line” gets to work on Thursday preparing the fish, and finally come Friday, everyone is helping out.
“We have volunteers from St. Bernard’s Roman Catholic High School and local Boy Scout Troop #75 tonight,” Kim said. “It is a whole community event.”
My tablemates were Fish and Chips Dinner veterans themselves. They informed me that this event is completely engrained into the life and community of the town of Poquetanuck. Clergy of other congregations make announcements in their church services, other Episcopal churches in surrounding towns make announcements in their services, there was even a bus from Massachusetts that brought in visitors!
The location of the parish also aids in the communication of the dinner. St. James’ is right at the intersection of two main roads in Poquetanuck, and they place two signs on each side of the parish depicting St. James holding a fish with the dates for the dinner.
By now you must be wondering, “But Alli, is the fish any good?” And I must assure you, it is … delicious!
Perhaps the best fried fish in all of New England, if you ask Kim. Plus, you get a plate of food, a drink, and dessert (with endless seconds), and fantastic conversations with new neighbors all for $13/adult, $12/senior, and $7/child ages 6-13, what’s not to love?
“You never know how this [gathering] reverberates into the community,” Kim said. “People are sitting next to strangers, having conversations. We are creating space for neighbors to come together here at St. James.”
EDITED – Due to COVID-19, the Rev. Kim Litsey offered this quote:
“Every Friday in Lent, we have church of a different kind. Fish and Chips is where families and friends sit across from strangers and sometimes by happenstance old friends. They break bread, share stories, and know that they are loved by God. And the crew, well, this is Holy work for us. The crew of volunteers have really felt a sense of loss with the closing of Fish and Chips.
By midweek, just before the third Fish and Chips we started to realize we had to shift how we served fish. The fish was ordered so we carried on with a Drive Thru Only. We sold half as much as we do on a regular Friday. The crew laughed and we adapted!
Gail Rigney, Co-Warden, went to St. Vincent DePaul’s Place in Norwich to donate over 100lbs of fish and fresh coleslaw. The chef was so delighted and he said, “This is protein for two meals and its fresh!” It turns out this was the last two hot meals that they served, which fed 100 people at each meal. Then St. Vincent DePaul’s Place moved to grab and go meals.
Fish and Chips has become an important part of our annual budget, and we will have to make up the income somehow. We even thought of having the Risen Fish and Chips when the time comes that we can gather again. The Vestry is prayerfully considering what to do about the loss.”