Spaghetti & Tuna Fish

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Photo by Keriliwi on UnsplashLong ago, before Vatican II, before the FBI targeted Catholics as domestic terrorists, before many of our readers were even born, McDonald’s had a problem. Only they didn’t realize how big of a problem.

That realization would be left to a single franchise owner in Ohio. On January 13, 1959, Lou Groen opened his McDonald’s in Monfort Heights, Ohio. It was the first Golden Arches to appear in the Cincinnati metropolitan area.

You probably didn’t know this, but at that time Catholics represented about 87% of Monfort Heights’ population. And they were good, practicing Catholics. Old-time Catholics. (You know. Toe Blake, Dit Clapper, Eddie Shore. Those guys were the greats!)

Vatican II was still several years away, and Groen noticed something quite discouraging about his new venture. “On Friday, we only took in about $75 a day,” he said.

That was a problem. A big problem.

After researching what the Big Boys chain did, Groen approached McDonald’s owner Ray Kroc (who was very approachable then) and proposed the idea of selling a fish sandwich. The usually astute Kroc did something he rarely did. He made the wrong decision. He blasted Groen and instead countered with a “Hula Burger” idea (grilled pineapple and cheese on a bun).

Strike that. Kroc wasn’t wrong. He was about a half a century too early. Today, veggie burgers are the toast of the town.

Anyway, Kroc ultimately compromised in a typical Kroc fashion. He held a contest. On Good Friday, 1962, several locations sold both Kroc’s Hula Burger and Groen’s fish sandwich. The best selling sandwich would win a place on McDonald’s menu. Fish beat Hula by a count of 350 to 6.

And thus was born the popular Filet-O-Fish sandwich (23% of which are sold during Lent), although it wasn’t put on the menu officially until 1963.

On October 11th of that same year, Pope John would convene the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, a.k.a. “the Second Vatican Council,” a.k.a. “Vatican II.” The Council would conclude three years later, on December 8, 1965.

Now, forgive me for not getting into the whole “is it every Friday or just Fridays during Lent” controversy. Let’s just skip to the home economics reality of not eating meat on Friday (whenever that Friday happens to occur).

Back in the very old days (we’re talking The Depression), it was tough to get fresh fish unless: A) You lived next to a shore with active fish markets; B) You fished; or C) You were rich.

My grandparents didn’t meet any of those categories. Access to fresh fish was rare and expensive. In fact, access to most things was rare and expensive. That’s why fried bologna became a thing.

Fried fish, on the other hand, well, that wouldn’t become a thing (for my family) until my grandfather opened his grocery store on Ridge Road. My mother, who worked there, recalls fondly going across the street to get a fish fry on Fridays. When my mother convinced her father to ditch the grocery store and open a pizzeria in 1955, his fish fry quickly became the go-to Friday dine-out option. Ironically, my mother’s favorite dish there wasn’t his fish fry, but his meatball sub.

In fact, my mother was eating one when she met my father (for the second time, the first time, they were only three and they didn’t realize that was their first meeting until much later). She took a break to eat dinner and do some homework (she was a freshman in college). My father and his friend Sonny spotted her and plopped down on seats next to her.

Sonny insisted my mother take his order. “We’ll have what you’re having!” He barked. (Sonny was a big man with the stereotypical demeanor of a bulking 1950s alpha male.) “No!” my father immediately corrected, “I’ll have a fish fry.”

My father’s favorite dish at Salvator’s Pizzeria was the fish fry. On rare occasions growing up, we’d all go to the Pizzeria for a fish fry. My brother and I preferred the pizza, but since we didn’t like it without pepperoni, it wasn’t an option. Our second choice was spaghetti.

We’d marvel at the way our grandfather would use a spoon to help twirl his spaghetti. He tried to teach us, but, being pre-Kindergartners, we didn’t have the dexterity to operate two utensils at once. Plus, my brother was left-handed, and that just complicated matters further.

What really complicated matters, though, was the lack of meatballs. We suffered through this at the Pizzeria. At home, however, it was a different story. My mother did what her mother did.

Decades before, when suitable alternatives were hard to get, the only easy-to-come-by fish was canned tuna. In lieu of meatballs, on Fridays my grandmother would add tuna fish to the spaghetti sauce. My mother duplicated this feat with perhaps more embellishment (she was, after all, trained in college to do this sort of thing).

Tuna fish and spaghetti immediately become the favorite Friday meal (after pepperoni pizza, of course) for my brother and me. In fact, we didn’t want to wait for Friday or for Lent to have it. We wanted it as often as we could get it.

Funny thing. We thought everyone knew about spaghetti and tuna fish. One time in third grade, I mentioned to my class (with not the least bit of excitement) my mother was cooking tuna and spaghetti for dinner. My classmates responded with a resounding “EWWWW!”

“You don’t like it?” I asked. Don’t like it? They never even heard of it. I asked my mother about the origin of this dish. That’s when I first learned my grandmother had made it. She never knew of anyone else, even in our family, who did it. Today, you can Google “tuna fish and spaghetti recipe” and come up with any number of recipes (although none quite like the way Florence Butera made it and the way we continue to make it today).

Now that I remember it, all three of us—my father, my brother, and I—would have preferred macaroni every night of the week. We openly mocked the “Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti Day” advertisement. Not only did we shun canned spaghetti (or canned sauce, for that matter), but we wanted every day to be, if not spaghetti, then rigatoni, linguini, lasagna, manicotti, ravioli, gnocchi or any other carbo-based dish that didn’t end in “potato” (unless it was in the gnocchi).

Alas, my mother had a more diversified palate (there’s that college training, again). So we took part in her culinary delights. Some we liked. Some we liked less.

But, come every Lent, we knew we’d earn a reprieve. There were few options, and that meant spaghetti and tuna fish.

At least until she got on her lentil soup kick in the 1970s.


  1. […] the strangest of circumstances. Do you notice this, too? Read this week’s Carosa Commentary “Spaghetti & Tuna Fish” and find out the origin stories of not one but two popular […]

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