The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Michele Bender

March 31, 2012

MICHELE M. BENDER | Something fishy’s going on around here

— At age 6, Mom introduced me to the concept of Lent. My kid reaction was typical. “I hafta give up WHAT? For HOW LONG?”

When it came to food, I was always a weird kid. Texture mattered more to me than taste. I hated anything sticky!

My fetish wasn’t limited to food. My first grade teacher could only make me apply glue at gunpoint.

Time marched on. Catechism taught me Lent was a season of self-evaluation and spiritual growth. I still didn’t get how giving up sticky sweets, which didn’t appeal to me in the first place, would improve my character.

Then I discovered the Lenten “perk!” We were expected to go “meatless” on designated days. But we could eat FISH!

I LOVE FISH! My grandfather joined the Navy at 16, and was primarily stationed at the Philadelphia Naval Yard.

Fisherman’s Wharf turned G-Pa into a seafood gourmet. When my dad attended college in Philly, G-Pa introduced him to more fishy favorites.

During summer vacations, G-Pa and I discovered more of Neptune’s bounty.

I had dislikes.

Mackerel was just icky, and squirmy calamari squished.

Mussels made me feel like I was eating an eyeball. And I shunned trout because I’d never eat something that got caught because it wanted to eat a worm!

But delicious stuff remained: Haddock, sole, cod, shrimp, shark, scallops, crab and lobster!

Working at our church fish fries seemed the next logical step. Waitressing may have been a bad choice because I don’t always play well with others.

When a lady requested crab cake with mac ’n cheese, I delivered her meal promptly.

“I ordered crab cake,” she roared. “This  ISN’T IT! Take it back and bring what I asked for!”

Humiliated, I slunk back to the kitchen where a wiser, veteran worker put the plate under a heat lamp. “Wait five minutes and take it back.”

“Did she expect frosting and birthday candles?” I snarled.

When I returned the same dish five minutes later, the Gorgon smiled.

“This is more like it!”

After stints as an applesauce dipper and a halushki scooper, I became a cashier. Three or four of us greeted customers, filled order forms, passed them to the waitresses, took cash and made change.

Dozens of mind-numbing summer jobs had prepared me for accurate change-making. I found my “fish niche!”

And then came 1999, the year the government minted new quarters celebrating the 50 states.

I never expected this seemingly harmless idea to bite us on our fannies.  

Our prices were average by local fish fry standards: $7.25 for fish dinners; $7.50 for shrimp or crab platters.

“Dear, I’ll take a baked fish dinner with baked potato and cole slaw.” A lady untied her babushka and removed a $5 and 3 $1’s from her wallet. “And, for my change, could I have one Maine quarter, one Delaware and a Kentucky?”

People never fail to amaze you! The craze caught on and we finally had to post a sign saying “We regret that we are unable to honor requests for specific coins in change.”

Lenten regulations say only one full meal may be eaten on Good Friday. I plan to hop over and eat mine at Red Lobster.              

See you there!

Michele Mikesic Bender is a Johns-town resident and a member of The Tribune-Democrat’s Readership Advisory Committee.

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