Not even the COVID-19 pandemic can stop Pittsburghers from participating in their annual Lenten fish fry traditions.
Fish fries are especially popular with Roman Catholics who abstain from eating meat on Fridays throughout the season. Due to the ongoing pandemic, the Diocese of Pittsburgh is requiring this year’s participating parishes to offer takeout in lieu of in-person dining.
However, fish fries hook people of all religious backgrounds. “Everybody loves fish,” said Larry Mueller of Saints John & Paul Roman Catholic Parish in Franklin Park, who coordinates the parish’s fish fry. He estimates that his parish serves 1,200 fish meals weekly. Proceeds from the meals go toward feeding the homeless, providing care packages for college students, funding college scholarships and further supporting parish ministries.
“It just made sense as a fundraiser and a way to bring people together,” Mueller said of launching the fish fry approximately 10 years ago. “It's a very good social event, and it's cross-religious.”
The events have not always gone swimmingly, however. Last year as a result of the pandemic, the Diocese of Pittsburgh canceled all fish fries a few weeks into Lent. This year, organizations are streamlining their menus and limiting volunteers. Guests must wear masks and socially distance in accordance with state health department guidelines.
Saints John & Paul will offer jumbo beer-battered cod on a sandwich roll, French fries and coleslaw for $12 from 11:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Cash is preferred; credit cards are accepted. Pre-ordering is unnecessary due to the standardized menu.
“Everybody's scaled back the fish fries because we want to reduce the number of volunteers that are needed, and we want to speed up the delivery of food so that people aren't waiting in line,” said Mueller. “The biggest thing is just to be focused on what we're providing so that we can have a really good product available to our parishioners.”
Likewise, St. Aidan Parish and Blessed Francis Seelos Academy have diligently planned this year’s benefit with safety in mind. Guests will visit www.fish-fry.org to preorder from a menu that offers fried fish, baked fish or shrimp for $10, or a fried fish sandwich for $10.50. Dinners include macaroni and cheese, and coleslaw. Volunteers will then provide curbside delivery from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. Fridays during Lent (starting at 3:30 p.m. on Good Friday, April 2) at Blessed Francis Seelos School, 201 Church Road, Wexford. Proceeds support parish and school expenses.
Event co-chairperson Frank McSorley is mapping the school kitchen and cafeteria to ensure that volunteers will have space to adequately socially distance. Online volunteer registration will prevent too many helpers from working the same shifts and job categories. Additionally, volunteers will record their temperatures, along with their contact information at the start of their shifts for contact tracing purposes.
This is the 14th year for the Saint Aidan Parish/Saint Alphonsus Church Lenten fish fry. Saint Alexis Church and Saint Alphonsus Church are part of Saint Aidan Parish, which was established July 1, 2020. Blessed Francis Seelos Academy was established through the merger of Saint Alexis Parish School and Saint Alphonsus Parish School in 2017.
McSorley said in past years the parish prepared about 1,000 pounds of fish, 80 pounds of shrimp, 450 baked potatoes and 30 large pans of macaroni and cheese. He recalled a particularly impressive crowd in 2017, when The Incline named the feast “the ultimate Pittsburgh fish fry.”
“We got hit with people all over the Pittsburgh area coming to see what the fuss was about,” he said. “We did very well that year, as far as numbers.”
People grabbing takeout from Riverview United Presbyterian Church on the Northside will find restaurant-quality fare at the fish fry, which is helmed by Jeff Dzamko, manager of Father’s Diner in East Allegheny and Father & Son Family Bakery on the Northside.
Riverview offers hand-battered haddock, fresh-cut French fries, shrimp, haluski, pierogis, macaroni and cheese, hush puppies, coleslaw, cheese sticks, fried pickles, and cheesecake. Dinners cost between $11 and $14, and sides are $3 to $6. People can call 412-321-7301 to preorder food, or they can order upon arrival.
Riverview Church completed a major renovation 30 years ago, adding a new building and doubling the existing kitchen’s size, but the church hadn’t taken full advantage of the kitchen’s hood system, according to Dzamko, a session board member at the more than 100-year-old church.
“Having all of my years of experience in the food industry and at a couple of restaurants in the past, I said, ‘We should spend a couple grand and buy some fryers and have a fish fry,’” explained Dzamko of the event’s inception. Proceeds benefit the church’s building fund.
“Unfortunately, this year will be different, but it was great to have so many community and neighborhood people coming in and people coming from all over,” said Dzamko. “It was a nice, big neighborhood block party of sorts. We had seating for about 100 inside.”
Dzamko is certified through ServSafe, a food and beverage safety training program administered by the U.S. National Restaurant Association, and he has professional cooks working in the church’s kitchen. “We know all the rules and regulations of how to serve, so that gives us an advantage,” he said, adding that volunteers take orders, deliver food and wash dishes.
While this past year has been difficult, nothing can keep a good fish fry down.
“This year has presented a lot of challenges for us in order to put on a safe fish fry for everybody, but we're working through it and following the guidelines,” said Mueller. “I think that we're going to have a successful year despite what COVID has thrown at us.”