Growing up in Bridgeport, Connecticut, my mother always prepared fish on Fridays during Lent and if the churches were doing fish frys it was news to me, probably because we ate out maybe twice a year. The profusion of fish frys in Pittsburgh intrigues me, as does the fervor with which the locals approach them. Shedding light on the matter is Father Ronald Lengwin, spokesperson for the Diocese of Pittsburgh
"We didn't go out to dinner as kids, either!" Father Lengwin tells me. "But then there wasn't so much fast food when I was growing up. What we're trying to do is hand down traditions that were at the center of church life, like giving up meat during Lent. People eat out more today, so the fish frys are popular, and this is also a creative way for the churches to make money."
Father Lengwin reminds me that a great many churches in the diocese have merged or closed over the past two decades due to financial pressures and dwindling congregations, bringing to mind one of his favorite jokes.
"Catholics are the largest denomination in Pittsburgh," he tells me, "and the second largest group is Catholics who have left the church."
So where does Father Lengwin eat fish on Fridays? "I don't. I fast," he says. "But the fish fry at Epiphany Church
uptown is supposed to be good."
Call it divine intervention but a series of phone calls later, I connect with Daneille Crumrine, founder of the Pittsburgh Lenten Fish Fry Society, a group of 30-something Pittsburghers who formed a fish fry posse during their days at Duquesne. They hit a different fry every Fri(day) and keep a virtual scorecard on their Facebook page. We arranged to meet for lunch at Epiphany.
"People go church-shopping to see who has the best," Danielle tells me. "Tonight we're going to Holy Angels
in Hays, which is the only church from last year that we'll repeat this year. It was excellent." Danielle also waxes eloquent about the church ladies, the army of senior citizen volunteers that keep these social-cum-fundraisers afloat.
"They're so cute!" Danielle exclaims.
Hands down the most cheerful and energetic lady in the room is Sister Marlene, overlord of the fish fry and nattily dressed in an emerald-green blazer with a shamrock pin on one lapel and a tiny gold cross affixed to the other. She beams at the center of a church hall overflowing with downtown workers, retirees and moms with babies.
"Have you seen the size of our fried fish?" asks Sister Marlene. "It's so tasty, not overcooked and not greasy. They will wait in line for this fish because it's a bit of heaven.
I'm happy to wait because the plates being carried around the room sport a slab o'fish that is a foot long and thick as a brick. It's love at first bite, since my fish is blessed perfection. A couple of homemade pierogies alongside make the meal even better." Sister waltzes by and taps me on the shoulder.
"What do you think of the music?" she coos. "We're the only fish fry in town with music. And we run from September to June." How they can sell 900 pounds of fish a week starts to make sense.
Getting into this, I enlist my neighbor Christine Helferty for a fish fry crawl. Chris is a Pittsburgh native so familiar with fish frys she could handicap them for a Vegas oddsmaker.
First stop, in Carnegie, is the Ukrainian Club (the "Ukes"), where the fish fry is run by the Ancient Order of Hibernians
(the Irish). Mickey Abbott, a round-faced, pink-cheeked fellow with a cap announcing "Ireland" plopped on his head greets us warmly and offers us a beer. The club is filled with folks (mostly men) eating, drinking and laughing and the seating arrangements are haphazard, which welcomes spontaneous conversation. A sprightly fellow rushes over to engage Chris.
"I knew you was Irish the minute you walked into the room!" he exclaims to my porcelain-skinned friend. "You would fit right in over there!"
Chris blushes and pivots to asking Mickey about the fry.
"The biggest problem we have is getting volunteers," he tells us. "Bishop Canevin will sometimes send kids from the junior AOH division but we could always use more people in the kitchen." Mickey goes on to say that the AOH ladies stock the dessert table and the club's drink special this month is a $4 shot of Jameson's.
Eager to make the most of our visit, we dig into a crispy fried fish sandwich that's better than it looks and a delicious dish of buttery haluski made by Mickey's Slovakian wife. Our host has also saved us the last piece of her prized pistachio cake and after one bite, it's easy to see why this twosome is in love.
Next on our list is St. Joan of Arc Church
in South Park, where the fry is held in a large banquet hall dotted with rounders of eight and which a pal has dubbed "a tuxedoed operation." Our eyes quickly zoom into the dessert table, which is filled with amazing-looking sweets. A woman behind the table motions us over.
"If you like cherry or apple pie, these three pieces are especially big," she whispers. "We cut them wrong."
We promise to return after our meal and order everything from the baked and fried fish to cole slaw, soup, mac and cheese and haluski since from the look of things, this place rates. Assorted women are scurrying about the room in matching purple tees, honoring the Lenten season as they serve eager patrons.
"They use real plates here," Chris says. "You never see that."
We choose a table and marvel at the place setting, replete with a full complement of flatware. Our food arrives and my fish sandwich features a piece of line-caught North Atlantic cod that is, once again, a foot long. I must look stunned because our waitress proceeds to describe everything else in loving detail.
"The cole slaw is homemade and we grate it ourself and the vegetarian vegetable soup was made by Mona this morning."
The fish sandwich is terrific and matched by the baked fish, which melts in my mouth. It's an embarrassment of riches with the crowning achievement being the haluski, a dreamy bowl of cabbage and noodles with a mystery ingredient that Chris and I are dying to suss out. We motion the waitress over.
"Is there nutmeg in the haluski?" Chris asks. Our new friend does not tell.
Last stop is the aforementioned Holy Angels in Hays, a compact structure whose basement is teeming with folks going every which way. The Angels sold over 13,000 pounds of fish during last year's Lenten season, making them the Diocesan leader. Chris and I ordered our fried fish sandwiches earlier in the day and, on arrival, receive two slabs of crispy pollock between doughy rolls.
"It's good," I tell her, but I had my epiphany earlier in the day.
The Pittsburgh Catholic newspaper offers a comprehensive listing of Friday Fish Frys: http://www.pittsburghcatholic.org/fishfry.php
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New Girl In Town Elaine Labalme says there's something fishy about giving up meat for Lent and that's a good thing.
In the pictures: Father Tom Sparacino frying fish at Epiphany Church; the line at Epiphany; Sister Marlene; Fish Fry society members (back row, l to r) Danika Kazmer, Elliot Lange, Rebecca Spencer, (front row, l to r) Eric Hulsey, Danielle Crumrine; fish fry at Madonna del Castillo in Swissvale; dessert at Madonna del Castillo...; and at St. Maximilian Kolbe in Homestead.
Photographs copyright Brian Cohen