The white linen cloth caught my eye first. Then the black sleeve it was draped over. The two were so professionally placed that I had to ask the young man if his appendage was perhaps – incapacitated.
Cullen Rohrich assured me his arm was just fine. Then, by the power invested in him, he boldly proclaimed, “This is a 5-star eatery. You have to be professional. You have to be fancy.”
That’s when it dawned on me. Clever Cullen had assumed the role of Maitre d’ right there in the lunch room of his school.
Cullen is spot-on with the 5-star rating he gives the fish fry dinners Sacred Heart School has served on Friday nights for the past 29 Lenten seasons. Community members flock there for fillets of Alaskan Walleye, the best tartar sauce you’ve ever tasted, Cole slaw, baked potato, bread and dessert. The record: 1,025 people on a Friday night back in 2011.
Let’s do the math: Conservatively speaking, let’s say an average of 775 people come through the line on a given Friday. Multiply that by the six Fridays in Lent and you have 4,650. Multiply that number by 29 (years) and, Holy Moly, 135,000 people have graced the cafeteria at Sacred Heart Catholic School in downtown East Grand Forks.
The first day of spring is less than a week away. Glorious Easter Sunday is 12 days after that, and oh happy day, there still are two Friday night Lenten fish suppers to go to, March 16 and March 23 – 5 to 7 p.m.
It’s an honor to be one of the servers which I was on night two of this year. I love when Michelle Senger calls me with the invite. Very merry Michelle co-chairs the whole shebang with her husband, Tom Senger. “We are on track to do a record year,” Michelle told me.
The Lenten dinners are a fundraiser with proceeds providing 80 percent of the school’s athletic club’s yearly budget. Every athlete, plus their parents, pitch in to help. Students work in the kitchen doing such things as breading the fish. Others are buzzing around the dining room watching over tables and making sure coffee cups and water pitchers are kept full for the diners.
One night I had a nice chat with Adam Sczepanski, Nick Brundin, Andrew Ogaard and Kobe Tomkinson who were busing tables. And I enjoyed meeting Diego Torres who was refilling coffee cups. “It’s pretty nice to serve people you know on a Lenten Friday,” Diego said.
What diners don’t see is the mad dash going on in the kitchen starting before 5 p.m. and going until 7 p.m. Mike Powers has been a part of these Lenten dinners ever since their inception. “I’m the oldest guy in the crew,” Mike says. “I’ll be 72 in May.”
It’s Mike’s job to get the thawed-out fillets to the guys manning the deep fryers. That’s usually Scott Stocker, John Stocker, Greg Stocker and Blayne Vonasek.
Mike remembers going to the first fish fry with his dad in the basement of the old high school. “They were cooking the fish with pans of hot oil,” he said. “It was very cumbersome and very slow. I can’t remember when these fryers came in to play but we can cook enough fish for 21 people in three minutes.”
Mike has 14 to 16 flat trays that hold 28 to 30 fillets all ready to go. “When somebody hollers, ‘fish on one,’ I put a tray in front of them,” he says. “When they say, ‘fish on two,’ I put a tray in front of them. I drop 14 fish every 2 ½ minutes and with the three fryers we can serve up to 21 people per round. There are three guys cooking and only one of me so I’m hustling. Once we get going, it’s pretty much nonstop, but it’s a labor of love.”
This year, for the first time, there was a drive-up window for takeout meals. “Last Friday night Michelle got off the radio and said, ‘there are 22 cars out there, start cooking,’ “ Mike said. “It’s really slick. A guy with a Walkie Talkie relates to a girl in the kitchen. We cook it up and they drive down where the school bus stops and there’s a high school student waiting to hand him his meal.”
It isn’t only the food that warrants a 5-star rating at these dinners, it’s the people you meet up with again, after a long, hard winter. Be they old friends and neighbors or new people. You are reminded, once again, that it really is a small world.
With our friends, Herb and Gail Hasz, Jim and I have had the pleasure of meeting and sharing a table with Gloria and David Fagerlund. David is originally from Rolla, N.D. Turns out my cousin, Weyburn Niewoehner, formerly of Rolla, is a friend of David’s family.
If you are among those who have never been to Sacred Heart for a Lenten fish dinner, why don’t you meet us there this Friday night? Mark Dobmeier is celebrity server. And do come again on March 23, when our mayor, Steve Gander, will serve. Cost of a meal is $11. The array of desserts ($1.50 each) will blow your mind.
Oh, I must also mention Dan Cariveau. Dan’s the man who takes the money for your meal. In the 29-year history of Sacred Heart’s Lenten suppers, Dan has missed just one. Someone mentioned it might have been Dan’s new haircut that drew nearly 900 people to Sacred Heart last Friday.
See how much fun it is? Tasty, too.