The Friday Fish Fry is a tradition in Milwaukee and the rest of the state of Wisconsin for many years. Just about every bar, restaurant, tavern or pub has one. All sorts of types of fish are offered including native fish like perch, cod, bluegill and walleye but others are offered too now like catfish, smelt, pollack, haddock and even grouper. You can get the fish deep fried, pan fried, dipped in batter, dusted in flour or cornmeal or baked but no matter how you like it prepared, but the favorite is all-you-can-eat. We do love our fish.
But how did this tradition get started? Why just in Wisconsin? Why fish? Why all you can eat? Well after some digging into a little Wisconsin history, we can find some answers. The history starts in the Milwaukee area in the late 1800 due to two reasons, beer and religion. Yes, thanks to the German, Polish and Italian immigration to Milwaukee that brought with them their Catholic beliefs, religion has a part in the tradition.
The Germans brought beer makers from the old country who found a great water source (and ice source for shipping) and a growing grain center in the US to provide an ideal location to brew beer. Small breweries sprung up all over Wisconsin to provide locally brewed beer to the immigrants from Europe were used to good beer. Some of these brewers like Fredrick Miller, August Pabst, Joseph Schlitz and Valantin Blatz went on to produce giant breweries which went on to make make Milwaukee the beer capital of the world.
These breweries were giants and produced not only sprawling breweries in Milwaukee but the competition of these breweries led to great hotels being built and many opulent “beer parlors” which were very upscale places to socialize and of course have a stein of beer. In addition to these hotels, these breweries built amusement parks to help establish their brand name early in the next generation of beer drinkers.
Pabst owned the Whitefish Bay Resort on the corner of Ardmore Ave and Henry Clay St in Whitefish Bay which had an attached amusement park. In competition with Schlitz at the time. Pabst wanted a way to bring in more people to the resort and since Lake Michigan had so much inexpensive whitefish, they decided to offer whitefish for cheap on Friday nights. It was a huge hit. People soon flocked to the Whitefish Bay amusement park and resort on Friday’s and later on the weekends for a fish fry and soon after Schlitz and others followed as well.
The breweries owned many of the taverns and restaurants in Milwaukee and soon saw the opportunity to offer the fish fry as bait to sell more beer. By keeping the price low on the inexpensive fish dinner, it brought people into their branded bars and consuming their beer further cementing the brand with Milwaukeeans. They then shifted to free fish lunches to further instill their brand and build loyalty. A free fish meal and a couple pints of beer will do that for the laborers at the time.
Prohibition put an end to the beer although some taverns survived by keeping the tradition going. As restaurant and bar owners needed to keep customers coming back, they expanded the days that the fish fry was offered and made the fish fry a family thing to do. This helped to cement the fish fry as a tradition. Luckily prohibition ended and soon ice cold beer was once again able to be served.
The fish fry was offered on Fridays as an alternative to meat when abstaining in observance of the Catholic tradition. This eventually took it from the bars and restaurants were it had become so popular and started appearing at local churches as well. Originally it was probably started to offer parishioners a an alternative to the fish fry in taverns and bars but also let families participate in a family activity but also built close ties between the church and it’s members. This tradition remains strong to this day.
Many churches offer a Friday fish fry and during Lent many more take part. Lent which starts on Ash Wednesday and run the forty days before Easter (not counting Sundays) and is meant to be a time of reflection and doing without. Originally it was a time of fast but since forty days is a little long for most people to observe going without food, it was cut back to not eating meat on Fridays. Fish turned out to be a perfect alternative. During Lent, many restaurants and some churches and bars also offer a fish fry on Wednesdays as well stemming from Ash Wednesday. This lets people have another day to enjoy fish and not have to brave such long lines that are typical at most restaurants and churches.
The most popular choices of fish are perch, walleye, and cod although there are many other choices offered as well now. You can get your fish seasoned, dipped in flour and a pan fried deep fried. You can also opt for a thicker beer batter made flour, eggs and beer and then deep fried. Although much of the fish frys today are deep fried, deep frying really didn’t start until the 50’s when commercial deep fryers where invented and made it possible for small bars and restaurants could offer deep fried fish. Until then most of the fish was pan fried. This was not only was a popular form to enjoy fish, it also was a great way to be able to cook the fish in larger batches and be able to serve more hungry diners.
Milwaukeeans probably don’t know who Louis Hirschinger is but they owe him a big thanks for bringing the other half of the tradition to Milwaukee- the all-you-can-eat fish fry. Louis who along with his wife Ruth owned Tanner Paull restaurant in West Allis, and after visiting a small restaurant on the east coast during business trip discovered an all you can eat chicken dinner. He was fascinated with the idea and thought he would try the same thing at his restaurant in Milwaukee only with fish. It was a huge hit and cemented the all-you-can-eat fish fry as one of Milwaukee’s favorite traditions.
The Milwaukee fish fry has its roots in both religion and beer brewing brought by the German immigrants. Along with their beer, their food traditions helped shape what has become the other part of tradition. Accompanying the fish in a traditional German fish fry are potato pancakes, apple sauce, coleslaw, rye bread and tartar sauce. These are still found at many restaurants or at least are all side options but french fries have become the side that accompanies most fish frys now in so many bars, taverns and pubs.
Everywhere you go in Wisconsin you will be able to find a fish fry of some kind or another. If you are visiting Milwaukee or Wisconsin for the first time, you really need to join the local tradition and try one. If you live there, you are always on a quest to find the best. It can be a never ending but delicious search. For a complete list of every fish fry in the Milwaukee area go to Milwaukee Fish Fry Guide