I tried giving up sweets for Lent this year. Christina, one of my friends, accomplished this insane task a couple years ago. She felt great. I figured why not give it a go – not for any religious reason, but for the sake of curiosity. I lasted exactly 24.3 hours.
For me Lent is about un-abstaining. Specifically, un-abstaining from generic white fish deep-fried in cheap oil and plunked on a plate with side dishes ranging from baked beans and mac-n-cheese, to Lebanese loobya (green beans in tomato sauce). Christina introduced me to Friday night fish fries early in our friendship. About three years ago, she invited several families from our sons’ school to the VFW in South Saint Paul one Friday night during Lent. Three families made the trek.
Christina loves the VFW. The offspring of anthropologists, she relishes the chance to step outside her own experience into the world of pinball, pulltabs, and meat raffles. On Friday we load our sons into my Subaru and head out. Christina’s not that good with directions; she doesn’t know North from South. I can’t imagine a day that I don’t orient myself along the comforting axes. N-S. W-E.
She offers to navigate, cellphone in hand. I decline, brandishing my scribbled post-it note, a schematic representation of the proposed route. Unfortunately, mapquest fails (never trust computer-generated directions) and we wind up in West Saint Paul (which is technically south of Saint Paul) instead of South Saint Paul (which is mostly east of Saint Paul). I find a road that winds down the side of the cliff and we land exactly where we need to be: on Cesar Chavez. Cesar Chavez dumps into Concord.
“That’s not it,” Christina says in response to my turn signal.
“Yes it is.”
“Nope, that’s not it.”
“It’s supposed to be on the left side of the street. OH – we were on a different street.”
The parking lot is full. Cars spill out onto the surrounding streets like pickled herring from a jar. I park along the internal perimeter of the lot, setting a dangerous example for the good law-abiding Minnesotans. Last year we entered the building through a dense cloud of cigarette smoke. This year I inhale the crisp March air and smell only deep-fried exhaust.
The crowd is thinner tonight; we can actually walk inside the building. Two years ago, the line for tickets snaked through the bar, past the video games, and right up to the meat raffle wheel. $12 for me. $5 for The Big E.
I know my meal is doomed. Christina and I dragged our kids to Holy Family Maronite Church three weeks ago and I had a transformative experience. The fish was flaky and beautifully fried. The loobya (that green bean + tomato thing) set my tastebuds all atwitter. The fried cabbage renewed my faith in cruciferous vegetables.
So, in comparison, I know my VFW meal will fail. I choke down the chewy fish. The baked beans are only fine. Christina cons me into going back for some coleslaw, insisting that it’s “fresh and crispy.” Yeah, it’s crispy. Fresh, too. But the cabbage lacks the sweet pure flavor of the Saint Paul Farmer’s Market.
The Maronites ruined me.
Our tablemates are lovely people, an older couple up visiting their kids. Ever in search of a novel fish fry, Christina quizzes them about their past Lenten experiences. Saint Joseph’s in Menomonie, Wisconsin, they say. Salmon they say. That’s about the best fish news I’ve ever heard and I commit this church to memory. An hour’s drive is well within Christina’s acceptable dinner radius. We once drove an hour-and-a-half each way to A to Z Produce and Bakery (“This is a farm: assume all fences are electric.”) in Stockholm, Wisconsin, for pizza night.
The long table behind us houses a large multi-generational family. Four boxes of cupcakes rest in the center. We covet these cupcakes, at first covertly when we go to check on our Quaker-educated sons as they blast bucks and bunnies and squirrels and mountain goats with a plastic shotgun. Earlier, they combed all the crevices of my car for quarters, braving the gum wrappers and banana peels.
As we gather our down coats (at the end of March) to leave, Christina looks longingly at the box on the neighboring table marked “red velvet.” We’ve already decided to take the boys for ice cream, a sorry substitute for the home-baked cupcakian goodness we really crave.
“Do you want one?” a man asks Christina.
She freaks, but only a little. ”Oh my God! Are you serious? You didn’t hear me did you? I was just saying how good they looked and here you are offering me one!”
Maybe he doesn’t realize that one woman is actually two and they are accompanied by ravenous boys. Said boys sidle up, peering in the boxes. Christina’s red velvet is half gone. ”You boys should have one!” The jovial family hands over two chocolate cupcakes.
I stand there innocently. The matriarch of the family spies the drool heading down my chin and encourages me to choose a treat. She made the cupcakes. These cupcakes are not mass-produced hockey pucks full of unpronounceable fillers.
She is an angel and her name is Jean.
“Which one do you recommend?” I ask.
“The carrot cake and red velvet are my favorites,” says Angel Jean.
I’ve never met a carrot cake I didn’t like. I can even work around coconut if I must. Jean’s cream cheese frosting is divine. The cake part boasts the correct ratio of succulent shredded carrot to not-carrot.
By this time, Christina’s cupcake is long gone and she is asking family members for fish fry recommendations. Turns out they gather the whole mob at this particular VFW every blessed year. We all thank the family, and especially Angel Jean, profusely.
I’m sure Christina will insist on going back next year. And I’ll gamely swallow the over-cooked fish in the name of friendship. But maybe, just maybe, Angel Jean and her band of genetically-similar humans will be there, cupcakes in hand.
Remind me not to give up sweets for Lent.