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