How did Lent become fish fry season?

fish sandwich on styrofoam plate

Week 3: Fish sandwich bathed in the Italian flag-colored light of the Regina Elena Club, Sharpsburg

The plate is a standard-issue, eight-inch disposable picnic platter. On it is a large sandwich bun flipped open, both sides up. Across this bed of bread and extending way off its edges lies a gigantic piece of codfish, reclining leisurely like the most relaxed den dweller on a chaise lounge.

The filet is coated in a thick layer of Panko breadcrumbs, deep-fried until golden brown, and still-sizzlin’ as it approaches the table with its partner plate of macaroni & cheese. As is customary, there are no vegetable toppings for the sandwich but the supplies of tartar and hot sauce are ample.

Eleven months a year, this blogger stays away from religion, but he gives up atheism for fish fry season or, as the Catholics call it, Lent.

fish sandwich with sides of haluski and potato haluski from church fish fry

Fish sandwich with sides of haluski and potato haluski, St. Max’s, Homestead (2017)

Catholic? No. But Catholic-curious…sure. Fried cod, mac & cheese, individually-wrapped slices of pineapple upside-down cake or pretzel salad for dessert–a cold beer to go with it if we’re lucky? It’s freakin’ delicious and enough to bring even the most ardent pagan back into the welcoming arms of the church…basement…at supper time.

But isn’t the whole point of the season supposed to be penance and sacrifice? “Having” to eat a giant deep-fried fish filet with a side of haluski or pasta olio once a week hardly constitutes a war effort. If this is The Vatican’s idea of fasting, sign me up for the hunger strike.

front windows decorated for Lenten Fish Fry, Angelo's Pizza, Pittsburgh, PA

Angelo’s Pizza, Bloomfield

So how did we get here? Apparently this all goes back to Pope St. Leo who, in the fifth century, preached that the faithful must “fulfill with their fasts the Apostolic institution of the 40 days.” (Again with the 40 days!) Traditionally the fasting ritual was much more severe, allowing only a single evening meal every day of Lent (just like Ramadan), and the rules were much more restrictive disallowing all meats (including fish), eggs, sweets, and “other indulgences.”

In the intervening centuries, the church and congregation have come to a strange compromise with the laity seeming to hold all the cards. The concept of a fast has gone from eating only one penitential meal a day to merely cutting out meat on Friday. [That fish doesn’t count as “meat” is a whole other discussion.] This “sacrifice” just doesn’t seem that painful.

large fried fish dinner on plate

Week 4, part 2: Fish, haluski, and cole slaw: Church of the Assumption, Bellevue

A couple weeks back, this blogger pulled the “Lenten double”–a sort-of Stove Top Stuffing ruse for the fish-obsessed. First, there was an enormous sandwich from Giant Eagle’s seasonal “Fish Frydays” for lunch followed by a full dinner spread at Church of the Assumption. It’s no easy feat–the ridiculously early hours the church suppers keep really requires you shake a leg to pack it all in.

Let me tell you something: I’m going to need a serious weight-loss plan after all the fasting I’ve been doing the last few weeks. Catholics need to come up with a real season of penance and self-denial after the unhinged gluttony of Lent.

hand-made sign for fish fry, Church of the Assumption, Bellevue, PA

Of course, fish fry-hosting churches do a lot of their fundraising during the six Fridays of Lent and we see evidence of Churches consolidating and closing all the time. So in an era when the larger populace would no longer be described as “god-fearing” it’s an understandable economic necessity that churches need to relax some of the old-world doctrine and bring in some pew-filling carbohydrates.

catfish dinner from New Jerusalem Holiness Church, Pittsburgh, PA

Week 2: Even non-Catholics get into it! New Jerusalem Holiness Church, Larimer

Still, to stray so wildly from the original “reason for the season” (to borrow from another highly mutated Christian tradition) seems like a real lost opportunity–both for the church and its congregants. While it’s both bizarre and wonderful for us non-believers to look forward to Lent for its distinct church basement suppers, the tradition of voluntarily giving up something loved (or, at least, appreciated) to learn the value of sacrifice and everyday privilege seems like an extremely valuable exercise.

Maybe next year this blogger will have to give up all those fish fry calories, you know, for Lent.

fish sandwich with mac & cheese

Week 6: Harris Grill, Shadyside*


* The obvious addition of lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickle slices would only come from a restaurant offering.

