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: 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"

Catholic Math: Where do the “forty days” of Lent come from?

Crucifixion scene with Sunoco gas station in background

The Father, the Sunoco, the Holy Ghost, Carnegie

Ash Wednesday. For those of certain faiths, it is the start of the season of Lent.

Even this heathen knows that Lent is forty days. But then he actually counted it out on the calendar and it wasn’t quite so clear. Lent starts on Ash Wednesday and ends Easter Sunday, right? This year, those dates are Feb. 10 and March 27, respectively. That’s 46 days. What gives?

First, apparently I’m wrong about the end date. Lent actually concludes on Holy Thursday, which is March 24. This leads to a follow-up question on why people are still fasting on Good Friday if the season already over, but I’ll leave that for another discussion. In any case, this only gets us down to 44 days.

From the Wikipedia entry on Lent:

Some sources try to reconcile this with the phrase “forty days” by excluding Sundays and extending Lent through Holy Saturday. No official documents support this interpretation.

In the Ambrosian Rite, Lent begins on the Sunday that follows what is celebrated as Ash Wednesday in the rest of the Latin Catholic Church, and ends as in the Roman Rite, thus being of 40 days, counting the Sundays but not Holy Thursday. The day for beginning the Lenten fast is the following Monday, the first weekday in Lent. The special Ash Wednesday fast is transferred to the first Friday of the Ambrosian Lent.

One calculation has been that the season of Lent lasts from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday. This calculation makes Lent last 46 days, if the 6 Sundays are included, but only 40, if they are excluded, because there is no obligation to fast on the six Sundays in Lent.

I hate to sound like Ross Perot here, but these explanations read the like tax code. How do you exclude Sundays from a season? Why are fast dates transferrable? Why not just rebrand it to “forty-four days” or “forty-six days” (take your pick) and have a straight(er) story?

Catholiceducation.org offers yet another explanation for the symbolic need to keep the number at 40, despite what a literal reading of the calendar may suggest:

The number “40” has always had special spiritual significance regarding preparation. On Mount Sinai, preparing to receive the Ten Commandments, “Moses stayed there with the Lord for 40 days and 40 nights, without eating any food or drinking any water” (Ex 34:28). Elijah walked “40 days and 40 nights” to the mountain of the Lord, Mount Horeb (another name for Sinai) (I Kgs 19:8). Most importantly, Jesus fasted and prayed for “40 days and 40 nights” in the desert before He began His public ministry (Mt 4:2).

So…42 days, 44 days…ah, hell, let’s just call it “forty days” and fry some fish.

Holy Spirit Byzantine Church with orthodox cross draped in yellow, Pittsburgh, PA

Holy Spirit Byzantine Church, Oakland, six days before Easter 2015 and the purple’s already down

Last year around this time we ran a story on why purple is the color of Lent. This pagan dumbly thought he’d caught the Byzantines in a whole different color scheme. They’re on their own trip all right, but it turns out it’s the calendar and not the palette. For Byzantine Catholics, Great Lent begins on “Clean Monday” (two days before Ash Wednesday) and extends to the Friday before “Lazarus Saturday.” They count all the Sundays, so it’s five full seven-day weeks plus five days = 40 days. Then there’s an eight-day Holy Week that doesn’t count as (Great) Lent leading up to Easter.

None of these explanations seem to either be conclusive or make much sense, but I guess that’s what faith is all about.

 

Why is purple the color of Lent?

cross with Lenten purple cloth

Why is purple the color of Lent? St. Paul’s Cathedral, Oakland

St. Paul’s Cathedral in Oakland, its giant cross with purple fluttering cloth and large entry door wreaths pops with brilliant purple, especially on the earliest bleak days of the season, when the trees are still bare and the sky is inevitably gray and drizzling.

It looks terrific, but this heathen-turned-blogger decided to seek out a different type of higher power to answer a question that likely all you Catholics already have figured-out: why is purple the color of Lent?  I did the Googling, so you don’t have to.  Here’s what I found out:

Tyrian purple was associated with royalty.  It is also appropriately known as “royal purple.”  The color was largely a status symbol as purple dye was the most painstaking and expensive to produce and therefore purple-dyed fabric was prohibitively expensive for anyone else. From a 2013 New York Times Science article:

To make Tyrian purple, marine snails were collected by the thousands. They were then boiled for days in giant lead vats, producing a terrible odor. The snails, though, aren’t purple to begin with. The craftsmen were harvesting chemical precursors from the snails that, through heat and light, were transformed into the valuable dye. The compounds that turn purple in this process serve a defensive role in the snail — they protect the egg masses from bacterial infection.

Fair enough, but how does this get us to the Bible?  Don’t worry, they’re related.  The explanation is that the regal color is a mockery of the “King of the Jews,” deployed by Pontius Pilate and his soldiers at a crucial spot in that greatest story ever told.  From Mark 15:17-20:

And they clothed him in a purple cloak, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on him. And they began to salute him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they were striking his head with a reed and spitting on him and kneeling down in homage to him. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. And they led him out to crucify him.

Ouch!  In third grade Mrs. Yuchmow taught us to never start a sentence with “And.”  Small style quibbles aside, I guess we have an explanation.  In perhaps the original example of a group turning an epithet on its head to take back ownership, the Catholic church now recognizes Tyrian purple as the symbolic color of the season.  And they look great doing it.

St. Paul's Cathedral front doors with Lenten purple wreaths

St. Paul’s Cathedral with Lenten purple wreaths