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Need a spring fish fry? Let an interactive map lead the way


WEXFORD, Pa. (AP) — By the time the doors open at 4:30 p.m., a rambunctious line of 50 hungry people has gathered around the gymnasium foyer of Blessed Francis Seelos Academy. Their goal: to occupy tables on the basketball court and, for the first time since the 2020 pandemic, join the parish for an old-fashioned fish pastry from the Lenten.

Many patrons are members of the herd – St. Aidan Catholic Parish north of Pittsburgh – and greet each other like old friends. But these days there are also newcomers in the mix. And some come in a way that unites two rich layers of Pennsylvania’s western culture: tradition and innovation.

The seafood platter, a long-standing Friday dish during Lent, is roaring back from COVID with the help of something decidedly newfangled: an interactive map built by local volunteer programmers who lead the way to dozens of churches, fire halls and other places that offer battered and breaded seafood up for grabs. The new Pittsburgh points the way to the old.

“I like to think that this project is helping 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 chart in 2012 for her home-baked bread. fish lover. .

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


At this point in its history, Pittsburgh is working to combine its storied industrial past with a 21st-century economy increasingly based on services and innovation – something the map project reflects.

“By letting people interact with something traditional through technology, it adds an element that appeals to a different group of people,” said Ellie Newman, member and former leader of the nonprofit Code for Pittsburghwho teams up with Barmer to operate the map.

During Lent, thousands of Western Pennsylvania residents—both Catholic and non-Catholic—pour into Friday afternoon fish fries. Some pick up to take away. Some eat 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 controlled by very modern forces.

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

Then came the collapse of the steel industry in the seventies and eighties. That rocked the region, stole elements of civic pride and fueled a fervor for traditions that loudly cried, “Pittsburgh!”

“There was a sense of destabilization – of ‘Who are we?’ And people tended to focus on things that symbolized community,” said 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 foods and the growth of fast food made fish more accessible. The long-standing presence of powerful regional seafood distributor Robert Wholey & Co. has also sharpened the local flavor.

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

Pair all that with a robust interactive map (and pent-up pandemic energy), and you’ve got a powerful mix that helps people in western Pennsylvania overcome the geographic hesitations of the region’s hills and valleys and head out for fish.

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


Today, while churches remain a mainstay of Lenten fish fries, fire departments are giving them a run for their money—and the stakes are high. Both entities use fish fries as fundraisers with volunteers to meet budget challenges, and they all work hard to get noticed. “It takes a small army to make this happen,” says Keith Young, a retired businessman who helps with the St. Aidan bin.

Code for Pittsburgh, a group designed to create places where “citizenship and technology meet,” is also completely voluntary. The varied projects include a food access map of Pittsburgh and a cartographic catalog that helps track vehicular and pedestrian accidents.

The voluntary coding sessions held to build the fish fry card are – how do you say? – fish forward. Swedish fish sweets are displayed. Bowls of Goldfish Crackers are handed out. Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes” plays.

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

Pittsburgh’s growing reputation as an innovation hub — with companies from Google to Uber establishing bridgeheads here — is sometimes considered recent. But innovation is at the heart of the region’s history. The steel industry that built it into an industrial powerhouse was a groundbreaking transformation of its time, 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 for — and experience of — fish fries. He knows where to go for everything — including the places to secure, as he puts it, “handmade pierogies personally tweaked by church ladies.” The interactive map, he says , opens up countless possibilities for trips to fish and fried fish.

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

The map, Barmer and Newman say, is designed to do just that: turn the fish fry culture of western Pennsylvania into an adventure imprinted on the landscape that fosters community involvement and understanding for natives and newcomers alike.

“As things become more globalized and cities look more and more the same, it’s attractive to come to a place like Pittsburgh, where these things are still very deeply ingrained in the community,” says Newman. “Things around you may change every year, but you know you can go to the same church cellar or fire room every year 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


The Associated Press’ coverage of religion is supported by the AP’s partnership with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.