Fish On My List: Holy Angels vs. St. Maximilian Kolbe

fish sandwich with three breaded fillets of fish from church fish fry

The holy grail: Holy Angels Parish panko-crusted triple-decker fish sandwich

Editor’s note: When Orbit cub reporter Lee Floyd pitched the idea of a one-lunch back-to-back fish vs. fish showdown comparing two of the area’s finest, we thought he was crazy…crazy like a fox! Here’s Lee’s take on the day.

Pittsburgh may not be known for seafood, but we can deep fry a frozen filet as well as any city with a coastline. I’ve ordered fish in several states that couldn’t hold a candle to the piping-hot deliciousness served up by volunteers at churches and firehalls around the Steel City. The solemnness of the Lenten season is completely lost on The Orbit as we seek out Friday lunch like wide-eyed, salivating animals.

table covered with homemade desserts for sale at church fish fry dinner

Dessert table, Holy Angels

The fourth day of Spring, sunny with a high in the mid-60s, was perfect weather for a bicycle-based culinary tour. I pedaled against the wind to meet today’s dining partner (and Orbit editor) for a double dose of our most-beloved sandwich. I was determined to impartially judge two of my local favorites because, while every local news outlet and their mother has a fish fry guide or a basketball-style bracket for the best fish, it is really just a popularity contest. I even take my own opinion with a dash of hot sauce unless I can compare two things back-to-back. So that’s exactly what we set out to do.

Catholic priest laughing with take-out from church fish fry

Jesus on the mainline: this priest is on a (take-out) mission

Our first stop was right in the middle of the lunch hour so we found Holy Angels Parish packed to the gills. We were greeted at the door, handed menus, and bid good luck in finding a seat. Once we were situated, we simply flashed a pink card and a server arrived to take our order. There was very little hassle or delay despite the size of the crowd, although you might disagree if you were looking for parking in Holy Angels side lot.

two men eat fish sandwiches in church basement fish fry

Bon appétit! Satisfied Holy Angels customers digging-in.

Let me tell you about that fried fish sandwich! Holy Angels dropped three generous panko-crusted Pollack filets into a standard hoagie bun and nothing was ever the same again. It was obvious these were express shipped to the table straight out of the fryer–I even burnt my finger after the photo-op.

Holy Angels also offers baked fish options, the standard sides (we tried the mac and cheese–gooey and good, but nothing special), two seafood-based soups, cheese pizza, and a tantalizing, largely homemade-by-parishioners dessert table.

stacks of boxed frozen pollack fillets on shipping pallets

2000 pounds of frozen pollack just delivered for next Friday’s fry, Holy Angels Parish

To protect the integrity of this story I scolded my editor: “Are you really going to put the hot sauce on your half before you taste it!?!” Our fellow fish-fiends/tablemates overheard and immediately began to relate their Lenten exploits (we added West Mifflin’s Holy Trinity to our to-eat list) and gloated that they know the best restaurant that serves fried fish year round–Rene’s (pronounced “REN-ees” or maybe “REE-knees“) in McKeesport. The conversation lasted longer than our meal and so I forgot about the (terrible but empirical) plan to pocket part of a sandwich so I could compare alternate bites at our second stop.

exterior of St. Maximillian-Kolbe Catholic church, Homestead, PA

St. Maximillian-Kolbe (aka “St. Max”), Homestead

After a combined three mile ride via river trail and Homestead side streets, a palate-cleansing flight of craft beer at Blue Dust, and one calf-straining climb up the hill to 13th Ave., we found ourselves locking up our bicycles next to the 24-foot-tall likeness of St. Joseph the Worker just outside St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish in Homestead.

At St. Max, you order and pay just inside the door before entering the hall. My editor-of-little-faith’s jaw hit the floor when he found out the good saint serves beer alongside scripture. By the time we finally got done picking it up, our food was ready.

fish sandwich with sides of haluski and potato haluski from church fish fry

Fish sandwich with sides of (traditional noodle) haluski and potato haluski served on a McDonald’s tray, St. Max’s

As Rick Sebak put it, “The bun is just a handle”, and never was he more on-point than at St. Max. The parish serves one absurdly long, flaky filet on an oversized–but still way too small–bun. It is not only substantial but also cooked and seasoned with a hand that we can only assume is heaven-sent. Loose, thin breading ensures the fish remains the star of the show.

