Roughly 73% of adults in Ohio identify as Christian, and 18% of those consider themselves Catholic, according to a Pew Research Center survey from 2014.
And one may wonder if all 18% of those Catholics reside in the Greater Cincinnati area, especially during Lent, when fish fry hysteria descends upon the city.
In Christianity — and specifically Catholicism — Lent is a religious observance that takes place between Ash Wednesday and Easter. It honors the 40 days and nights that Jesus spent wandering the desert, fasting, praying and enduring various tests and temptations from Satan before he was crucified and resurrected.
Christians mimic Jesus’ earthly trials by giving up something of luxury for 40 days, typically chocolate or soda or alcohol. Catholics also forgo eating meat on Fridays during Lent. It represents both an act of abstinence and also sort of ties into Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross — he gave up his flesh on a Friday (aka “Good Friday,” the not-so-good day he was crucified), so no flesh for Catholics. (Church doctrine actually prohibited Catholics from eating meat every Friday of the year until the guidance was amended in 1966.)
And this is why Cincinnati smells like deep-fried cod for six Fridays each spring.
This year’s fish frys are particularly exciting for locals, as many are returning to in-person dining after taking two years off or doing only carry-out due to the pandemic.
One example is the Mary, Queen of Heaven (MQH) fish fry in Erlanger, Kentucky. This is one of the area’s favorite fish frys (CityBeat once named it one of the 101 things every Cincinnatian must do), in part because of the existence of its “Codfather” mascot.
The Codfather is the alter ego of John Geisen, the CEO of local deli chain Izzy’s and a member of MQH’s parish. Each year, Geisen dresses up in mafioso gear, grabs a plush stuffed fish and heads to the fry to do meet-and-greets, take photos and emcee various games and trivia while parishioners and general fish fans eat. Like most fish frys, proceeds from this event benefit the church and its associated school.
Geisen became involved with MQH after they asked him to use his restaurant experience with Izzy’s to revamp their Lenten tradition.
“I was a member of Mary, Queen of Heaven parish and I got to be good friends with the pastor. And he said, you know, they used to have a fish fry out here but it stopped for a couple years,” Geisen says. “He said what would you think about starting it back up? And I said, well, I don't know a lot about fish frys, but I do have some food experience. Let’s get a group of people together and see what we can do.”
So Geisen applied his restaurant knowledge to the fish fry format.
“I knew good fish, I knew good bread and good tartar sauce,” he says.
MQH’s menu items center around Atlantic cod, Geisen says, which — while frozen — does feature a special batter for deep frying. There’s a cod fish or a “Holy Haddock” option, both of which come as a platter or sandwich with french fries, coleslaw and tartar sauce. The baked cod comes with new potatoes, green beans and coleslaw. The fish and chips meal features beer-battered cod strips. There’s also fried butterfly shrimp, a grilled cheese, breadsticks, dessert and beer for sale.
“A good cod sandwich and an ice-cold beer sort of goes hand-in-hand,” Geisen says.
Within a couple of years, Geisen says MQH was recognized by local media as having the best fish fry in Greater Cincinnati. And as word-of-mouth spread, other local parishes started reaching out to him for advice.
“I thought, you know what, this is a great fundraiser for the parish or for the organization that might put it on,” he says. “I'm not going to hide anything, everybody ought to be able to benefit from this.”
And a visit to another local church helped cement his fish-fry-icon status.
“I remember going into one parish in Cincinnati, I can't recall the name of it, but as I walked into the group this one guy said, ‘Oh, my golly, here comes the Codfather,’” Geisen says.
He liked the name and began building a persona off of it.
“I went and put a suit on — a gangster suit — and held my son’s pillow, which is a big fish, and (a professional photographer at MQH) took some pictures of it, put it out to the media and then it blew up.”
Geisen says the Codfather originated around 2005 or 2007 and was fully embraced by MQH.
“I’d walk around during the fish frys with my costume and I got a reputation, and it’s multiplied ever since then. People come in from literally all over to see the Codfather, as weird as that might sound,” Geisen says. “I'm kind of a ham anyway, so the more cameras and exposure we get, I feel like a movie star, so it's great.”
He says 10 to 20 people a night ask for a photo with him; some even want him to autograph their menus.
Nowadays, the fry — which offers dine-in, carry-out and drive-thru this year — “does more (business) in four hours than a Chick-fil-A does all day,” Geisen says.
He says the drive-thru sees about 200 cars a night and the parish can seat roughly 400 people at a time inside. A team of volunteers handles everything from taking and processing orders to cooking the food and more. A special computer system helps field online orders directly to the kitchen for a streamlined carry-out process.
“These people put their heart and love into it,” Geisen says of the MQH volunteers. “Everybody’s striving for the same thing — to put out a great product, good service and to benefit the kids at the school.”
And MQH isn’t the only fish fry Geisen is a part of. Izzy’s also features a Codfather sandwich on Fridays during Lent.
“We don't call it fish, we call it cod. It's too good to be called fish. Just teasing,” Geisen says of the Izzy’s fish.
The sandwich features organic Atlantic cod from the cold waters around Greenland. Geisen says the temperature gives the fish “a little bit better flavor and flakiness. It has a little sweetness to it.” It’s then breaded, deep-fried in vegetable shortening and sandwiched on a brioche bun with tartar sauce and Izzy’s famous pickles.
And while the MQH sandwich isn’t the exact same as his Izzy’s Codfather, Geisen says there’s “no doubt in his mind” his parish’s fish fry is the best in town.
Not everyone in Cincinnati is Catholic (obviously), but Geisen says fish frys appeal to anyone of any background for the food as well as the festive and charitable atmosphere. With Geisen’s Codfather persona, one could also add joy to that list.
“That's what it's all about,” Geisen says. “Bringing community together and everybody having a little bit of fun, especially in today's world, where it's so much turmoil.”
The Mary, Queen of Heaven fish fry runs 4-8 p.m. Fridays through April 8. The parish is located at 1150 Donaldson Highway, Erlanger. Get more info or order online at mqhparish.com. Izzy’s Codfather sandwich is available on Fridays at all locations. Learn more or find a restaurant near you at izzys.com.