Fish fries offer up new and old dishes to support mission
For many Christians, Lent is a sacred time on the religious calendar.
And around Western Pennsylvania, Lent also is a time when fire halls and church social halls come alive with all the fixins of a fish fry.
The old wives' tale of an ancient pope wanting to boost the fish economy and pushing Catholics toward eating fish on Fridays during the Lenten season has circulated — without any basis or solid facts.
The Rev. Thomas Burke of St. James Catholic Church in Sewickley said the tradition started in observance of fasting during the Easter holiday.
“Meat has historically been considered a luxury,” Burke said. “Fish was — and is —considered a simple staple. People usually refrain from any luxuries during lent, thus leading to the tradition of fish on Fridays.”
Fast forward to current day fish fries. In Western Pennsylvania, many Catholic churches, fire departments and even a few individual organizations and restaurants offer fish fries, and serve up a plethora of other options to spice up the menu.
St. James has had successful fish fries over the years, but wanted to do something different this year, Burke said.
“We added beer and wine this year to the fish fry to attract a younger crowd and families who like a beer or glass of wine with their dinner,” Burke said. “It's been very successful.”
Organizer for the St. James fish fry Barry Korcan has been in charge of the event for the past four years, and said there were quite a few steps taken prior to introducing alcohol at the fish fry.
His — and the rest of the parish's — first concern? The safety of diners, especially children.
The church first checked with the Pittsburgh diocese, following the proper legal procedures, and obtained a specific type of liquor license, Korcan said. The Sewickley police department also was made aware of the addition. Special rules were crafted and followed to handle wine and beer.
In addition to the beer and wine, St. James also added a shrimp basket to the menu. Korcan said that even with the new additions, he would like to get the wait time for to-go orders down to less than 10 minutes. That might prove to be a bit difficult, though.
“We sold over 746 dinners in two-and-a-half hours during our first week,” Korcan said. “We usually average about 700 dinners every week.”
But for some parishes, consistency — and efficiency —remain the best recipe for fish fry success.
Bobby Aloe, parishioner and business coordinator for Ambridge's Good Samaritan Roman Catholic Church, said not much has changed on their menu throughout the years.
“We have the basic fish fry menu — fish, shrimp, crab cakes, macaroni and cheese, fries an haluski,” Aloe said.
And perhaps the best kept secret? “We've been offering delivery since the fish fry began,” Aloe said. “For about 20 years. We wanted to make it convenient for local businesses to get our fish for lunch.”
Leetsdale fire Chief Ernie Logan said that his department — which holds fish fries in the Leetsdale VFW on Beaver Street — also will continue to offer delivery service to those in the area. The Lenten fish fry, Logan said, has been one of the departments major fundraisers for over a decade.
“This is a very important fundraiser for us. Each year we have steadily built a bigger and better event.”
“As a matter of fact,” on a recent fish fry, the department had its “highest grossing fish fry we have ever held.”
Each week they offer hand-battered fish, shrimp, fresh cut fries, freshly made cole slaw, and — of course — desserts.
And while the department continues to see growth during each fish fry, they hope the support continues — for a very important reason: a new squad truck is needed.
The department just signed a loan for $800 per month for a new truck that costs $150,000, Logan said.
“The support during fundraisers is especially appreciated,” he said.
Christina Sheleheda is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.