At this stop, we chose to sample both types of haluski on the menu–egg noodle and the more traditional potato dumpling–which were part of the largest church menu I’ve ever seen. The extended offerings also include baked and fried fish, crab cakes, shrimp, pierogies, haluski, linguini, pizza, stewed tomatoes, deli salad sandwiches, and more–in addition to the standard sides and dessert table.

piece of puff pastry in plastic wrap on disposable plate

Puff pastry, wrapped in plastic, St. Max’s

So…who wins? In my opinion, the breading and service really makes Holy Angels’ fish stand out from all the other places we’ve visited. On the other hand, the generous, quality filet at St. Max hasn’t been rivaled either (it may be enough for two meals, but I’ll devour it all at once, thanks). If you like fish, you’ll not be disappointed with either choice! Since the fish was so difficult to call, we’ve got to contrast other factors:

  • If you plan to arrive by bicycle along the Great Allegheny Passage trail, then Holy Angels is much more accessible–it’s just a short, easy ride up from the break under the Glenwood Bridge.
  • If your sweet tooth is what gets you to leave the house, Holy Angels wins the dessert table by a nose for its homemade bringings-in. That said, St. Max’s had some of parishioner Shirley’s cream puffs that blew our mind.
  • If you enjoy the chance to share a table with strangers, either location will probably do, but Holy Angels is known for being packed to capacity. The crew at our table were a particularly lively bunch that couldn’t wait to share and compare info on other fish fries.
  • The cheese pizza at either location should keep the children quiet, but if you need to order for diverse tastes, then perhaps the larger more-ethnic menu at St. Max will make you the hero of the office.
  • If you like to get canned-up on domestic brews at dive bar prices with the option to confess it all in one convenient location, then St. Max’s “It’s 5 O’clock Somewhere” bar is your spot.
  • If you’re ordering to go and have a fear of soggy breading, then St. Max is my recommendation.
small bar in church basement decorated with flag and banners

The “It’s 5:00 Somewhere” bar, St. Max

Winner winner, fried fish dinner.

It’s said that difficult decisions are so because there simply is no right answer. What’s clear from this attempt to pit parish vs. parish, panko vs. batter, Lucy’s cheesecake vs. Shirley’s cream puffs is that when it comes to the fish on The Orbit‘s list, we’re all winners…except maybe the fish. The fish are probably not the winners here, but the rest of us are winners. Eat well.

author Lee Floyd posing on "Fish Fry Today" sign outside church

The author, Holy Angels Parish, Hays


Getting there:
Holy Angels Parish: 408 Baldwin Road, Hays.
St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish: 363 W 11th Ave, Homestead.
Both serve fish Ash Wednesday and all Fridays of Lent, 11 AM – 7 PM…or until the fish runs out.

Fish On My List: An Orbit Guide to Fish Fry Guides

Handmade wooden sign reading "Fried Fish Specials"

If the oil’s a-roilin’, we’ll be a-loiterin’

Editor’s note: This story on the various available guides to Lenten fish fries first ran in 2016, but is obviously a valuable resource every year. We’ve done our best to update links for 2018, but definitely let us know if there’s something new we’re missing, a better site, etc.


For some, it is leafing through seed catalogs. It may be freezing outside, but the simple act of dog-earing full-color pages of enticing heirloom vegetables and glorious full-bloom flowers invokes a not-too-distant future digging in the dirt, pulling weeds, and planting tight rows of zebra-striped tomatoes and black Hungarian peppers. They’ll even take the opportunity to cast lettuce seed directly in the snow–a holdover until the St. Patrick’s Day peas are sewn in the inevitable bone-chilling soil. Anything for a breath of life.

For others, it is the sound of horsehide slapping cowhide as pudgy catchers receive wayward fastballs and woe-be-gone change-ups from out-of-practice Skoal-spitting pitchers. [At least we sure hope they’re still allowed to chew tobacco before the real season begins.] Images of sun-soaked Kissimmee, Bradenton, and Jupiter transport those in bleached, bare-treed northern climes. You can almost smell the luxurious perfect green blanket.

