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What's Wisconsin Without a Fish Fry!?

The History Behind Wisconsin’s Fish Fry Tradition

Have you ever wondered how the Friday Fish Fry became such a popular Wisconsin tradition?

To understand it, you have to look at the Catholic Church’s history and our region’s strong German heritage.

According to Catholism.org, in the early days of church, leaders called for Catholics to abstain from eating warm blooded meat on Fridays, as a penance to commemorate the day of Jesus’ crucifixion. However, fish (cold blooded meat) were allowed because Jesus cooked fish for His Apostles after His Resurrection, and most of these men were fishermen. The practice of Friday abstinence (not eating warm blooded meat) came to America with the arrival of many Catholics in the 19th century.

Fast forward to 1900, and our state’s historical records indicate that southeastern Wisconsin had a very strong Catholic presence. One third of Wisconsin’s population was German, and of the 382 Catholic parishes in the state, 172 had German origins, with slightly more than half being located in Milwaukee.

There was a definite demand for fish on Fridays to help people follow their Catholic faith. Fish fries became a popular form of community gatherings, especially during Lent. Churches used them to raise funds to support their parishes and schools. Restaurants also began to cater to this need and the rest is history. Fish fries were (and still are) often served with potato pancakes and coleslaw, both of which originated in the eastern European countries, including Germany.

In 1928, when the Ambassador Hotel opened, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee was headquartered in the nearby Pabst Mansion. Even though we can’t find record of it, we’re willing to bet that we had some sort of fish on the Friday menu.

Abstaining from meat on Fridays was a strong discipline up until 1966 when the Catholic church changed the rules and now it is only required during Lent. However, by this point "going out for fish" had already become an established Milwaukee/Wisconsin tradition.

Today, our Lenten fish fry consists of the traditional, along with a twist of modern. Options include: New England Clam Chowder; Fish Tacos with your choice of Fries, a House Salad or Fruit; Beer Battered Haddock or Stuff Walleye with Coleslaw, Rye Bread, Tartar Sauce and your choice of Fries, Potato Pancakes, or Marbled Potatoes; and Scottish Salmon with Wild Rice and Apricots.

A special thanks goes to Catholism.org, the Max Cade Institute for German Studies, the Wisconsin Historical Society and Father Avella at Marquette University for their resources that helped in assembling this story.

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