Love and Lent in Pittsburgh

Why is this fish (in the window of Pittsburgh's My Big Fat Greek Gyro) smiling? Because during Lent, the prohibition on meat makes fish wildly popular.

So, I promised you that every post would not be about pregnancy. But I did not promise that every blog would not be about pregnancy’s greatest pleasure–food. (Trust me, when booze, caffeine, effective wrinkle cream, traveling to high altitudes, and various and sundry sports including windsurfing and horseback riding are off the menu for nine months, food takes on vital importance.) But even before I was in this “delicate condition”, I loved food for two reasons: the taste and the ritual. Actually, I think I need to reverse the order on those two; I actually love the ritual even more than the taste (thank heavens for California rolls, which still allow me to partake in the rite of eating sushi despite the no-raw food prohibition).

Even when the supply or variety of food are restricted, the ritual can be as abundant as always. In fact, sometimes I think that when certain foods are forbidden or called for by a specific holiday, meal, or tradition, the ritual of cooking those certain foods, and of gathering together to eat, is even more enjoyable. That’s definitely how it seemed to me last weekend when I stayed with friends in Pittsburgh. I was there to speak, along with my dad, who is also an author, at a fundraiser for the Three Hierarchs Eastern Orthodox School, which my friends’ children attend.

Given the religious nature of the school, it was to be expected that most of the food on offer at the dinner and the reading afterwards was approved for Orthodox Lent–meaning that it had no meat or dairy in it. One delicious, meat-and-dairy free option is hummus. I took one look at the platter below and felt my spirit soaring–and not because I have been so attentive in following the Lenten fast. (I haven’t; pregnant ladies get special dispensation, so this year I’m limiting fasting to Wednesdays and Fridays, and even then, I’m including dairy some of the time.)

Maybe I’m someone who doesn’t dream big, but it never occurred to me that I would one day see my name in red peppers, floating on a bed of hummus.

Later, when the chef came up from the kitchen with a copy of my father’s book (which is named Eleni, for his mother, as am I), I realized that the hummus  was not in homage to me, but to the book and to my grandmother. But that did not make it any less awesome.

The next night my hosts took me to a fish fry. Many of the myriad Catholic parishes in the Pittsburgh area host fish fries every Friday during Lent to benefit the church. This one, put together by Ben’s Men, the men’s group at St. Benedict’s, was run like a well-oiled machine; Ben’s men took your order and your money, pre-teens carried your tray and bused the tables, and smaller kids watched a movie in the back room. Thousands of dollars are made for the church each Friday, the proceeds from a limited–but rather delicious–menu of fried fish, baked fish, or pizza.

I’ve been reading a lot lately about the Blue Zones, the five places in the world scientists have identified where people live longer (on average 10 years longer than the average life expectancy) and better (fewer incidences of cancer, dementia, and heart disease) than everywhere else. The researchers monitoring these areas (in a study partly funded by National Geographic) then compare the locations to see what they have in common, theorizing that one can cultivate those factors in one’s own life to promote longevity. Two of the factors they’ve identified are a healthy diet and a sense of community. The diet at St. Benedict’s, what with the deep-frying and the mac and cheese sides, does not seem superhealthy and conducive to longevity to me. But the sense of community, of everyone pitching in together, could not be beat, so overall, I’m going to chalk that evening up to healthy eating.


Photo Credit Dunand/AFP/GETTY via Rolling Stone; I took it from

On my last day in Pittsburgh, my hosts took me to Pamela’s, the famous diner where the Obamas cheated on their healthy diets to indulge in a shared pancake and hash browns. The President later said to reporters, “Before I answer this question, these really were maybe the best pancakes I’ve tasted in a very long time. Get some take-out.”

With all respect to Barack (and apologies to the gorgeous Michelle for reprinting that not so flattering photo of her), I would amend his advice to anyone heading to Pamela’s: order pancakes to eat in so you can hear the waitresses complain about last-minute customers strolling in at 2:52 (the place closes at three), and ogle the old family photos on the wall, trying to figure out why the only wedding dresses worn through the 1970s were empire waist, even though they made every bride look pregnant. Chat with your fellow diners. That sense of community is all part of the ritual. And it’s good for you.








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