In Pittsburgh, Lenten fish fries remain a proudly local, idiosyncratic, and fraternal tradition
By Ed Simon
Among Christ’s earliest miracles as recounted in the New Testament was the preparation of a delicious sea-food dinner. That this was done for a large, impatient, and hungry crowd only compounds the impressiveness. The feeding of the multitude is found in each of the four gospels, though there are differences in the details. (The only other miracle found in all of them is the resurrection). According to the gospel writers, Christ multiplied a few loaves of bread and some meager fish into a feast that would feed five thousand women, children, and men. Of all of the supernatural feats attributed to Jesus—the healing of lepers and the blind, the exorcism of demons, the resurrection of the dead—the feeding of the multitude is the most accessible. Most importantly, the feeding of the multitude was singular because it was a miracle of community. What it lacks in drama it makes up for in simple beauty: hungry followers gathered to enjoy tilapia from the Sea of Galilee, cooked over a charcoal fire with grilled leeks, eaten with ripped portions of unleavened barley loaf.
Two millennia later, that spirit endures across Pittsburgh (and the region) in the Lenten fish fry. On Friday evenings, families gather in church gymnasiums and bingo halls, VFW halls and corner bars, eating deep fried fish sandwiches that ideally dwarf the soft-white rolls they sit on, slathered with tartar or cocktail sauce. At a Pittsburgh Lenten fish fry, you are far more likely to find fried cod or haddock than grilled tilapia, joined by sides of crispy fried shrimp or briny clam strips, cups of creamy New England clam chowder cut with oyster crackers, and a bevy of calorically extreme sides, which, depending on the ethnic composition of the congregation, could range from pierogies and halupki to macaroni and cheese.
As culinary writer Rossilynne Skena Culgan explains in an essay for Saveur, Pittsburgh fish fries can be traced back to the nineteenth century. Prior to the Roman Catholic Church reforms of the 1960s, the faithful were prohibited from eating meat on all Fridays, but it was later shortened to only the Lenten season—the forty days of of ascetic introspection from Ash Wednesday until Easter Sunday. Fish wasn’t considered meat by canon law (a distinction between land and sea that goes back well into antiquity), so seafood became a staple of Lenten Fridays, and the fish fry gained in popularity as a way of both practicing the faith and of expressing Catholic identity. In churches, ethnic and fraternal organizations, and even fire departments (as well as restaurants, obviously) a seafood heavy menu became a staple of the Fridays leading up to Easter.
At the Serbian American Club, on Pittsburgh’s South Side, Club Manager Dane Topich told me Lenten fish fries exist to bring “the community together”—to provide a space where somebody might simply “come to enjoy a meal with one person, and end up meeting or seeing five or ten other friends.” Jennifer Flanagan, executive director and founder of Community Kitchen Pgh, a Hazelwood-based non-profit which provides culinary job training and hosts its own popular fish fry, explains that while fish fries “came out of a tradition of abstinence,” they became a fundamentally social activity. “People wait all year for it, and they come out with family and friends,” Flanagan said. “It maintains the spirit of the tradition for sure, but it has also become its own kind of celebration, especially as the popularity has expanded beyond Catholics.” The miracle is of food, and of each other. Of having a good time.
Fish fries are ironically ubiquitous in the landlocked industrial Midwest—even moreso than in the heavily Catholic Northeast—and the ritual is embraced particularly enthusiastically in western Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh’s metropolitan era is tied with New York City and Boston as the “most Catholic” major city in the United States, according to a 2014 poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, with thirty-six percent of respondents identifying as such—unsurprising, perhaps, when considering the wave of southern and eastern European immigration that redefined its demographics in the first half of the twentieth-century. Yet Flannagan, a native New Yorker, explains that she’d never attended one until moving to Pittsburgh.
