STONINGTON — It's a typical Lenten Friday morning in Stonington Borough. The smell of deep-fried fish fills the air in the Main Street neighborhood surrounding The Portuguese Holy Ghost Society and parking spaces are tough to find. People are filling the sidewalks, heading toward the large white building with the bright green awning and three flags.
It's fish and chips day at the society's clubhouse, and although it's just a little after 11 a.m., the lunch crowd is sizable and growing.
"We had 35 people here at 11:05," said Jim Krodel of Mystic, a member of the society's board of directors who volunteers for Fish & Chips Friday, a tradition that goes back as far back as anyone can remember.
Every Friday during Lent, and again in the fall, for the eight Fridays before Thanksgiving, society members serve fresh fish, clams, scallops, calamari and shrimp — along with French fries, coleslaw and homemade chowder — from 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.
The menu includes fish and chips, $10 ($9 for seniors); whole belly clams, $17; scallops, $17; scallop and fish combo, $14; chowder, $4; calamari, $10; and fried shrimp, $15. There are gluten-free options, too.
It takes two shifts of at least 10 people per shift to keep things running smoothly, plus plenty of prep work.
"It's not just a Friday thing," said Krodel earlier in the week as he sat with fellow board member Ed Pont of Old Mystic, who serves as the society's receiver. "We work on it all week, really."
"At least a couple of hours every day," said Pont. "Sunday starts the inventory, then Monday we start the ordering. I typically place the fish order by Wednesday."
"We get all the fish from Sea Well in Pawcatuck," added Pont. "They're great ... Sea Well is very good to us."
The men were reluctant to share the exact number of pounds of fish they buy and sell, citing a sensitivity to restaurant owners in the borough, but they did say they prepare for at least 500 dinners a week.
"This season has exceeded our expectations," said Pont. "We have a Facebook page and a website. We've gotten a lot of response from Facebook. About a thousand between likes and shares."
Funds raised from the dinners are used for scholarships for high school students, veterans programs, donations to local community centers, and to help with expenses for the Blessing of the Fleet and the Feast of the Holy Ghost, the society's "signature event," Pont said.
"We get some great feedback," said Krodel, noting that the dinners are a social event. He considers himself a "new member" of the society, with six years on board.
Pont said, "You don't see a lot of cellphone use." Pont grew up in Western Massachusetts and spent parts of each summer in Stonington, where his father's family lived. "We get a lot of compliments."
Both men said that the organizers make every effort to be environmentally responsible. They don't use plastic straws, they've gone to paper for takeout orders, and have eliminated plastic foam cups and containers.
"We have a lot of fisherman in the club," said Krodel, "so we're very sensitive to the ocean."
"We recommend that people get here early," said Krodel. "We close at 7:30, so we say to get here by 6 or so."
"And we're old school," he added. "We're cash only."
On Friday morning, as patrons make their way one by one up the narrow, circular stairway to join the single "order" line, Bob Ellis of Stonington edges his way through the narrow doorway, balancing two large bags full of paper takeout containers.
"For my family and friends," he said with a smile. "I've done it every Friday for 28 years."
Inside, Pont, who is seated at a small table with a cash register on top, takes cash and orders from the patrons and hands them small slips of paper. They pass along a portion of the slip to one of the volunteers on the floor, then find seats at one of the long banquet tables — some covered in red plastic tablecloths and others in green — arranged in rows around the room.
Don Ahern of Stonington, one of the volunteers on the floor, is busy helping people find seats in between serving heaping plates of fried fish topped with French fries as they come out of the kitchen. His wife, Elaine, is in the kitchen, plating the orders for delivery.
"Number twenty," Ahern calls out. "Number twenty."
Society member Robert Lewis of Mystic, wearing a tuxedo-patterned black and white T-shirt, has been volunteering at the Friday Fish & Chips for the last 30 years.
"I really enjoy it," said Lewis, an Air Force retiree. "Every week I wear a different T-shirt. On the last week I wear a Sponge Bob T-shirt ... my name's Bob after all."
"One full shrimp," calls Elaine Ahern from the kitchen as she hands a plate to volunteer Mary Brockaway.
"I'm married to the French fry guy," says Brockaway with a smile. "We're here as nice wives helping out. I'm just the server."
"Thirty-eight," she calls out as she looks around the room. "Thirty eight."
In the small kitchen, Mary's husband, Curt Brockaway, Society Board President Tom Arruda, and Joe Marcine stand before a row of Fryolators, cooking the fish.
Out in the dining room, Sandra Rose, of Ledyard, finds a seat and settles down at one of the long tables.
"I came for the first time last week and it was wonderful," she said. "I had fried clams and chowder and I'm coming back every Friday til its over."
Across the room, Laura Cartwright of Pawling, N.Y., sat with her 17-month old son, Tucker, and her mother, Pam Cartwright, also of Pawling.
"We came for the fish and chips," said Laura. "My grandmother, Veronica Arnold, who died last year and used to live in Westerly, always said to us, 'You have to come to visit so we can got to fish and chips.'"
"We never did," added Pam. "And now we are."
Outside, a bus from the StoneRidge senior living community in Mystic stopped in the street. As its passengers joined the growing line, Jim Barry of Norwich, a longtime customer, was headed back to his car, satisfied with his Lenten meal.
"That fish," said Barry, "it melted in my mouth. It's good enough for the table of the Lord."