Whether it takes place in a church or in a social hall, fish fry season is a sacred institution in Pittsburgh. While the region is bracing for the arrival of coronavirus, fish fries are still in action, with a few adjustments.
At 10:30 on Friday morning, members of the Swissvale Volunteer Fire Department were already stationed behind fryers and slicing hundreds of sandwich buns. Their t-shirts read, “Batter is Better,” a reference to their fish fry rival at the North Braddock Volunteer Fire Department; North Braddock coats its fish in bread crumbs, while Swissvale opts for a dunk in batter.
Swissvale’s annual fish fry brings in between $80,000 and $90,000, said David Nickel, the department’s president.
“It’s a good, probably, third to half of our volunteer fire department budget,” he said.
The money pays for the mortgage on their building, utilities, training, and fire trucks, so it’s critical to keep the fundraiser up and running. But Nickel said their first job is to protect public safety. He motioned to signs and travel lanes that will create buffer zones between patrons who do stop by.
“We’re complying with CDC and health department recommendations to try to keep people apart,” he said. “But then again, in Pittsburgh, fish fry is something you just can’t take away from people.”
Swissvale is pushing its takeout option to reduce the number of people who gather. Nickel said if county or state officials decide operations like theirs pose too great a risk to public health, they will shut down.
The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh urged all parishes to go take-out only, and many fish fries are following suit.
Helene Prince at the American Serbian Club said they decided to offer only to-go orders.
“We’re busy, and I can tell you a lot of people called to sit-in and I was shocked,” she said. “I think they’re disappointed.”
Fish fry brings communities together, said Sue Whetstone, who answered the phone at St. Mary of the Mount’s fish fry.
“There’s people that come out, they just don’t eat dinner and leave,” she said. “They talk to other people, it’s like a social thing.”
St. Mary’s draws people from the parish as well as tourists who see the church perched up on Mt. Washington from downtown. Whetstone said the fish fry still offers a dine-in option today, but starting next week they will be take-out only for the remainder of Lent.
For more information on specific fish fry locations, check the open-source map created by Code For Pittsburgh, and call before you go.