At 1:30 p.m. on the third Friday of Lent, what Jane Vega Carson holds in her hand is almost as valuable as a winning basketball tournament bracket.
Carson clutches a crinkled piece of paper representing a foolproof game plan she will use to coach her kitchen crew to deliver a crowd-pleasing Lenten fish fry.
“These are fish fry instructions,” said Carson, authoritatively tapping the paper sitting atop Church of the Nativity kitchen’s massive stainless steel work island.
“Every Friday during Lent we do this. And every Friday during Lent things go like clockwork.”
The Lenten fish fry is a spring ritual replayed in parishes across the metro — the traditional way for Catholics to observe the no-meat-on-Fridays obligation from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday. As church halls fill each Friday night with Catholics and non-Catholics alike, the ritual has become a gathering of community, a weekly can’t-miss event orchestrated by armies of volunteers celebrating the Lenten season of sacrifice and renewal.
This year the Church of the Nativity Lenten Fish Fry celebrates 10 years of bringing parishioners, extended families, neighbors and folks hopping across State Line from their own parish together for a meal.
At Nativity, it’s a non-denominational, come-as-you-are party in the parish hall from 5 to 7:30 p.m.
“Whether or not people are members of the Nativity parish, are Catholic, Jewish, Methodist or another religion — or don’t go to church at all — doesn’t matter,” said Father Francis Hund, in his fifth year as pastor at the church. “The fish fry is a community builder, an opportunity to break bread with neighbors and friends.”
Activity goes from a simmer to a boil in the Leawood church’s kitchen while Carson, of Overland Park, skims the paper with the intensity of a coach diagramming a play.
The sheet Carson studies is not a one-cup-of-this and one-teaspoon-of-that recipe. It’s a scripted timeline detailing everything from quartering 100 pounds of potatoes to putting large sheet trays of perfectly seasoned tilapia into a 400-degree oven.
Carson’s veteran kitchen team — including Monsignor Gary Applegate, John Kelly and Jerry Warsnak, along with 80 or so affable adult and 20 youth volunteers and organizer Matt Textor — are poised to feed the masses.
“This group,” Carson nods to Applegate of Leavenworth and Kelly of Kansas City and Warsnak of Overland Park, “has been together awhile. We know the drill.”
Under the watchful eye of Carson and her kitchen aids, runners are assigned to replenish food throughout the evening.
There will be a constant exchange of pans filled with bubbly mac and cheese, steaming green beans and pounds of fried cod, catfish and fragrant boiled shrimp; tubs of creamy coleslaw; and bowls of tossed green salad.
The 100 pounds of quartered and precisely salt and peppered red-skinned roasted potatoes will disappear as hundreds of diners snake through two-sided food lines, loading up plates with customary fish fry fare and a few cuisine twists such as fish and shrimp tacos.
Fryers and propane tanks underneath a tent in Nativity’s parking lot are in close proximity to a door leading into the parish hall.
Greg Bolts of Stilwell is part of the fry brigade — a quartet of men in charge of churning out batches of crunchy, golden brown fish and shrimp.
Already the smell of breaded seafood and spiced shrimp perfumes the air.
“Nothing pre-made sitting under a heat lamp here,” laughed Bolts.
Inside the hall at 3800 W. 119th St., volunteers finish setting up the big screen to show the 4:30 p.m. University of Kansas-Eastern Kentucky NCAA Tournament game.
At 3 p.m. Textor, of Leawood, arrives wearing a crisp Knights of Columbus 11067 blue chambray shirt over a pair of jeans. A pair of sunglasses is casually perched on his head as he surveys the social hall’s hustle and bustle in the social hall.
“We average about 600 people each Friday during Lent,” said Textor. “But since it’s spring break, tonight we expect a lighter crowd.”
Carson’s kitchen crew goes into a full-court press against the clock as patrons in search of a good fish fry begin congregating outside the hall’s doors.
Applegate is decked out in a black chef’s coat embroidered with “Mr. Tilapia,” his hands disguised by massive mitts. Over the next three hours he will shuffle 30 trays, each holding 18 pieces of fish, in and out of the oven.
“The fish bakes for about 20 minutes,” Applegate said, glancing at the wall clock. “I don’t need a timer. I know when it’s done.”
No rookie players here. Carson’s team is all pro.
It’s 4:15 p.m. and individual stations scattered around Nativity’s spacious parish hall — beer and wine, condiments, beverages and buffet — are stocked and ready for action.
Plastic tablecloths cover a sea of guest tables and Ken Logsdon of Leawood, the fish fry’s official cashier, is situated by the front door with a cash box and towering stacks of disposable plates: white for a $10 fish dinner and black for a $15 fish and shrimp dinner. Kids four and under eat free.
“I’ve done this particular job from the fish fry’s beginning,” he explained. “In fact, I’ve only missed one, when my wife and I celebrated our 50th anniversary.”
Volunteers next to Logsdon have take-out boxes ready. One man sits in front of an old-fashioned spreadsheet with a sharpened pencil, ready to account for every hungry soul that shows up.
Down the line Sam Migliazzo, who calls himself the fish fry’s chief bartender, tests a keg of beer and uncorks wine bottles.
“We’ll go through about half a keg tonight, I predict,” said Migliazzo, of Leawood. “And maybe half a dozen each of red and white wine. People don’t buy the beer and wine, they make donations.”
