Buffalo’s Definitive Foods: The Fish Fry

By Steve Cichon

We’re continuing our week-long look at Buffalo’s definitive foods…

Mineo South take out fish fry, Lent 2018.

You can get a fish fry in other places, but Western New York is the only place you can get a Buffalo Fish Fry.

What that usually means for most of us is a giant piece of haddock covered thick, golden and crispy beer batter, tartar sauce, a lemon wedge, french fries, and hopefully more than one salad like coleslaw or potato salad. And the best fish fries have a piece of seeded rye bread thrown in on top.

This Buffalo Friday night staple at VFW Halls, Holy Name Dinners, and neighborhood taverns has been evolving into our current expectation for generations and generations.

The first place Buffalo flocked to go out for a fish fry was Richie Roth’s fish house. He was the city’s renown expert fisherman, and he started frying it up in his ramshackle shed on the banks of the Erie Canal at the foot of Hudson Street sometime around 1900.

Today, the spot is covered by the baseball diamonds you can see from the 190 in LaSalle Park. That part of the 190 was built in the bed of the Erie Canal.

The Buffalo Commercial, 1922

The shack which was condemned more than once still played host to politicians, musicians, and plain old working people. Those fishing boats were good for more than just bringing in fresh-caught Lake Erie fish– even during Prohibition, the beer flowed freely at Richie Roth’s.

Buffalo’s brewer Mayor Francis X. Schwab, who himself faced federal charges in the production of “near-beer” that was over the legal alcohol limit, lauded Roth after an inspection of his fish shack in 1922.

“This vice talk is all bunk,” Schwab told The Buffalo Commercial. “(Police Captain) Jimmy Higgins didn’t see a thing wrong. There’s no law against eating fish, I guess.” He called it “a nice place.”

The Courier-Express called Richie Roth’s “the best fish fry in the world.” He spent decades arguing with the city over his right to stay in the shack he’d worked out of for more than 40 years. He died in 1948.

Trautwein’s serving Blue Pike, 1955.

Before 1960, any good fish fry was made with blue pike. Once the most ubiquitous and tasty fish of Lake Erie, the blue pike was over-fished and saw competition from invasive species such as rainbow smelt.

As the blue pike grew more rare, Buffalonians began to acquire a taste for the haddock fish fry, which is a good thing. By the 1970s, the blue pike was generally accepted as extinct.

Buffalo in the ’20s: Buffalo’s pro-booze, anti-swimsuit Mayor Schwab

By Steve Cichon

“While Buffalo girls are in the front rank so far as feminine pulchritude is concerned; I do not believe their charms should be exploited,” Mayor Frank X. Schwab told reporters in 1927. It was front page news when Schwab — who was also owner of the Buffalo Brewing Company — told the Miss America pageant that no girl from Buffalo would be appearing with his endorsement.

Mayor Frank X. Schwab (Buffalo Stories archives)
Mayor Frank X. Schwab (Buffalo Stories archives)

“Both as mayor of the City of Buffalo and as the father of seven children, I have never been impressed favorably with bathing and beauty contests. To my mind they set up a false standard in the minds of young people, and the resultant evils and disadvantages more than offset any ephemeral fame which these contests bring to the various cities.

Buffalo Evening News, July 13, 1927
Buffalo Evening News, July 13, 1927

“For this reason I decline to comply with your request that as chief executive of the city I give to the young lady selected through your contest as Miss Buffalo a letter of introduction to the mayor of Atlantic City.

“It is simply my decision, as mayor of the city and as a father, that I think Buffalo will be better off and certainly none the worse, if it has no young lady compete in this so-called national beauty contest.”

Mayor Schwab and his family. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Among the many letters Mayor Schwab received in response to his refusal there was only one deriding his decision. Ministers and mothers wrote letters of thanks, while the local contest promoter wrote asking him to reconsider.

Mayor Schwab stood firm, saying the contest doesn’t serve to elevate girls from Buffalo or anywhere else in the country. Apparently, many agreed with Schwab.

While the Atlantic City bathing suit contest started its annual skin show in 1920, the year of Schwab’s protest — 1927 — was the pageant’s last year until 1932. At first, it was claims of “promoting loose morals” which scuttled the show, followed by the Depression. By the end of the ’30s, a talent competition was added and girls under the age of 18 were no longer allowed to enter.

In commending Schwab, Rev. W. Earl Ledden, pastor of the Richmond Avenue M. E. Church, likened the affair to a cattle call.

“Your letter to the Atlantic City authorities reveals moral dignity and insight, and I take pleasure in expressing to you my hearty approval. The bathing beauty affair is simply a publicity stunt for Atlantic City, a clever method of stretching the hotel season a week. And the method places our young womanhood on a plane too close to that of the Chicago stockyards to merit moral and official sanction.”

It was one of the few times where Schwab received public support from Buffalo’s Protestant leaders. Not only was Schwab Catholic, he was also under federal indictment. As the owner of a brewery, he stood accused of possessing (and brewing) beer with an alcohol content higher than 3 percent in violation of Prohibition laws.

After two terms as mayor, Schwab was defeated in his re-election bid by Charles Roesch, a Broadway Market meat cutter and the original “Charlie the Butcher.”