Friday fish frys are a popular weekly tradition in Wisconsin, but are they unique to the state? Some key questions to answer right away:
Is fish fry only in Wisconsin? No, Friday fish frys happen in other states too, but they are exceptionally popular and prevalent in Wisconsin.
How did fish fry Fridays start? Friday fish frys have their origins in Catholic religious tradition of abstaining from meat on Fridays.
Why is fish fry so big in Wisconsin? Wisconsin’s strong Catholic heritage and historical fishing industry helped establish fish fry Fridays as a statewide custom.
Do other states do fish fry? Yes, other Great Lakes and Midwestern states like Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio have Friday fish fry traditions, but not to the same degree as Wisconsin.
The History and Origins of Fish Fry Friday
Fish frys on Fridays have their roots in Catholic religious practice. During the early days of Christianity, abstaining from meat on Fridays was a form of penance and sacrifice. Fish was considered an acceptable meatless meal.
The Catholic tradition of avoiding meat on Fridays comes from the following religious origins:
- Jesus Christ was believed to have died on a Friday, making Friday a day of sacrifice
- The 40 days of Lent are a period of abstinence leading up to Easter Sunday
- Writing from early Church figures recommended fasting and meatless Fridays
This Friday fish tradition was standard Catholic practice for centuries. In the early 20th century, the strict rules were relaxed, but many Catholics still observed meatless Fridays. Going out for fish dinners on Fridays emerged as a popular social activity and celebration of faith.
For immigrant groups like Germans, Irish, and Polish settling in the Midwest, Friday fish fry allowed them to gather and maintain their religious-cultural traditions. Wisconsin’s large Catholic population played a key role in keeping fish fry Fridays thriving.
How Fishing Industry Helped Establish Fish Fry
Beyond its religious roots, fish fry also took hold in Wisconsin due to the state’s fishing heritage.
Wisconsin’s landscape is dotted with lakes, making fresh fish readily accessible:
- 15,074 lakes in Wisconsin
- 1,000+ miles of shoreline along Lake Michigan and Lake Superior
- Abundant supply of fish like perch, walleye, cod, trout, and pike
Commercial fishing operations shipped seafood inland from the Great Lakes via railroads. Restaurants and taverns offering Friday fish fry sprung up across Wisconsin, often using local catch.
The tradition was also popular in homes, with Wisconsin families frying up fish caught on weekends. Ready access to fresh fish made fish fry Fridays an easy, affordable meal.
Why Fish Fry is So Big in Wisconsin
More than just religious background and fishing industry made fish frys take off in Wisconsin. Some key reasons it became an enduring phenomenon:
- Catholic population – At over 25% Catholic, Wisconsin has one of the largest Catholic populations among U.S. states.
- Community gatherings – Fish fry Fridays bring people together, fostering sense of community.
- Love of tradition – Wisconsinites embrace long-held food traditions and state pride.
- Tavern culture – Wisconsin’s iconic neighborhood taverns helped popularize Friday fish fry.
- Economical meal – Fish fry plates are budget-friendly compared to other restaurant meals.
- Lenten boost – Lent fish fry observances still swell sales and interest seasonally.
Beyond religion and food, fish fry Fridays offer a consistent weekly ritual for locals to unwind over beers and fried fish. The communal atmosphere and give fish frys an aura of tradition and comfort.
Other Factors Reinforcing Popularity
Additional reasons help explain the enduring devotion to fish fry in Wisconsin:
- Arrival of meatless Fridays in public schools in 20th century meant fish patty lunch for students.
- Fish fry fundraisers at churches and community groups are popular events.
- Statewise media coverage and lists of best fish frys stoke interest.
- Nostalgia and family memories keep the tradition alive across generations.
Fish fry has become ingrained into the state’s culture. From childhood through adulthood, Wisconsinites grow up with Friday fish fry as a steady presence and comfortable routine.
How Other States Compare
Is fish fry just a Wisconsin thing? Not exactly, though other states don’t exhibit the same fervor and popularity. Here’s how neighboring Great Lakes states stack up:
Illinois has a sizable number of Catholic adherents, especially in Chicago’s Polish community. Lenten fish fry fundraisers are common. But overall, fish fry tradition is not as ubiquitous as Wisconsin’s.
