When the rain finally lifted in Old Arabi on a recent Friday, it revealed the sun slowly setting over the New Orleans skyline, outlined a few miles up the river’s swooping bend.
That’s when neighbors started lining up at a narrow doorway, some slinging quitting-time longnecks, some with kids on their hips. All of them hauled off fried catfish plates, one at a time or in bagged bundles for the family back home.
The Friday fish fry is a ritual that unfolds in countless incarnations during Lent, from parish halls to volunteer fire houses.
The setting for this one is the Old Arabi Bar, a low, cinderblock joint that looks like the end-of-the-road destination from a country song. It sits hard by the levee, where an open floodgate frames those upriver views back to the city.
The bar is also home base for the Arabi Social Society, which hosts a fish fry every Friday through Easter.
The Arabi Social Society (or, of course, A.S.S.) is basically a neighborhood drinking club. Its charter is loose, its membership policy is the opposite of exclusive. The feel is convivial, a mixture of self-indulgent and self-effacing (club motto: “we can’t help it”).
All over this heavily Catholic, seafood-loving community, fish fries give the week a different pace. The tradition has also given this little social club a new identity, and maybe a new lease on life.
“People didn’t know what we were about. Now, when Lent comes around, they start asking if we’re going to do the fish fry again,” said Billy Kruse, a card-carrying ASS member.
The fish fry funds the club, which now has money for community giving. Last year, they contributed proceeds to a St. Bernard Parish veterans group.
The Arabi Social Society was formed in 1980 and for years was based at the now-defunct Perino’s Bar nearby on St. Claude Avenue (in the current home of Pirogue’s Whiskey Bayou).
After Hurricane Katrina, the club was down to just four members. They kept it going mainly by gathering to drink and reminding each other there was a social purpose behind it. There was little regarding agendas, and there was less in the budget. As the neighborhood rebuilt, the club slowly grew, and now has 30 members.
Some of those members say it grew up a bit, too. Until recently, the club was comprised entirely of white men, but that has changed.
“We went coed a couple years ago, then we had our first black member,” said Andy Beaugez, the club’s de facto historian. “What happens? He gets elected president the first year he joins.”
That president is Kennedy “Boom” Washington, who recently retired after 36 years in the Air Force.
“This is a neighborhood bar, and we’re a neighborhood club,” Washington said. “You need help with something at home? You got five people saying they're ready. If you’re sick, they’re bringing you a plate of food. They're there for good times and hard times.”
The fish fry is a group effort, and a homespun one. At a corral of folding tables, a crew of club members batters, fries and plates up the fish with buttered corn and a potato salad, heavy on the olives. Kruse’s mother Sandra makes the tartar sauce and the desserts (pound cake, brownies) at her home a few blocks from the bar.
The Old Arabi Bar dates back to at least the 1940s, regulars say. It was once called the International Corner, and it did a steady business with crewmen from cargo vessels riding at anchor just over the levee, back in the days of looser regulations and easier shore leave.
The place got a redo a few years back, ditching the drop ceiling, adding local craft beer and bringing in live music. But it still feels like a throwback, with people smoking at the bar and horse races on TV.
“This neighborhood is part of New Orleans but not part of it, too. It’s like a different pace down here, and it’s good to have your own group,” said Ally Detrick, taking a break between fry batches.
When the fish ran out and the fryers finally stopped, Brother Tyrone and the Mindbenders took the stage, wailing the blues as a few couples slow-danced.
It's not exactly hard to find a plate of fried fish in this town. But at a Friday fish fry, those plates come with a purpose. They raise money, and they always call people together. In Old Arabi, they even lead to some camaraderie by the levee.
6701 N. Peters St. (at Mehle Avenue), (504) 301-4335
Friday fish fries through March 30, 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
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