x

Food

Pittsburgh Lenten Fish-Fry Map Unites Innovation, Tradition

WEXFORD, Pa. (AP) — By the time the doors open at 4:30 p.m., a boisterous line of 50 hungry people is looping around the gymnasium foyer at Blessed Francis Seelos Academy. Their objective: to occupy tables on the basketball court and, for the parish’s first time since the pandemic descended in 2020, sit down for an old-fashioned Lenten fish fry.

Many patrons are members of the flock — St. Aidan Catholic Parish north of Pittsburgh — and greet each other as longtime friends. But these days, newcomers figure in the mix, too. And some arrive in a way that unites two rich seams of western Pennsylvania culture — tradition and innovation.

The fish fry, a long-established Friday staple during Lent, is roaring back from COVID with an assist from something decidedly newfangled: an interactive map built by local volunteer coders that points the way to scores of churches, fire halls and other places that offer battered and breaded seafood for the taking. In the process, the new Pittsburgh is helping point the way to the old.

“I like to think that this project helps people get excited about these very old cultural and culinary traditions,” says Hollen Barmer, a Tennessee transplant who came to Pittsburgh two decades ago and started the map in 2012 for her fish-fry-loving self.

The Pittsburgh Banjo Club performs at the Allegheny Elks Lodge #339 on the first night of their annual fish fry in Pittsburgh, on Friday, Feb. 24, 2023. Fish fries have been a longtime Catholic tradition in Western Pennsylvania but increased in popularity in 1966 after the Second Vatican Council announced that not eating meat on Fridays was optional, except during Lent. Today they are held anywhere, from churches to fire stations to restaurants. (AP Photo/Jessie Wardarski)

“Fish fries,” Barmer likes to say, “are an adventure.”

TWO PARTS OF PITTSBURGH

At this moment in its history, Pittsburgh is working to blend its fabled industrial yesterdays with a 21st-century economy based increasingly on services and innovation — something the map project reflects.

“Allowing people to interact with something traditional through technology, it adds an element to it that appeals to a different group of people,” says Ellie Newman, a member and the former leader of the nonprofit Code for Pittsburgh, which works with Barmer to operate the map.

During Lent, thousands of western Pennsylvanians — Catholic and non-Catholic alike — stream into Friday afternoon fish fries. Some pick up for takeout. Some chow down right there — fish and shrimp, fries and cole slaw and mac and cheese, sometimes pierogies or a local noodle-and-cabbage delicacy called haluski.

Western Pennsylvania loves the past, but the fish fry itself is steered by some very modern forces.

Long a tradition in American cities with Catholic communities, particularly around the Great Lakes, fish fries surged in popularity after the Second Vatican Council essentially told the faithful in 1966 that the practice of not eating meat on Fridays was optional — except during Lent, the period between Ash Wednesday and Easter. That made February to April a concentrated period of fish consumption.

Then came the steel industry’s foundering in the 1970s and 1980s. That upended the region, stole elements of civic pride and whipped up a fervor for traditions that shouted, loudly, “Pittsburgh!”

Plates of fried fish and sides are delivered at the Allegheny Elks Lodge #339 during their annual fish fry on the first night of Lent, in Pittsburgh, on Friday, Feb. 24, 2023. Fish fries have been a longtime Catholic tradition in Western Pennsylvania but increased in popularity in 1966 after the Second Vatican Council announced that not eating meat on Fridays was optional, except during Lent. Today they are held anywhere, from churches to fire stations to restaurants. (AP Photo/Jessie Wardarski)

“There was a sense of destabilization — of `Who are we?’ And people tended to center around things that symbolized the community,” says Leslie Przybylek, senior curator at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh.

Food touchstones like fish fries, pierogies and the “ cookie table ” — a western Pennsylvania wedding staple — became signifiers of identity. At the same time, technological advances in frozen food and the growth of fast food were making fish more accessible. The longtime presence of powerhouse regional fish distributor Robert Wholey & Co. also honed local tastes.

“People in Pennsylvania are used to good fish,” says Bill Yanicko, a funeral director in suburban West Deer Township who runs the community fish fry at Our Lady of the Lakes Parish. “They really don’t want to see a cookie-cutter triangle fish.”

Overlay all that with a robust interactive map (and pent-up pandemic energy) and you have a potent mix that helps people in western Pennsylvania overcome the geographic hesitations of the region’s hills and valleys, and go out searching for fish.

“Putting it in a digital frame and encouraging people to engage with it, it adds a level of vocabulary to it that makes a difference,” says Przybylek, who favors the fry at the Swissvale Fire Department, just outside the city. “Different generations engage in stories in different ways. It literally takes a food tradition and puts it into a platform that speaks to them on a different level.”

