Friday in Wisconsin? Time to Get Your Fish Fry On

A brief history of the beloved state tradition
March 12, 2021 Updated: March 12, 2021

Wisconsin didn’t invent fried fish, but they certainly have made the Friday fish fry a cultural imperative. Few restaurants, taverns, or supper clubs—or for that matter, church basements—skip the tradition during Lent, the Christian 40-day period of preparation for Easter, but the meal has taken on a life of its own. Let me explain.

From the early days of Christianity, Fridays were considered days of abstinence out of respect toward the crucifixion of Christ. In the 9th century, Pope Nicholas I made it specifically a meat issue. Fish—who may be offended they don’t rate as flesh—were still allowed, as they weren’t the meat of a warm-blooded animal. Ergo, they became a favored Friday protein source. No, the fish allowance wasn’t a secret deal between the Vatican and Big Fish. Still, it doesn’t explain the frying.

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A fish fry plate with tartar sauce at Toby’s Supper Club in Madison, Wis. (Courtesy of Travel Wisconsin)

Who Fried It First?

Surely fried fish must have origins as far back as someone burning their finger on hot oil and having a Eureka moment. The Greeks used frying as early as the 5th century BCE and the Egyptians were likely frying foods at least two millennia before that—but likely with animal fats. Did the Greeks use olive oil early on? The Romans sure didn’t care for it as it became rancid fast.

Much of this frying origin story is left to archaeologists and historians to translate and debate over, but at the very least, we know that fish pieces dipped in flour and fried in sesame oil appear in a 13th-century Egyptian cookbook, while fried fish in egg batter can be found in Spanish-Arabic cookbooks from the same time period, perhaps the influence of the Moors on the Iberian Peninsula.

But often Portugal is credited with bringing peixe frito, fried fish, to the larger world. An early adopter of the Maritime Empire model, Portugal sailed the seven seas, ferrying merchants and Christian (read: Friday fish-eater) missionaries to faraway lands.

Portuguese ships arrived in Japan in the 16th century, opening up trade and cultural exchanges and introducing what would become known as tempura. The term applied to Japanese frying techniques was taken from “quatuor anni tempora”—“four annual seasons” in Latin—referring to the Ember Days, a Catholic practice of three days of fasting, abstinence, and prayer at the beginning of each of the four seasons, not merely Lent.

Even the British classic fish and chips took its fish roots from Portugal. Claudia Roden’s “The Book of Jewish Food” informs us that under threat of persecution during the Inquisition in Portugal, many Portuguese Marranos, Sephardic Jews, ate fried fish on Fridays, giving the appearance of following Christian abstinence rules. They’d then save cold leftovers to eat on Shabbat to abstain from cooking, according to their own religious customs. The batter helped keep the fish overnight, and the olive oil they used gave it a lighter flavor. When the Marranos fled to the UK as refugees during the 16th century, the fried fish dish followed with them. Thomas Jefferson himself wrote of eating “fried fish in the Jewish fashion” during a trip to London.

Beer and Fish

But then how did fish fry come to be such a cultural norm in the upper Midwest? Two factors: the predominance of Christian fast-keepers looking for a Friday alternative, and the dark days of Prohibition.

Catholic immigrants such as the Poles, Germans, and Irish settled in these areas, especially in and around Milwaukee. Germans, who came to Wisconsin in abundance in the 19th century, are often associated with the lagers that long defined the beer culture of the Midwest, but in the 1920s when Prohibition was the law of the land, the taverns needed an alternative revenue source.

Lake Michigan, and so many other local fishing holes, had a massive supply of fresh product. Frying it had already proved popular in Europe, and preparing large amounts was fairly easy: Dip a fillet in flour, then beaten eggs, and then into bread crumbs. Drop it into the fryer and deliver to diners—maybe even with a little beer under the table.

Prohibition ended, but the meal proved to be so beloved that supper clubs and other taverns and restaurants continued the tradition, and today many establishments offer fish on all Fridays of the year. (Some places have even added Wednesdays. I’m looking at you, Dexter’s Pub.)

Today’s Fish Fry

The meal often is an all-you-can-eat serving of cod, walleye, or, if you’re lucky, lake perch or even bluegill. Beer-battered and deep-fried, your fish comes with a side of coleslaw, maybe a slice of rye bread and pad of butter, and likely French fries or another form of potato, especially German-style potato pancakes—highly prized and insisted upon by certain diehards.

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The fish fry at Essen Haus Restaurant and Bar in Madison, Wis. includes the option of a side of German-style potato pancakes—highly prized and insisted upon by certain diehards. (Courtesy of Travel Wisconsin)

American Serb Hall, a favorite in Milwaukee, won’t be doing dine-in this year, but cod, pollock, and perch are available for drive-through, walk-up, or delivery. The Archdiocese of Milwaukee keeps a calendar for its parish fish fries (ArchMil.org/Parish/fish-fry), and Visit Madison rounds up its favorites (VisitMadison.com).

And I suspect the comments below will be showing recommendations in 3, 2, 1 …

RECIPE: Wisconsin-Style Beer-Battered Fish

Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler, craft beer enthusiast, and home cooking fan. He is the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey” and his new collection of short stories, “Stealing Away.”  He is based in Madison, Wisconsin, and his website is TheMadTraveler.com.