Some minor nostalgia wafted my way the other day when I came across an article in the Marquette Tribune, a student newspaper at Marquette University in Milwaukee. Written by Christopher Placek, the article (cutely headlined "Come fry with me") explains a unique Wisconsin custom, the Friday night fish fry.
When I was growing up in Milwaukee, Friday nights were precisely as Placek describes them:
Native Wisconsinites reserve Friday nights on their calendars for a special area custom, but the tradition is so ingrained in the culture they probably don't even need to write it down.The Friday fish fry is not limited to taverns, of course, though that is by far the most likely venue. I recall that on a monthly basis, there was a Friday fish fry at my elementary school, St. Agnes in Butler. It was sponsored by the Boy Scouts, I think, or perhaps the Knights of Columbus, and served in the school cafeteria, eat-in or take-out.
That's because the Wisconsin fish fry has become an assumed appointment with friends and family at the local watering hole, restaurant or social club. Experts say local fish fries became popular with the immigration of Europeans, especially German Catholics, to Wisconsin.
"In the old country, you used to bring whole the family into the saloons to eat, drink and be merry," said local author Jeff Hagen, who has written two books on fish fries. "It was just the way things were done, and that's the way things are done around here."
The fish fry is a generational phenomenon in Wisconsin, possibly unlike other states, said Hagen, whose first book, "Fry Me to the Moon," analyzed 125 Friday night fish fries in Wisconsin. The sequel, "Codfather 2," took Hagen to 200 fish fries throughout the Midwest, where underage bar restrictions prevent similar fish fry family traditions as in Wisconsin, he said.
But the family-oriented tavern -- never "saloon," a word prohibited in Wisconsin by Prohibition-era legislation -- provided the most likely place to dig into fried fish, cole slaw, and French fries, generally served "family style" with baskets of food brought to the table and handed from one patron to another, just like in the kitchen at home.
In the 1960s and '70s, it was not uncommon to see kids as young as 4 or 5 underfoot at a tavern while their parents ordered a fish fry and a beer to accompany it. People outside Wisconsin tend to be astounded when they learn about this aspect of our state's culture. They think children and alcohol do not mix. If they had grown up as I did, however, they would not think this a strange phenomenon.
Janet Gilmore, a University of Wisconsin-Madison assistant professor of landscape architecture and folklore, said the Friday night fish fry presents an opportunity for people to socialize and celebrate the end of the week. The tradition of the fish fry in Wisconsin developed partly in neighborhood working-class taverns, she said.(Permit me a digression: a professor of "landscape architecture and folklore"? What kind of combination is that? It makes me curious.)
At the turn of the 20th century, there were about 8,000 drinking establishments in the state of Wisconsin, Gilmore said. With Prohibition, many taverns began serving food, she said.Coincidentally, Serb Hall was also the place where my parents celebrated their wedding reception -- not that I was there, but I was told later. But I digress again.
The fish fry also arose out of the meatless Fridays custom of Catholicism, now restricted only to the Lenten season as a result of Vatican II. But local fryers say that Catholics aren't the only ones who indulge in fish on Fridays.
"It's a Wisconsin thing," said Dave Schmidt, general manager of American Serb Hall, 5101 W. Oklahoma Ave., which hosts one of Wisconsin's largest fish fries.
We often enjoyed fish fries that had family connections. We regularly went to a West Allis tavern owned and operated by my Uncle Clyde's in-laws, Scottie and Mitz -- not German Catholics but brogue-tongued Scots immigrants. The front of the establishment was the bar, always bustling, while in back was a bare room set up with tables covered in plain paper. Some Chinese lanterns or Christmas lights were the only real decoration. But people didn't come for atmosphere -- they came for the food.
I learn from another family member that my Aunt Mary's
mom's "recipe" is now being served at a refurbished corner burger diner in West Allis run by Aunt Mary's nephew, and her sister JoAnne is frying fish there.So the tradition continues.