Jess Whittington is an expert on fish fry. Over the years, she has attended countless french fries and is very generous with her experience, publishing her thoughts on everything that is fried fish in her social media accounts throughout the season, which will run this year through Friday, April 15th.
Whittington is a friend of a friend, and I have long heard talk of her extraordinary enthusiasm and knowledge of regional french fries. A few years after visiting her first fry in 2010, Whittington began posting reviews of every fish fry she visits. These days she publishes them the same day in 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 Newspaper talked to Whittington via email about her great love, fried fish in church and homemade poppy seeds and cheese.
When did you visit your first roast? What do you remember about that?
I have an answer for you. I was lucky to be asked by Patrick Jordan [founder and artistic director of barebones productions] be a guest of his video podcast “Together Pittsburgh” last year to talk about fish fries (along with Dan Gigler and Kate Romain) and I was asked the same question but couldn’t find an answer. After some searching on Facebook, I discovered that on March 12, 2010, I posted, “Never been on the fry… tonight! I don’t understand, but it sounds great. ” And I never looked back! I didn’t grow up on french fries, I don’t even know if I knew they were. I LOVE fried fish and I LOVE poppy seeds and cheese, so I think I’m just like that: let’s check out these things.
How many have you been to?
So much. I try very hard to have time on every Ash Wednesday and Friday of Lent. In recent years, I’ve tried every week to browse a new one where I’ve never been before. It doesn’t always work out, but it has led me to some cities I’ve usually never been to.
When did you realize that your relationship with French fries was tighter than average?
When people started coming out of the tree to inform me to ask for advice on which fish to fry. Every year more and more people turn to me than I admire. I always laugh every time I get a message and just say, “Is this my legacy?” Usually these are friends, but sometimes someone I haven’t spoken to in years get in touch and I’m always shocked that they pay attention to my messages. On the eve of Lent, I get a lot of messages, like, “I can’t wait for your messages, I look forward to it every year,” and I say, “SAUDI ?!” I love it. I always post photos of the dish on Facebook and Instagram and give a rating. My rating system has not been consistent for years. … It’s all just for fun. This is my season!
What are you looking for in a fry fish?
When they serve poppy and cheese! For me, it’s almost indifferent. You often come across mac-in-a-bag cafeteria-style situations with french fries that, I know, are much cheaper and easier, but nothing is better than homemade poppy seeds and cheese. Poppy seeds and cheese, no kidding, are my favorite foods, and I think pairing them with fried fish makes it an incredible food. But it is best if the Holy Trinity falls fry: poppy seeds with cheese, dumplings and feathers! I mean, seriously, just give me all the carbs. I’m also looking for what I like to call a “crunch”. I prefer fish in batter than fish in breadcrumbs – it has a much better crispy dough that does not soak.
How would you advise someone new to the area or a beginner in french fries to introduce themselves on stage?
Just go! I remember when I first started thinking about going for fish fries, I thought I should be a member of the church or something. I literally had no idea how it all worked. At first it was a bit strange and scary to go to these places, but then you see how popular and important they are for communities, and realize that everyone is here for the same reason – to get yourself a beige plate of goodies! If you have a hard time deciding where to go, a great resource is the Pittsburgh Fish Fishing Map codeforpittsburgh.github.io/fishfrymap. I use it to indicate frying directions and they are constantly updating it. I have no idea who is running it. Who are you ?! Thank you for your services!