But if you insist on knowing my bliss, I’ll tell you this. Here at The Orbit, our first gentle gust of spring blows in with the arrival of Lent and its barrage of church fund-raising Lenten dinners. These fried fish feasts are so numerous they require a comprehensive guide. As it turns out, you even need a guide just to make sense of all of the fish guides out there. That is why we’re here.

fish dinner in former St. John Vianney church, Pittsburgh, PA

Fish dinner, St. John Vianney (R.I.P.), Allentown (c. 2011)

Available in both HTML and handy, print-friendly text formats, Pittsburgh Catholic‘s list is definitely the big fish in this particular roiling grease-filled pond. The guide has the no-nonsense pre-Internet feel of kind parishioners dutifully volunteering their time to type out, update, and double-check their facts each February, all in the name of the Lord. It was likely the region’s first fish fry guide (?) and for this blogger, it’s still the best.

It was the Pittsburgh Catholic list that led us to the late, great St. John Vianney in Allentown (the church was just closed by the diocese early in 2016). St. John was not only open for Friday lunches (a rarity) but offered a spectacular dessert table where the kinds of confections you thought had been banished from this earth (Jello surprise! Pretzel salad! Pineapple upside-down cake! Dirt!) were generously spooned out by the congregants for sums in the twenty-five to fifty cent range. Maybe if they’d asked a more reasonable price, St. John would still be running Sunday services and The Orbit could be dining there this Friday. Sigh.

Window sign advertising Lenten fish fry at St. Maria Goretti Parish, Pittsburgh, PA

St. Maria Goretti Parish fish fry, Lent 2015

Each of the local “Big 3” TV news affiliates has their own guide. KDKA‘s is your basic nuts-and-bolts alphabetized (by church name) list, including the bare essential name, address, hours, and menu items. It’s the best of the lot. WPXI has improved considerably in the last couple years, now offering the same basic script that we see on other sources. It’s nothing fancy, but it’ll get you dinner on Friday night.

WTAE basically phones it in with a “guide” that simply lists names and addresses of locations that claim to have fish fries. There are no other details–no menus, no days or times of service, no bonus data. For that reason–and the bounty of other options–you can safely skip this one too.

Sadly, neither local public television station WQED nor Fox affiliate WPGH appear to make any attempts at fish fry coverage.

screen capture of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's interactive fish fry map

The Post-Gazette’s interactive “Find a Fish Fry!” site, new in 2018

This year, the Post-Gazette has upped its ante considerably. In past, there were no detailed listings, instead focusing on a few random highlights. It was interesting if you already had a plan, but no resource for the hardcore fisherman or fisherwoman.

The new guide is a really nicely designed app that includes a lot of nice bonus info. However, with just the most casual perusal, it’s obvious the P-G still has a lot more data entry to do. [How can you possibly miss Sacred Heart on your first pass?] We’d also like to see some filtering options. It’s fine to include The Harris Grill (I guess), but please let the user skip the noise and get down to the church fries.

As far as other print-first resources, the Tribune-Review has some scattered stories with suburb-specific listings, but they’re not nearly comprehensive enough for us to bother wasting your time. Every year, it seems, the City Paper opts to sit this one out.

screen capture of Code for Pittsburgh's interactive fish fry map

Code for Pittsburgh’s interactive fish fry map

By contrast, Code for Pittsburgh’s 2018 Lenten Fish Fry Map is what the Post-Gazette‘s new tool is trying to be. The interactive web site is extremely useful if your first concern is where the fish is. Zeroing in on a particular location and selecting its pinned point gives the same basic information you get from Pittsburgh Catholic and KDKA (name, address, brief menu description). A good resource for the time- and distance-restricted and definitely preferable to the TV station listings.

Fish fry guides have gone totally Lent 2.0 with their own social media presence on the Pittsburgh Lenten Fish Fry Map FaceBook page and @pghfishfry Twitter account. As one may expect, these are less comprehensive guides and more in-realtime breaking fish-related news. The latter seems to be a little more active than the former, but we’re only one week in so far, so we’ll keep tuned to see how this thing plays out.

bracket listing comparing fish fries

The Incline’s Ultimate Pittsburgh Fish Fry bracket

Launched last year with some amount of fanfare, The Incline’s “Ultimate Pittsburgh Fish Fry” bracket looks a lot like the office’s NCAA tournament pool, but tastes a lot better. This was obviously enough of a success in 2017 for it to come back again a year later, this time with ABC affiliate WTAE as a media partner. The Orbit is just not that competitive–nor can we realistically get to 32 fish fries this Lentbut we love the spirit behind this one.

Lastly, we wouldn’t be reporting if we didn’t mention that there’s even a mobile phone app called PGH FF & FF. But it gets such pathetic reviews, we’ll not dignify it with a hyperlink.

hand-painted sign reading "Fish Fry Today"