Rod Carson, Jane’s husband, is in St. Louis watching a basketball game. Considered the founder of the Nativity fish fry, Rod Carson is a member of Knights of Columbus 11067, a council that is part of the world’s largest Catholic family fraternal service organization.
According to Textor, Carson seized an opportunity to increase Knights of Columbus participation in the Nativity parish by launching a fish fry.
“We’ll net about $15,000 this Lenten season,” said Textor, who joined the Knights eight years ago. “Funds are distributed to many of Nativity’s ministries and community groups that fit the Catholic mission and vision.”
Last year money raised went to everything from seminarians to the Ursuline Sisters to Operation Breakthrough and more.
Textor first got hooked on Nativity’s fish fry four years ago when he shadowed Carson, learning the ropes.
“I may have been a little overeager, volunteering for the fish fry,” grinned Textor. “But when they asked me to take over the operation, I gladly accepted. It’s a great event, and we have it down to a science. Everyone pitches in.”
In a corner near the big screen, a long dessert table is neatly arranged with small Styrofoam plates bearing cupcakes with vivid frosting and colorful sprinkles, cookies and tempting slices of pies and cakes.
Volunteer My Rae Migliazzo, Sam’s wife, and students earning service hours prepare back-up plates.
“The sweets go fast,” said My Rae. “We have gluten-free desserts, too, along with sugar-free pie and cheesecake.”
Jo Ann Klimek of Leawood, Nativity’s pie lady, cuts generous slices of homemade New York-style cheesecake and flaky-crusted pumpkin, pecan and cherry pies.
“I make one regular and one sugar-free of each,” she points to the varieties with a knife. “My husband is diabetic, and I saw a need for the sugar-free, so I volunteered for this three years ago.”
Some fish fry aficionados swear by Klimek’s baked goods — even claiming they’re the sole reason they come to the Nativity fish fry.
“I’m in the St. Thomas Moore parish,” said one woman, already seated at a table at 4:45, a slice of cheesecake in front of her. “But I come here because I love this dessert.”
Klimek said the woman shows up religiously at the same time each fish fry.
“She gets a piece of sugar-free cheesecake, sits down and waits until the food line officially opens, then pays and gets her meal.”
Nancy Grasse manages the condiment table and helps dispense cocktail and tartar sauce, along with a popular one she and other volunteers dub as “liquid gold.”
“The Elephant Bar in Overland Park supplies us with this,” said Grasse, picking up a container filled with a creamy, herb-flecked sauce. “I guarantee it will be gone by the end of the night.”
At 4:55 p.m., people of all ages begin streaming into the hall. Two lines form as eager diners maneuver the buffet.
Fish fry volunteer Gary Stang of Kansas City doles out fried cod and catfish with aluminum tongs, entertaining people with one-liners and a quick smile.
“I wouldn’t be anywhere else on a Friday night during Lent,” he said.
The hall fills with the chatter of conversation.
Textor, looking cool as a cucumber, stands in the kitchen doorway, a finger on his chin, a slight smile curling his lips.
“Yep, it’s gonna be a good one,” he said. “I can feel it.”
The Nativity fish fry is part fundraiser, part tradition and part community mixer.
Father Al Rockers, Nativity’s senior associate vicar in residence and former pastor, bounds around the dining room, busing tables and exchanging pleasantries with young and old.”
“I just love this,” he said, adjusting the kitchen towel thrown over his shoulder. “It lifts up a parish’s community spirit.”
Rockers pauses to join Joe Falco and his wife, Kathy, of Overland Park, who are enjoying fish and shrimp with daughter Julie Ball, of Kansas City and her three children.
“The grandkids had a choice tonight,” said Joe, a member of the Knights of Columbus 11067. “Dinner at McDonald’s, home or the fish fry.”
“They were chanting, ‘fish fry, fish fry,’
” said Julie, “so here we are.”
Dylan, 3, has a plate brimming with mac and cheese and fish but is focused on licking the frosting off two cupcakes. His 6-year-old brother Thomas and sister Megan, 5, alternate between bites of food and playing with toys assembled on the table.
“Dylan’s having dessert first tonight,” said Kathy, who has worked in the Nativity office for 23 years.
In the middle of the dining room, Mike Walz and Janice Smith of Kansas City, regulars at Nativity’s fish fry, discover the two strangers at their table are actually neighbors.
“We’ve come to this one for a couple of years because of the shrimp — a real attraction,” Mike said. “And tonight we meet Joyce and Harold Wetzel, who have attended this fish fry for five years and live in our neighborhood.”
“It goes without saying that everyone is so friendly,” added Janice.
Award-winning restaurateur Michael Garozzo, owner of Garozzo’s Italian Restaurant and a Nativity parishioner since 1990, settles into one of the reserved rooms with his family.
As far as Garozzo is concerned, the Nativity fish fry team makes the annual event a smooth slam-dunk.
“Why would you cook at home or eat out when you can get a deal like this?” he raises his hands to make a point. “Everything they do here is well-executed.”
By 8 p.m. the Nativity parish hall has mostly emptied. Volunteers strip tablecloths and collapse tables.
Around 9 p.m., Textor and the cleanup crew relax for a beer and to catch some basketball.
“We served 541 guests — great considering it’s the last Friday of spring break and the NCAA Tournament is in full swing,” said Textor. “That makes this Lenten season total over 1,660 plates served with three Fridays left.”
Textor looks around the parish hall, where only a few vestiges of the night’s frenzied action — all in the name of raising money, tradition and community spirit — remain.
“I’d say we’re in a winning season.”