PITTSBURGH— EVelyn Wade was standing in line with her friends, Sandra Owen and Janet Mundy. The queue not only filled the long hallway of the Allegheny Elks Club lobby, but also went through the door and down the steps. It then extended around the block of Cedar Avenue. Wade is a regular at the neighborhood fraternal club’s weekly Lenten Friday fries. Owen and Mundy are not.
“Evelyn said the fish sandwiches were amazing, but she also said the ambiance was great too,” Owen said. “Even though I’m not even at the table yet, I can see what she means. You feel a real sense of belonging and community just by meeting people.
For the next three hours, the Elks social hall in the city district filled with hundreds of people grabbing any chair they could find on long cafeteria-style tables sitting side by side, most of the time with people they had never met. They chatted about the neighborhood, found out they knew someone who knew someone who knew them, and the taste of freshly baked breaded cod, homemade macaroni and cheese, coleslaw and fries which they devoured.
Friday fish fries are an American tradition rooted in the Catholic practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays during Lent, a practice introduced here during the great European migration of the early 20th century, with many of these immigrants settling settling in Rust Belt Appalachia and the Midwest.
First seen as an inexpensive way for devotees to get together and eat meals in parish halls with people from their parish, it quickly became a way for those same parishes to raise money for school funding. and churches because of the relatively low cost to do. a fish dinner.
They are almost all run exclusively by a team of dedicated volunteers, young and old, who usually start their meal preparations on Tuesdays. They start by buying breadcrumbs, macaroni, cheese, eggs, fresh cabbage and milk for sides. Most parishes and organizations buy fresh fish at the market on Friday mornings.
Lenten fry have since spread across the country, migrating in the same patterns as the children and grandchildren of the families that created them. Each region showcases its cultural flair with dishes at the events – in the Midwest it’s cod and walleye, in the south it’s catfish, and on the Atlantic coast it’s lobster and the crab.
Sides are almost as important: macaroni and cheese, pierogies, fries, coleslaw and hush puppies are the most popular.
The Elks fry is not an isolated event – hundreds of church basements, cafeterias, volunteer fire departments and other fraternal social halls across this city alone are filled with people who often leave after made new friends, or at least reconnected with old ones.
It’s impossible to drive four blocks in this town and not find a corner filled with signs encouraging you to support its fry or a little brag about being the best.
The event is so popular across the region that local news organizations compete to provide the best listings, maps and apps so locals can either find the one closest to them or shuffle it during the next seven weeks. It’s not just here – it’s the same in places as varied as Michigan, California, Wisconsin, South Carolina, Alabama, Colorado, Mississippi, Florida and Kentucky.
In fact, the only two places in the country where I had trouble finding fry were in New York and Washington, D.C. A call to the Catholic Archdiocese of New York said it wasn’t something which he was aware of, and a Reddit post confirmed it. As far as DC goes, no one in the archdiocese even answered the phone, but all my devout Catholic friends in town said fish fries in churches or community centers weren’t a thing there- low.
In much of America, Catholic parishes aren’t the only ones doing the frying. Nor are they exclusively Catholics who frequent them.
At Les Élans last Friday, there were Baptists, Methodists, Jews, Evangelical Protestants and agnostics. It wasn’t just different religious affiliations either. All races and ages were represented, from a high school student to the great-grandmother who befriended her after discovering the teenager was swimming in competition with one of her grandsons.
Longtime Elk and community member Phil Bujakowski pointed to the crowded room, all enjoying a great meal and each other, while a banjo quartet kept the mood upbeat. “That’s where the magic happens,” he said.
He and his wife Nicole, his best friend Dr. Paul Carson, his wife and two young children all held court at the corner seats of the ballroom stage, which was converted to accommodate additional seating . “We gather here and we are part of something bigger than ourselves,” he said. “It’s about having a community gathering place; our tribal rituals have their place here. We bond, we help, we fund, we build, we argue, we make peace, and we generally support each other and our neighborhood.”
The best part, Bujakowski said, is that “none of us realize, really realize that’s what we’re doing. We’re just too busy building friendships and building community.
Tom Maraffa, professor emeritus of geography at Youngstown State University who specializes in the rooted and uprooted in our culture and the impact of their differences, said he was surprised at the lack of such community events in DC and New York. But, he added, it helps explain why their residents often lack a cultural understanding of people in the center of the country.
Maraffa said traditions like this survive in areas outside of places like New York and DC because there is a more stable population of long-term residents who share aspirations and connective tissue. “Adult children are more likely not to drift away and therefore carry on these traditions,” he said. “Large metropolitan areas have more population and lack the critical mass of permanent or grounded residents to maintain these traditions.”
Places like DC and New York also have a higher proportion of dual-income households and less time to spend on activities outside of work. “Their concept of volunteering is more geared towards social causes,” he said. “They often do their volunteering online through things like GoFundMe.” Less grounded people, he said, tend to gain empathy for ideology and abstractions, unlike grounded people, whose affinity is for community and neighborhoods.
Frank Randza was busy running operations in the Elk’s kitchen, dipping fresh cod in flour and breading it before placing it in the fryer. He said when the Elks closed during COVID, the “deep sense of loss” was hard to explain. “Not just for the people who attend the fish fry, but also for us who volunteer to organize events like this for the community, you lose your purpose. This is a very important value for all of us.
Carson agreed. “It was a real sense of loss and disconnection from each other and from the neighborhood,” he said. “It’s hard to describe how meaningful that is unless you’ve experienced it and then lost it…that’s when you know.”
Dean Welsh, who moved here from Chicago with his wife Claire and newborn daughter June two years ago, put it this way: “The best way to describe the sense of community you get here is to call it a home away from home. I can’t think of a better way to feel when you walk in here and be part of this thing that’s bigger than you and embraces you.
Bujakowski returns after a quick check outside the Elks to see the line status. “It’s almost eight o’clock and the line is still out the door and around the block,” he said. “It tells you all about what people are hungry for, and it’s not just food.”