PITTSBURGH — At 5:24 p.m. on the first Friday of Lent, the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church runs out of fish.
A disappointed line of Catholics and non-Catholics alike fills the small basement area beneath the picturesque late 19th century church atop the city’s Polish Hill neighborhood. A few file out the door, but many remain, ready to try out some other goodies, such as homemade pierogies or haluska, an Eastern European noodle dish. Others stick around to chat with neighbors, friends and strangers.
This same scene takes place at countless churches, fire halls and businesses across the Pittsburgh region; it’s fish fry season. The fish fries are tied to Lent — the roughly six-week period starting on Ash Wednesday that is associated with preparing for Easter and giving things up, particularly meat.
“This is the first Friday of Lent. Probably next week they won’t run out until later, they’ll know,” says Hollen Barmer, a technical writer at Carnegie Mellon University, who is arguably the foremost fish fry expert in the Pittsburgh area.
Barmer, an 18-year Pittsburgh resident via Memphis, has been attending fish fries for a decade and hits at least a dozen each year. Barmer would fit in perfectly in Seattle, driving from fish fry to fish fry in a Subaru with a reusable container for her food as an alternative to styrofoam containers.
Barmer’s love of the fish fry led her to create a map of the hundreds of gatherings throughout the region. It started as a Google Map in 2012, borrowing heavily from listings in the Pittsburgh Catholic Newspaper and later populated by submissions from other fish fry aficionados over social media. As the popularity of the map grew, Barmer wanted to do more with it.
To advance the technology, she joined up with a group called Code for Pittsburgh. Christian Gass, an urban planner by training whose career has shifted more into high-tech mapping, was instrumental in putting together the map.
RELATED: 2018 Pittsburgh Lenten Fish Fry Map
Together with volunteers and other helpers, they held “data entry parties,” taking all the information from Barmer’s rough Google map and spreadsheets and turning them into a full-fledged database and more detailed map.
“Last year was a huge lift, but this year was relatively small,” Gass said. Last year the map had to be built from scratch. This year, and in the future, most of the work will be verifying existing fish fries and adding new ones.
The original Google Map included big blocks of text describing each fish fry. One of the most important features the new map — which uses technology from Leaflet, Mapbox, Stamen Design and OpenStreetMap — allows users search and filter data to find out things like whether fish fries have homemade pierogies or alcohol. This year there are 211 verified fish fries on the map.
“There is something special about every single one,” Barmer says of the fish fries. “Sometimes it’s the food, and sometimes it’s the people, sometimes it’s the artwork.”
Fish fries are popular in various regions in the Eastern U.S., specifically in areas with significant Catholic populations. But they were foreign to my colleague Taylor Soper and me, a couple of West Coast non-Catholics. So obviously, we had to dive in.
Our first stop was Immaculate Heart of Mary, one of Barmer’s personal favorites. A group of volunteers turned out fried cod loin sandwiches, pierogies, mac and cheese, haluska, soup and a variety of homemade desserts. The age range of people enjoying the tradition on this day extended from Gen A to Gen Z.
We got pretty much everything on the menu. Taylor and I agreed that the mac and cheese was the best item we ordered, and the pierogies were delicious as well. Barmer picked this spot, a regular fish fry haunt for her, specifically because of the pierogies.
“The pierogies are definitely the pièce de résistance at Immaculate Heart and are on par with other churches’ homemade pierogies — bonus for butteriness,” Barmer said.
One of our guests recommended we get a tour of the church above, and Father Mark Thomas was more than happy to oblige. A couple of other fish fry patrons tagged along. Ascending the dark flights of stairs above the fish fry, the massive cathedral was breathtaking. The high ceilings, stained glass windows and relics from Pope John Paul II come together to form a quintessential big Catholic church. Built in 1896, it can hold more than 1,000 people. But Thomas tells us attendance has dwindled in recent decades, as the city’s population has declined.
Thomas was born and raised in the Pittsburgh area, and he has been a pastor at Immaculate Heart of Mary for two years. The fish fries, he said, help finance other church events and bring people together.
