Many Niagara-on-the-Lake residents will tell you the same thing when it comes to fish and chips in town — the Legion does it best.
It’s not surprising, really, when you take into account that the Legion has been putting on fish night once a week for longer than members can even remember.
As Legion president Paul Eramian puts it, “It’s been going on for decades — since folks actually used to grind their own cabbage.”
On any given Thursday you can find a line of hungry people waiting for fresh fish, coleslaw, fries and delicious, soft French bread for chip sandwiches. The meal is prepared by a line of volunteer cooks, many who have been donating their time for years.
Past president Stan Harrington, who has been cooking for almost 15 years, says they cook about 150 pounds of fish weekly — about 2.5 tonnes a year.
“And we bang them out in really record time,” he says.
Harrington and the cooks couldn’t recall just when the fry started, but he agreed it’s likely been going on since the Legion’s inception in 1966.
“I started when I was 10,” the 77-year-old jokes.
Harrington says there are plenty of “urban myths” he’s heard about how the fish fry started.
“I only know the rumours,” he said. “The problem is, what they did then you can’t do today because of health regulations and stuff, but supposedly the fish were fresh caught and they would gut it and clean it right here… But I don’t know what kind of fish it was.”
Former legion fry cook David Steele, 74, says the whole thing started one day when a local who operated a food truck came in with an extra supply of fish and asked if anyone wanted to have a fish fry.
“I’ve heard that story, too,” Harrington said. “It’s a fuzzy story, you don’t really know if it’s true or not.”
Regardless of how it started, the whole process has developed a military efficiency over time. First orders are taken downstairs and brought up by hand to the cooks, who immediately start to prepare the food. When it’s all packed up, the order gets sent back down with one of the volunteer Air Cadets, who shout out numbers and wait for people to claim their tasty treat.
Some other changes have been made to keep up with health regulations. For example, the fish now has to come in frozen.
“The fish now does come in frozen because of health regulations. We can’t get it (fresh) here because we can’t keep it. But it’s Haddock … And it’s wild,” he says proudly.
“We make our own batter — it’s a beer-based batter — and that recipe hasn’t changed in about 15 years.”
Currently the fish comes from the Atlantic, the coleslaw is made by the woman’s auxiliary, and the fresh-cut fries come from Lococo’s and the French bread is from Hendrik’s Valu-mart.
Over the years the process has changed in other ways, too. Eramian says just recently the Legion started using biodegradable paper cups for coleslaw (eat-in only, takeout is still plastic).
“You know, to reduce our carbon footprint, so to speak,” Eramian says.
To streamline the process, the coleslaw is now handmade by the Women’s Auxiliary of the Legion.
“It’s a big help,” says Eramian.
With the number of people coming through on the average fry night, it makes sense the prepping needs to be done early, Harrington says.
“When we get busy, people know they have to wait a while, but they also know it’s fresh,” says Harrington.
The local clientele is “steady,” he says, and people from all over the world end up trying it out, too.
“It’s mostly people from the Niagara region, but we have people come from other places as well.”
Years ago, members started a map of where people came from, Harrington says.
“We had so many places we quit doing it,” he says. “But it was interesting, because a lot of people stay at the B&Bs, and they say ‘oh, go to the Legion for fish fry’ — They come here and they’re from Germany or France or Belgium or whatever. A lot from the UK. And of course what happens too, because there are a lot of new Canadians in town, they have relatives and they bring them here for fish and chips.”
He says he enjoys seeing all the locals come in every week and getting to chat with them. The best part, though, is the people he volunteers with.
“We’ve got a great mix of people. My grandkids worked there at one point, my wife did for quite a few years. It’s all like family.”
Gary Bradnam, who has been volunteering as a cook for about eight years, also says the best part of it is the “camaraderie.”
“And showing that you’re doing something to raise money for the Legion,” he adds.
Bradnam says realistically the fish fry is the Legion’s major fundraiser, and what keeps the branch going.
“It’s pretty well our bread and butter. It’s what keeps our doors open.” Bradnam said.
“We’ve got a great group here to work with us,” Eramian says.