May 6, 2016
Popularity of fish fries has remained steadfast for decades
By Samantha Johnson, Special to the Journal Sentinel
Editor's note: History in the Eating is a monthly feature that digs back into the flavors of Wisconsin, exploring how the foods we know and love have found their place in our state's heritage.
Ah, the Friday night fish fry.
(You just felt a little surge of anticipation, didn't you?)
In Wisconsin, a fish fry conjures up warm feelings of family memories, continuity and tradition, in addition to the warm feeling that a hearty meal provides in its own right.
While there are fish fries in states other than Wisconsin, no other state is synonymous with fish fries in the deep-down, deep-fried way Wisconsin is.
But how did the tradition of Friday fish fries become so ingrained in Wisconsin culture?
Wisconsin's proximity to lakes and abundant fish has played a big part, but our cultural heritage has also had an impact.
A tradition takes hold
Thousands of Roman Catholic families emigrated from Europe to Wisconsin in the 1800s, and the Catholic tradition of abstaining from meat on Fridays made fish a popular (and economical) Friday dinner choice.
The fish fry "really started during the early 20th century when Lake Michigan-caught perch was abundant and very cheap to serve," said Ron Faiola, who produced the 2009 documentary "Fish Fry Night Milwaukee," which chronicles the fish fry's enduring popularity in Wisconsin. "Some places would even offer free fried fish with a purchase of a beer."
During the Prohibition era of the 1920s and early 1930s, sales of fish on Fridays helped taverns to stay afloat.
This period of time helped to cement the connection between fish fries and beer.
In the 1940s and '50s, Louis and Ruth Hirschinger, then managers of the South Shore Yacht Club and later Tanner-Paull Bar and Restaurant, introduced the concept of the all-you-can-eat family-style fish fry to the Milwaukee area, starting a statewide tradition that continues today.
They modeled the concept off an all-you-can-eat chicken dinner they encountered while traveling. Soon restaurants all over Milwaukee were offering a similar deal.
The price for a fish fry back then?
An ad in the Rhinelander Daily News on March 31, 1950, promotes a 35-cent fish fry, highlighting "boneless pike" and "smelts."
With the Second Vatican Council in 1966, Pope Paul VI reduced Friday fasting for Catholics from year-round to only during the 40 days of Lent, but in Wisconsin, Friday fish fries remained popular at all times of the year.
"In Milwaukee, fish fries are a way of life, not dogma," wrote Richard Vonier in a June 21, 1970, column for the Milwaukee Journal. The article mentions how St. Sebastian Catholic Parish feeds 1,300 people the first Friday of every month with the help of 100 volunteers.
The fish fry today
The popularity of the Friday fish fry has remained steadfast for decades.
"The Friday fish fry is something Wisconsinites enjoy year-round, not just during Lent," said Faiola. "A Friday night fish fry signifies the end of the workweek where we get together with friends and family to enjoy an inexpensive, tasty and filling meal."
St. Sebastian's monthly Friday fish fry is still going strong.
American Serb Hall began its Friday fish fry in 1967 and today remains a famous fish fry hot spot, serving about 2,000 pounds of fish each Friday.
The Friday fish fry remains a hallmark of Milwaukee church festivals, according to Faiola, who released a documentary last year on that topic.
"Every festival has a Friday fish fry that is one of the biggest draws for them," he said.
On contemporary fish fry menus, traditional fish like perch, bluegill and walleye are joined by cod, smelt, catfish and haddock.
The breaded (or often beer-battered) fish are often still served with the traditional side dishes of potatoes - usually French fries or potato pancakes, but sometimes mashed or baked - and coleslaw, sometimes rye bread and, quite often, accompanied by beer.
"Fish fries used to be all-you-can-eat, but you don't see that as much anymore," said Faiola. "One of the reasons is that we are importing fish instead of getting it from Lake Michigan. Even lake perch comes from the Canadian side of Lake Erie."
No matter the variety of fish or the time of year, if it's Friday night in Wisconsin, you know you can count on one thing on the menu.
"The types of fish and sides may vary, but you'll find them everywhere in Wisconsin, from taverns to supper clubs," said Faiola.