The Friday fish fry is a well-known and beloved Wisconsin tradition with deep roots. While it is a popular Friday tradition all year long, it is especially popular during Lent. But where did this tradition come from? Why are we the keepers of the best Fish Fries? Well, besides being located on one of our nation's great lakes, the answer is rooted in several parts; the Catholic Church, our state’s history of European immigration and the 21st Amendment.
The tradition of Christians fasting on Fridays to recognize Jesus' crucifixion on Good Friday dates back to the first century AD. 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. Additionally, fish had been associated with religious holidays even in pre-Christian times. The first mention of fish in connection with Lent comes from Socrates of Constantinople, a church historian in the third and fourth centuries who spoke of abstaining from meat and meat products (such as cheese and eggs) during the 40 days of Lent. The custom was mentioned by Pope Gregory I, who was elected in 590, and was later incorporated into canon law. However, according to Catholism.org, 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.
The tradition in Wisconsin began because Wisconsin was settled heavily by Catholics of German, Polish and other backgrounds whose religion forbade eating meat on Fridays.
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. In the the 1920’s and 1930’s, the age of prohibition, taverns around Wisconsin were looking for a cheap and easy way to keep the doors open (and quite possibly sell some pints under the table…shhhh). Fish was plentiful and affordable. 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 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.
The modern fish fry tradition is strong in Wisconsin, where hundreds of eateries hold fish fries on Fridays and sometimes on Wednesdays. The Friday night fish fry is a popular-year round tradition in Wisconsin among people of all religious backgrounds. A typical Wisconsin fish fry consists of beer batter fried cod, perch, bluegill, walleye, smelt, or in areas along the Mississippi River, catfish. The meal usually comes with tartar sauce, French fries or German-style potato pancakes, coleslaw, and rye bread. The number of lakes in the state means that eating fish became a popular alternative. Scandinavian settlements in northern and eastern Wisconsin favored the fish boil, a variant on the fish fry, which involves heating potatoes, white fish, and salt in a large cauldron.
Our Lent menu includes more than a typical fish fry. This year we are offering:
New England Clam Chowder
Fish Tacos with fries and salad or fruit
Cornmeal Crusted Perch with coleslaw, rye, tartar sauce and choice of fries, potato pancakes or marble potatoes
Beer Battered Cod with coleslaw, rye, tartar sauce and choice of fries, potato pancakes or marble potatoes
Oven Baked Cod with eggplant caponata and garlic rice.
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.