Travel, History, and Friday Night Fish Fry in America's Dairyland

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Wisconsin's Friday Night

 
                   
       

Fish Frys

  Fish Fry Tradition
By Janet C. Gilmore, PhD

You’ve made it to the end of another week. The weekend looms, with its change of pace and flexible ambiance. You’ve grown tired of dispatching quick and efficient evening meals. You don’t have the heart to produce grander fare for a celebration. Hey, it’s Friday night! Time to take a break and go out for fish!

Friday nights in Wisconsin suggest “let’s go out for fish.” You know you can go just about anywhere in the state on Friday night and find a delicious, reasonably-priced meal of fish, generally offered baked or broiled besides fried, at restaurants upscale, ethnic, or basic, taverns, and churches. Commonly the meal includes potatoes—baked, fried, or pancakes—a coleslaw with mayonnaise- or vinegar-based dressing, bread, and of course, plenty of beer. Served buffet or family style, by the plate and to go, meals vary regionally and by restaurant, with some stressing just the fish, maybe with rye bread and a slice of onion or split pea soup on the side, and others embracing the supper club full course meal with appetizers or salad bar. The fish itself varies from small to large, local to exotic species, battered and deep-fried, dusted in flour or cornmeal and pan-fried, blackened with Cajun spices and broiled or baked, and more. The region’s yellow perch, walleye, bluegills, and smelt get special billing, while Atlantic cod has served for years as an unheralded mainstay.

Windy and raw, the late, wintry afternoon sinks into dusk. You gratefully seek refuge from the dark and cold, opening the tavern door. Warmth, happy chatter, and the moist aroma of stale beer mixed with frying fish invite you in. The immersion in the familiar excites and soothes. For a moment you wrestle with the anticipation of a cherished meal and fears of a long wait.

Not only is a fish fry a tasty meal, reasonably priced, but it is a socially-charged atmosphere where friends, family, and neighbors mingle, exchange stories, share comfort food and drink, and partake of Wisconsin’s famed party culture and friendly ambiance. It is a Wisconsin event. Woe to Friday travelers arriving at mealtime at an unfamiliar restaurant that offers a compelling fish fry! The line may be long, but the wait is part of the festive sequence: strangers break into conversation while friends share camaraderie, sometimes at the bar or over a game of cribbage. Impatience is uncool. Bracketed and bolstered by companionship, the meal will eventually arrive, as the centerpiece and denouement of the evening.

You levitate back home—doggy bag in hand—sated and warmed by food and spirit, the weekend officially opened.

The tradition of Friday night fish in Wisconsin seems to have caught fire in the 1920s and ‘30s, and persisted into the present, spreading across the state from Green Bay and Milwaukee especially. In these “epicenters,” reputedly three out of four restaurant meals served on Fridays will be fish, while over a million 8-ounce servings of fish are consumed each Friday in the state.

For the state’s First Peoples and European immigrants, fish was a ready, cheap source of protein, especially when fish spawned, glutted shorelines and riverways, and were easily captured in huge numbers. Not always in the best condition when readily available, fish are not as flavorful as during other times of their cycles. Easy pickings, fecundities of fish often do not rank highest among foods of great desire, but in the past they often went for good prices. Fish also have a habit of deteriorating rapidly once caught. People grow tired of a steady diet of anything, including fresh fish, or later in the year, preserved fish—salted, dried, pickled, or fermented—even if their well-being depends on it. Abundances of the low-status fish of inferior taste and questionable freshness have become associated in collective memories with economy, scarcity, famine, and sacrifice.

Frying, however, can make a worrisome foodstuff like fish, or a bland one like potatoes, more appetizing, partly because humans generally love the taste of food treated in grease and fat. Frying, especially deep-frying, is also a fast way to prepare fish—and a lot at once for a large group. So you take a seasonally abundant, cheap, but unglamorous foodstuff like fish, and match it with a seductive and quick preparation technique, and voilá, you have the foundation for a Biblical meal to feed hundreds easily, and benefit a church, community, or business. And since frying in a pool of grease typically is stinky, messy, and dangerous, it is an activity best suited to an outdoor or institutional kitchen and a public feed.

Immigrants from various national and ethnic backgrounds apparently brought the technology of frying with them to Wisconsin. Many shore dwellers readily consumed fish and likely prepared it mainly by frying. Particularly in large Catholic strongholds like Milwaukee, Green Bay, and Dubuque, Iowa, Friday nights and the 40 winter-spring days of Lent were times for eating fish (a sacrifice) and feeding fish quickly and cheaply to large families—“a fish peddler’s paradise”—until the ban on Friday consumption of meat was lifted in 1966.

Since the late 1800s, taverns in these areas have been regular customers for fish deliveries, so besides associations between Catholics and Friday fish, taverns, fish, and thus beer and spirits have long been interlinked. Prohibition, instituted in the 1920s and repealed in 1933, hurt the business of taverns, and the Depression made going out for meals, let alone obtaining food, difficult. Some taverns could keep going by offering cheap or even free meals, often of the economical fish, often on Fridays, feeding entire families and large groups of friends. Some speakeasies in the 1920s offered free fried fish dinners, and made money under the table on beer and whiskey. Others similarly lured people back to taverns after Prohibition ended in 1933 by offering free lunches and dinners, often of fish, that cheap, abundant source of protein so nicely dressed in fat. A new tradition of fried fish on Fridays year-round, in public settings for everyone, emerged.

Today no self-respecting restauranteur would NOT offer a Friday night fish fry. But since the 1950s and ‘60s, lake fish have not been consistently abundant, and more often fish is from Canadian freshwater lakes or from the Atlantic. Reliance on imports, or increasingly rare local and Atlantic fish like cod, has brought prices up, making a family meal more expensive. As fat has acquired a bad reputation, fish cooking methods have expanded. Perhaps the phenomenon is shifting into a more generalized Friday night dining tradition, less focused on fish and less distinctive to the state.

But for now, “Friday nite fish” signs seem to be increasing outside every establishment that could offer public meals, and crowds of familiars are still celebrating Fridays with fish, much of it served fried in bounteous heaps. Many of us still relish our favorite restaurant for Friday night fish, appreciating a customary menu and social atmosphere. How could we give it up? When we go to another fish fry, we may not be satisfied with the differences from what we like, and we may critique what we don’t find acceptably familiar. But hey, we’re still attending fish fries on Friday night, visiting, consuming reasonably priced comfort food and beer, and exulting in what’s familiar—or evaluating what isn’t our favorite Friday night fish fry event experience. Where else than in Wisconsin would taverns and churches find a meeting ground, inverting and subverting a ritual of eating fish?
 
Complete the Survey (Download PDF)
Dr. Gilmore invites enthusiastic readers to contribute to her work, and improve her representation of the tradition, by completing the a questionnaire and sending the responses to her by email at: jgilmore@wisc.edu.

Or print the survey form and mail your response to:

Dr. Janet Gilmore
46B Agricultural Hall
1450 Linden Dr.
Madison, WI 53706.

   
About the author
Folklorist Janet C. Gilmore has been studying and interviewing commercial fishing families on the western Great Lakes, upper Mississippi River, and in the Pacific Northwest since the 1970s.

She is grateful especially to interviews with Charlie Nylund of Menominee, Michigan, and members of Green Bay’s Maricque family, for information that led to the description above.

She is presently fashioning a publication from this documentation, focusing especially on Upper Midwestern fish foodways.

From her Wisconsin Humanities Council Speakers Bureau circuit, she knows that Wisconsin citizens around the state are fond of their fish fry traditions and generous in sharing their knowledgeable about them.


 
                 
                       
       

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