MAPPING DELICIOUSNESS

Today, while churches remain a mainstay of Lenten fish fries, fire departments give them a run for their money — of which there is lots at play. Both entities use fish fries as volunteer-staffed fundraisers to offset budget challenges, and each works hard to stand out. “It takes a little army to make this happen,” says Keith Young, a retired businessman who helps with the St. Aidan fry.

Groups pack the Allegheny Elks Lodge #339 for their annual fish fry on the first night of Lent, in Pittsburgh, on Friday, Feb. 24, 2023. Fish fries have been a longtime Catholic tradition in Western Pennsylvania but increased in popularity in 1966 after the Second Vatican Council announced that not eating meat on Fridays was optional, except during Lent. Today they are held anywhere, from churches to fire stations to restaurants. (AP Photo/Jessie Wardarski)

Code for Pittsburgh, a group designed to create places where “civics and technology meet,” is all-volunteer as well. Its varied projects include a food access map of Pittsburgh and a cartographic catalog that helps track vehicle-pedestrian accidents.

The volunteer coding sessions held to build the fish-fry map are — how to say it? — fish-forward. Swedish Fish candies are set out. Bowls of Goldfish crackers are distributed. Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” plays.

“It’s kind of the perfect marriage of things — a team of super-nerdy people who know all about maps and know all about coding, and fish fries, which are just so Pittsburgh,” Newman says. “I don’t know of any other city that has this kind of obsession. … As soon as people in the group heard about it, they were instantly hooked on it.”

Pittsburgh’s growing reputation as an innovation hub — with companies from Google to Uber establishing beachheads here — is sometimes cast as recent. But innovation lies at the heart of the region’s history. The steel industry that built it into an industrial powerhouse was a cutting-edge transformation of its day, and advances ranging from early movies to the polio vaccine have roots here.

David Schorr, an IT analyst from the Pittsburgh suburb of West Mifflin, is known locally as “ The Codfather ” for his very public affinity to — and experience with — fish fries. He knows where to go for everything — including the places to secure, as he puts it, “handmade pierogies personally pinched by church ladies.” The interactive map, he says, opens myriad possibilities of fish-fry forays.

Fried fish is prepared at the Swissvale Fire Department fish fry in Pittsburgh, on Friday, Feb. 24, 2023. Fish fries have been a longtime Catholic tradition in Western Pennsylvania but increased in popularity in 1966 after the Second Vatican Council announced that not eating meat on Fridays was optional, except during Lent. Today they are held anywhere, from churches to fire stations to restaurants. (AP Photo/Jessie Wardarski)

“It makes it a treasure hunt: `Oh — let’s go to that neighborhood,’” Schorr says. “They go, ‘Oh, look, this one’s on my way home from work.’ Or `I have to go visit Aunt Edna and we’ll be driving right by it.’ Or, `Oh, they have sauerkraut soup.’ Or, `I don’t like pollock. This one has cod. I’m going there.’”

The map, Barmer and Newman say, is designed to do precisely that — turn the western Pennsylvania fish-fry culture into an adventure stamped onto the landscape that fosters community engagement and understanding for natives and newcomers alike.

“As things become more globalized and cities tend to look more and more the same, there’s something appealing about coming to a place like Pittsburgh that still has things like this that have very deep roots in the community,” Newman says. “Things may change around you every year, but you know that every year you can go to your same church basement or fire hall and get that fish sandwich.”

___
By TED ANTHONY AP National Writer

Ted Anthony, director of new storytelling and newsroom innovation at The Associated Press, has been writing about American culture since 1990. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/anthonyted

___

Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

RELATED

GAEA was founded in 1995 and the name was not by accident.

Top Stories

Columnists

A pregnant woman was driving in the HOV lane near Dallas.

General News

NEW YORK – Meropi Kyriacou, the new Principal of The Cathedral School in Manhattan, was honored as The National Herald’s Educator of the Year.

Video

Evzones March in the Rain to Greek Flag Raising at Bowling Green in NYC (VIDEO)

NEW YORK – The heavy rain did not deter the Hellenic Presidential Guard, the Evzones, and the participants in the march from St.

ATHENS - The advent of warm spring weather has tourists already pouring into Greece and bringing a warning for them to avoid seaside restaurants in popular areas - some gouging customers - and to eat away from those sites and go where locals go.

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israel on Sunday hailed its successful air defenses in the face of an unprecedented attack by Iran, saying it and its allies thwarted 99% of the more than 300 drones and missiles launched toward its territory.

NICOSIA, Cyprus  — Cyprus said Saturday it’s suspending processing all asylum applications by Syrian nationals because large numbers of refugees from the war-torn country continue to reach the island nation by boat, primarily from Lebanon.

SYDNEY  — Police identified Sunday the assailant who stabbed and killed six people at a busy Sydney shopping center before a police officer fatally shot him.

Enter your email address to subscribe

Provide your email address to subscribe. For e.g. [email protected]

You may unsubscribe at any time using the link in our newsletter.