“A lot of it is about eating, of course,” he said. But it’s also about “the camaraderie we share, with the people who work here, as well as the people who come eat,” Thomas said. “Feeding the spirit and the soul and the stomach.”
In addition to the ties to Lent, eating fish on Fridays is commonplace in several Christian faiths. Jesus is believed to have died on a Friday, and while Friday fasts have faded as a tradition, abstaining from meat remains a custom. Fish is fair game because it is cold-blooded, and not considered meat like warm-blooded animals are.
It’s unclear exactly when fish fries took off in Pittsburgh; Barmer puts it around the 1910s. During the prohibition era, fish fries helped keep struggling taverns in business.
Wisconsin is arguably the most well-known fish fry destination, though Buffalo N.Y., parts of Minnesota and other places in Pennsylvania, like Erie, are also fish fry hotspots.
“There are definitely other places that do this, but I feel like we have kind of the lock on the fish fry market,” Barmer said.
I was full to the brim after our first stop, and wanted to call it a night and spend the next 12-to-36 hours in bed digesting. But our guides had other ideas. We headed across one of the city’s many bridges over to the South Side, an area known for its rowdy bar scene.
We landed at the American Serbian Club of Pittsburgh. The fish fry fundraiser was for Holy Trinity Serbian Orthodox Church. Most of the offerings were the same as our first destination, though this stop included a baked fish option. After eating fried food all week, the well-spiced offering was a nice alternative.
The Serbian Club is another regular destination for Barmer during fish fry season.
“It is my go-to spot for fish fry happy hour — no joke, I’ve got a regular happy hour group, and we hit a fish fry for happy hour once every Lent,” she said.
This fish fry has been going on for at least two decades, I’m told by Darlene Defobo, who runs the event. Despite being affiliated with a Serbian church, a vast majority of the people who come in are not Serbian. College kids who want a home-cooked meal are regulars. So are local techies, especially at lunch time.
Our adventure underscored the open, welcoming environment that our co-founder John Cook found when he visited Pittsburgh as part of our GeekWire HQ2. After chatting with Defobo briefly, she came over and joined our table and chatted about fish fries, the city and its chances of landing Amazon’s second North American headquarters.
We hung out with Barmer and her crew for hours, ending up at a by-the-hour arcade called Games N’at (translation for non-Pittsburghers: And that). We talked about the best concert venues in town and our favorite revitalized historic buildings.
They marveled at how the city has changed over the years. Dan Horvath, a home inspector and CMU archivist who has been in Pittsburgh since 2002, is a friend of Barmer. They both live in the borough of Swissvale. He’s seen first hand the changes in recent years: house flips and bidding wars in areas where before the only way to get ahold of a house was by word of mouth.
He says the changes have been for the better for the city. But when the talk turned to Amazon, Horvath espoused the kind of conflicted view that we’ve run across a number of times in Pittsburgh.
“I’m afraid it’s going to change the way we know it,” he said of Amazon’s potential impact on Pittsburgh.
Defobo, who runs the Serbian church fish fry, is all in favor of Amazon coming to town.
“It will bring jobs,” says Defobo. “I love Pittsburgh; I think it’s a great city, a city that people don’t know about. They only know about the old Pittsburgh with the steel mills and the smoke.”
Barmer and her friends all came to Pittsburgh from various places for school. The city has long been trying to reverse a trend of brain drain — where people leave Pittsburgh after getting degrees from its first-class universities — and at least with these folks, that mission was accomplished.
But even if Amazon doesn’t come, there’s a lot going on in Pittsburgh. The restaurant scene has exploded, and now you need reservations to get into cool, new spots, something that floored Barmer the first time it happened to her.
“I feel like I sound like a Pittsburgh old-timer, but I guess maybe I’m becoming one,” said Barmer, who moved to Pittsburgh in 2000 at the age of 22. Despite her love for the city, and her expertise in fish fries, Barmer won’t consider herself a native until she’s been there longer than she hasn’t. That’s three more years and approximately 40 more fish fries.