A conversation with Pittsburgh fish fry expert Jess Whittington | Food | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A conversation with Pittsburgh fish fry expert Jess Whittington

click to enlarge A conversation with Pittsburgh fish fry expert Jess Whittington
Jess Whittington, fish fry expert
Jess Whittington is a fish fry expert. She’s attended countless fish fries over the years and is very generous with her expertise, posting her thoughts on all things fish fry on her social media accounts throughout the season, which continues this year through Fri., April 15.

Whittington is a friend of a friend, and I have long heard tell of her overwhelming enthusiasm for and knowledge of regional fish fries. A few years after attending her first fish fry in 2010, Whittington started posting reviews of each fish fry she attends. These days, she posts them the same day on her Instagram stories, which you can find at @jessowski.

Jess grew up in Wexford and currently lives in Edgewood with her husband Alan and their Boston Terrier, Boggins.

Pittsburgh City Paper talked to Whittington over email about her great love, church-served fried fish and homemade mac & cheese.

When did you attend your first fish fry? What do you remember of it?

I actually have an answer for you. I was lucky enough to be asked by Patrick Jordan [founder and artistic director of barebones productions] to be a guest on his video podcast “Alone Together Pittsburgh” last year to talk fish fries (along with Dan Gigler and Kate Romaine), and was asked this same question but couldn’t come up with an answer. After some Facebook sleuthing, I discovered that on March 12, 2010, I posted, “has never been to a fish fry…tonight’s the night! I don’t get it, but it sounds awesome.” And I’ve never looked back! I did not grow up going to fish fries, I don’t even know if I knew that they existed. I LOVE fried fish and I LOVE mac & cheese, so I guess I was just like, f it, let’s check these things out.

How many have you been to?

So many. I really try my hardest to make it to a fry every single Ash Wednesday and Friday of Lent. In more recent years, I’ve tried to check out a new one I’ve never been to before each week. Doesn’t always work out, but it’s taken me to some towns I’d never ordinarily find myself in.

When did you realize your engagement with fish fries was more rigorous than average?

When people started coming out of the woodwork to message me asking for advice on which fish fries to hit up. More and more people reach out each year, which I am obsessed with. I always laugh every time I get a message and am just like, “Is this my legacy?” Usually it’s friends, but occasionally someone I haven’t talked to in years will reach out, and I’m always shocked that they’re paying attention to my posts. In the days leading up to Lent, I get tons of messages, like, “I can’t wait for your posts, I look forward to this every year” and I’m, like, “REALLY?!” I love it. I always post a pic of the meal on Facebook and Instagram and give a rating. My rating system has not been consistent over the years. … It’s all just for fun. This is my season!

What do you look for in a fish fry?

If they serve mac & cheese! It’s almost a non-negotiable for me. You often find cafeteria-style mac-in-a-bag type situations at fish fries, which I know is much cheaper and easier, but nothing beats homemade mac & cheese. Mac & cheese is, no joke, my favorite food, and I think pairing it with fried fish makes it an incredible meal. The best, though, is if a fish fry serves the holy trinity: mac & cheese, halushki, AND pierogi! I mean, seriously, just give me all the carbs. I also look for something I like to call “cronche.” I prefer a battered fish to a breaded fish — it has a much better cronche, aka crispy batter that doesn’t get soggy.

How would you recommend someone new to the area, or new to fish fries, go about introducing themselves to the scene?

Just go! I remember when I first started thinking about going to fish fries, I thought I had to be a member of the church or something. I literally had no idea how it all worked. It was a little weird and intimidating walking into these places at first, but then you see just how popular and important these are to communities, and you realize everyone’s here for the same reason — to get themselves a beige plate of deliciousness! If you’re having a hard time deciding where to go, a great resource is the Pittsburgh Lenten Fish Fry Map at codeforpittsburgh.github.io/fishfrymap. I use it to plot out my fry destinations and they’re constantly updating it. I have no idea who runs it. Who are you?! Thank you for your service!