With major fishing ports and Catholic population centers like Detroit, fish fry has a steady following in sections of Michigan. The Upper Peninsula has strong fish fry presences in some areas.
Minnesota’s heathen Scandinavian-descended population gives it a different cultural profile than heavily Catholic Wisconsin. But fish frys are still fairly popular in parts of Minnesota.
Iowa does not have the same abundance of lakes and strong Catholic heritage. However, fish frys still make Lenten appearances, especially in river towns.
Ohio has decent fish fry representation in urban Catholic strongholds and along Lake Erie. But overall engagement does not reach Wisconsin levels.
|Fish Fry Popularity
|Great Lakes fishing
|Great Lakes fishing
|Lake Erie fishing
This comparison shows Wisconsin rates highest in factors underpinning its fish fry fixation.
The Allure and Charm of Fish Fry
Beyond the religious and economic reasons, the cultural allure of fish fry Fridays is what makes the tradition so endearing:
- Provides gathering place to chat and unwind with neighbors
- Kids enjoy artery-clogging fish fry breading and fatty tartar sauce
- Taverns use fish fry specials to draw in customers on quieter nights
- Meals often accompanied by bowling, bingo, live music, and other tavern fun
- Brings feeling of togetherness and continuity across generations
For many Wisconsinites, the fish fry ritual is soaked in nostalgia. It evokes memories of childhood visits to the neighborhood supper club for all-you-can-eat cod. Or the smell of mom’s homemade potato pancakes. Or chatting over beers with dad and uncles at the corner bar’s cod fry.
Fish fry Friday is the comfort food experience in meal form. The crispy battered fish and creamy slaw kindle feelings of familiarity and tradition. For transplants living outside Wisconsin, attending a Friday fish fry provides a taste of home.
Quintessential Wisconsin Experience
Fish fry exemplifies key facets of Wisconsin identity:
- Hard-working, salt-of-the-earth people
- Deep pride in traditions
- Strong community fellowship
- Love of the outdoors and natural bounty
- Family-oriented values
- Unpretentious nature
Spending time in a crowded hall chatting over cheap beer-battered perch captures the Wisconsin ethos. Fish fry offers a window into what makes Wisconsin Wisconsin.
The Future of Fish Fry
Fish fry has shown resilience over the generations. But will this culinary tradition maintain its popularity going forward?
Reasons for Potential Decline
Some factors that may diminish fish fry’s future standing:
- Dwindling Catholic religious adherence by younger generations
- Health consciousness leading to less deep fried food
- Growing prevalence of non-Christian faiths less associated with fish fry
- Overfished supplies making large fish frys less sustainable
- Vegan and vegetarian diets becoming more common
As religious and cultural shifts occur, classic traditions like fish fry may lose relevance for new generations. Its fatty, fried fare may also fall out of favor due to health considerations.
Why Fish Fry Likely Still Has Legs
On the other hand, there are reasons why fish fry seems likely to keep on keeping on:
- Remaining strongly established cultural tradition
- Nostalgic comfort food experience
- Fish sourcing can be adapted based on sustainability
- Non-fish and vegetarian options allow for dietary preferences
- Taverns and restaurants depend on fish fry business
- Lenten season will still boost interest annually
Fish fry has already persisted through massive changes in society. As long as Wisconsinites maintain some degree of pride in tradition and community, fish fry should carry on into the future.
Modernizing by adding non-fish choices while still celebrating heritage may enable it to stay relevant. The communal joy and memories built around fish frys will be their enduring strength.
Friday fish fry holds an esteemed place in Wisconsin culture and identity. Its roots in Catholic faith and fishing industry explain its origins. But the cherished social ritual forged around sharing fried fish elevated it to an iconic tradition.
Other states also have fish frys, but none approach the institution status achieved in Wisconsin. The cultural allure built over generations will likely allow fish fry to adapt without losing its appeal. As long as there are Wisconsinites who value tradition, community, and breaded perch, Friday fish fry will have a place at the table.