Ask any Wisconsinite what is on the menu on Friday night and the answer is most likely going to be some kind of fish. Growing up in a smaller-sized town in Wisconsin, I became accustomed to Friday night eateries and the battered delicacies which were served in small wicker baskets. Perch, cod, or whitefish, beer battered with a side order of American fries and cold slaw and homemade tartar sauce was the main draw on Friday nights. Taverns and Legion Halls alike served the traditional Friday night fish fry but why did the tradition exist and where is it today?
The answer to the question is really two fold.
Wisconsin has a strong representation of German Catholics who observe Lent. Lent is the tradition of abstaining from meat on Fridays during a forty day period preceding Easter. This practice turned into a social event during prohibition years. Taverns needed a way to attract people to their businesses and often gave free fish dinners or lunches on Friday.
During this time, fish was easily obtained and was very inexpensive for taverns. The Germans came to this country with fried food techniques and technology and this became the preferred, easy way to rapidly prepare a lot of fish, thus the social “fish fry” was born. They often had beer and liquor as an “under the table” service and as the years passed, so did prohibition. But the tradition of serving fish has lasted through the years. Today, taverns and eateries offer the fish fry on Wednesdays and Fridays regardless of religious orientation.
I spend countless hours on the water in the summer and this allows me to have fresh fish on a fairly consistent basis. For me, gone are the days of tromping out to the restaurants only to find long lines and hours of waiting. I enjoy my fish fries right at home. I have a set-up in my garage which is equipped with a stainless steel table and a Stainless Steel Profry by Presto. It’s a great little unit that breaks down nicely and makes for easy clean up.
So what makes a good fish fry? Good oil. Fish is one of those foods that you can prepare many ways, but frying works best for serving a group. The oil you fry your fish in is one of the most important parts of the fish fry. There is nothing worse than a soggy piece of walleye or perch. My favorite oil for cooking is Shore Lunch Miracle Frying Oil. It is a blend of vegetable oil, peanut oil and sunflower oil and is all natural. I like the oil because it withstands multiple fish fries. Many cheaper oils seem to break down after one use and never give you that golden brown filet color. I might spend a little more money up front on the Shore lunch oil, but I get multiple fish fries out of one batch of oil.
The batter people use in all Wisconsin fish fries is the most fabulous part of this great tradition. Every person that fries fish brings their own twist to the make-up of the batter. Many people use closely guarded batter recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation.
I hold close the adage, “less is more” when I fry fish. My preference is a lightly battered filet in an egg wash. Again, my favorite product is Shore Lunch as they have an array of choices depending on what I’m feeling. The sky is the limit when it comes to batters and the internet is a great source for recipes. I would be remiss if I didn’t say a little something about our tartar sauce. There are many good choices on the store shelf, but my all-time favorite is homemade. I combine a little Miracle Whip salad dressing and sweet pickle relish and it is the finest dipping sauce made.
Midwestern life is all about friends and family and sharing a fish fry is a great way to pass the time on any night of the week. Add a beer from your favorite local brewery and some American fries and you too can take part in this long standing Wisconsin tradition!
John McArdle is a life-long resident of Fond Du Lac and blogs about fishing adventures in the great state of Wisconsin. Anything from trout fishing the Driftless Area to sturgeon spearing on Lake Winnebago, John will provide stories ,tips and photos of his FINtastic adventures in Wisconsin!