In Pittsburgh, fish fries are popular not just among Catholics and Orthodox Christians, but also Protestants and secular organizations, both of whom, despite generally lacking the same Friday prohibition on meat, also sponsor Lenten events—Culgan writes about the Methodist church of her youth hosting one in Westmoreland County. Guides to individual fish fries are published by The Pittsburgh Catholic and the alt-weekly Pittsburgh City Paper. An organization of computer programmers called Code for Pittsburgh created an app to help people find their fries, Yelp reviews them like restaurants, and NCAA-style brackets with competing events appear on social media. Flannagan told me she has “not experienced the popularity in any other city I’ve live in… People here love their fish fries.”
A few words must be spent to examine the phenomenon of the Pittsburgh fish sandwich. The landlocked city lacks the aquatic resources that allow for the New England lobster roll or the Chesapeake crab cake, but that hasn’t stopped the deep-fried cod sandwich from being the underrated hero of Pittsburgh culinary identity. A staple in not just seafood restaurants but dive bars, diners, and delis, the thickly breaded and preferably massive, deep-fried, pre-frozen cod or haddock sandwich is as filling as it is overwhelming. Institutions like the Squirrel Hill pizzeria Mineo’s offer “The Codfather” during Lent, while the hip Shadyside bar the Harris Grill, famed for Tuesday “Bacon Night,” offers the “Monongahela Mullet” (because the fish hangs over the bun). “The fish fry is quintessential Pittsburgh,” Culgan told me. “It’s been so fun to see the reader reactions [to the Saveur article] online, ranging from Pittsburghers who are delighted to see their tradition shared with a national audience to readers in other cities wondering if there are any fish fries in their towns.”
As with many cities, overall church attendance and denominational membership in Pittsburgh has declined, and yet the fish sandwich remains. More than that, the fish fry is a vestige of a Pittsburgh that’s largely in eclipse, a reminder of the city’s mid-century economic height, when union membership and ethnic community ties led to a high standard of living. Despite economic shifts and the hollowing out of working-class institutions, the fish fry remains a proudly local, idiosyncratic, and fraternal tradition that exists beyond the dictates of neoliberal homogenization. To enjoy fried cod and coleslaw in the basement of a church is to refuse a type of gentrification, to resist the economic forces attempting to transform Pittsburgh into something palatable to out-of-town real estate developers—so far, there is no McCaffery Real Estate sponsored fish fry offering tuna nigiri at the Strip Terminal.
Which is not to say that fish fries are unwelcoming, or that nostalgia needs to veer toward the reactionary. “What’s unique about the fish fry is the aspect of sitting down together at a table,” Culgan told me. As a result, it “has such a welcoming atmosphere, where I often end up sitting with strangers and we bond over chit-chat about the food.” Indeed, as the newspaper coverage, the Yelp reviews, and the Code for Pittsburgh “Fish Fry Map” evidence, the tradition is one that welcomes newcomers, where you might sit down at a red checkered-cloth table between an aging veteran of the Jones & Laughlin mill and a Millennial Google employee, both of whom happen to be members of the United Steel Workers; where tech startup workers might volunteer alongside grandmotherly babushkas.
Hollen Barmer, a programmer at Code for Pittsburgh, told me that more than a “beautifully quirky cultural tradition,” fish fries represent a devotion toward the sacred in the most expansive sense of the word—not just churches, but “spaces that have endured and are precious to communities. The fire halls and the VFWs and the social clubs.” Two years into COVID, in the midst of political turmoil and international war, the simple act of the fish fry emphasizes such central things—not just membership in a community, but welcoming the stranger; not just feeding the stomach, but encouraging fellowship.
Thinking back to the miracle of Christ, and I’m struck by his words to the apostles regarding their followers, that they “have nothing to eat: and I will not send them away fasting.” There’s something quintessentially working class about that, quintessentially immigrant, quintessentially Pittsburgh. Nobody leaves hungry. Its simplicity is beautiful; its compassion is all that you need to understand. Salvation is one thing, but you can sustain yourself on fish and bread. “People really enjoy the ability to have a good fish fry with an ice-cold beer,” Topich, of the Serbian American Club, told me. And it’s no more complicated than that. ■
Ed Simon is a contributing writer at Belt Magazine, a staff writer for The Millions and author of An Alternative History of Pittsburgh, forthcoming from Belt Publishing.
Cover image courtesy Community Kitchen Pgh.
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