Going out to dinner on Friday night for fish fry is a long standing tradition in many lake communities. Lake regions from the Midwest to upstate New York and the eastern Atlantic shores all embrace this tradition to varying degrees. The Friday night fish fry experience is popular enough that it is the subject of blogs, reviews and even a documentary! Today’s typical fish fry dinner is modestly priced so as to not break the family budget. This timeless Friday dining experience signals that it’s time to kick back for the weekend and some fun with the family and friends.
Origins of the Tradition
So what’s really behind this popular tradition? There are a few theories about why and how Friday fish fry became widespread but one of the most likely reasons is meatless Fridays during the Lenten season. The Catholic Church prohibited the consumption of warm blooded meat on Fridays during Lent as an act of penance for Christ’s crucifixion. Since fish are cold blooded, they became a protein substitute on Lenten Fridays. Another theory for the expansion of Friday fish fry is Prohibition in the 1920s when alcohol couldn’t be sold legally. Taverns served inexpensive fried fish dinners on Fridays to bring people into bars when they couldn’t sell liquor. After Prohibition was reversed, the Friday fish fry tradition remained.
Regardless of why Friday fish fry started, it’s not to be missed when you are at the Lake. A traditional fish fry meal will offer batter-fried fish, and typically French fries and coleslaw. Other common sides might include hush puppies, German potato salad or potato pancakes and rye bread. Condiments abound with tartar sauce, cocktail sauce, lemon, ketchup, an apple compote or maple syrup for the pancakes and more. Many eateries add their own ‘twist’ to their Friday fish fry menu and some fish fry meals are still “all you can eat” affairs.
Wisconsin: A Powerful Fish Fry Industry
Wisconsin’s Friday fish fries are so legendary that a movie have been made about them! Filmmaker Ron Faiola’s documentary “Fish Fry Night Milwaukee” (2009) explores the depth of the Friday fish fry experience in Wisconsin and “includes a history of the phenomenon, tracing its roots to a blend of ethnic heritages, with a mix of tavern business strategy”(1) says Faiola in his Milwaukee Journal interview as the movie was released. According to Mike Seidel who writes the blog, Madison Fish Fry, “The Wisconsin fish fry tradition began in the 1800s with the European immigrants that settled near Lake Michigan in places like Milwaukee.”(2) He goes on to point out that abundant fresh fish from the Great Lakes such as perch, whitefish and walleye quickly made fish a diet staple and probably fueled the fish fry tradition. Ron Faiola is now back with another documentary about Wisconsin Super Clubs and Friday Night Fish Fry. It will be aired on PBS in early 2018. The fish fry experience is still noteworthy!
My best advice for planning to enjoy a Friday fish fry is to get to the restaurant early to get seated. Most restaurants won’t take reservations for Friday fish fry during the busy summer months due to its extreme popularity. Otherwise, plan to wait for up to an hour or more. That’s not bad if you have a good seat at the bar and are enjoying your beverage of choice! Be sure to ‘Google’ your local town to find restaurants serving fish fry near your home or hotel.
(1) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rCaqNgfaEKY a video on Fish Frys a trailer of Faiola’s latest documentary
(2) https://www.eater.com/2014/11/17/7221519/the-definitive-guide-to-fish-fry-in-south-central-wisconsin Mike Seidel Nov17, 2014 The Definitive Guide to Fish Fry in South Central Wisconsin
Faiola interview in Milwaukee Journal in 10/2009 with Chris Foran
https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Article/CS3968 Widmer family traveling throughout WI and documenting Fish Fry