West Michigan Lent is a time of gluttony if you like fish fries, fried fish, fried lake perch. Everyone's got a fish fry special. VFW. The Catholic High School. Lion's Club. The local dives...you know the ones...the DIVES. Places where the food is the only draw and the decor hasn't been altered since 1982. And though smoking in restaurants has been outlawed for most of a decade you can still smell remnants of stale tobacco faintly from the naugahyde seats, and what was once referred to as a "carpet", but is now just a thing over slab foundation, is well worn with pathways to the seats where people just sit and eat the fried lake perch like it's a religion.
Those are the places with the best fried lake perch:
- The places where the waitstaff remembers when you were eight, and called you by name when you moved back to town after living away for 10 years.
- The places where the pregnant waitress's young teenage son has his ears stuffed with earbuds and is playing something on his iThing quietly in a corner booth while his mother slings perch and coffee.
- The places where your son asks you for pie and the waitress speaks up before you, saying "Not until you finish your dinner, you're not."
These are not places to come by easily.
The religion of the Lake Perch isn't followed Out There as with such strict adherence as home. As in the catacombs of diners off on the edge of town, beyond the closed bowling alley, the empty auction yard, the rusting and fragmented remains of a drive-in theater overgrown with scrub oak and grasses. Like walking through ruins to an ancient temple, to the heart where pilgrims still find their heart's desire.
The boys and I walked on Muskegon Lake to the ice shanty villiage. Drilled holes into the thick ice and sat on buckets, fishing for winter's lake perch. As men passed dragging their hunting sleds and five gallon buckets my boys ran over to see if they'd caught anything, some with a pile of lake perch, folks who had be on the ice for eight hours, always modest, always diminutizing the size and number of lake perch, yellow bellies and reddened fins - "I caught a few" and "just small ones" bound later for a skillet or a frier.
We'll go back out tomorrow, and maybe we'll be the ones diminutizing our catch. The three of us on overturned buckets around thin ice holes out in the middle of the lake, gulls in the distance on the edge where the water is flowing and liquid. My younger son will be running and sliding along on the slippery and hardened ice, little caring about his Batman pole offering treachery to the lake perch below.
Yep. Tomorrow we'll have a catch. And we'll have our own feast.