Friday Fish Fries – Why This State Eats Fish on Fridays (Even If They’re Not Catholic)

Why This Entire State Eats Fish on Fridays (Even If They're Not Catholic)

What began as a way for breweries to survive Prohibition remains a nearly century old, state-wide tradition in Wisconsin. From Green Bay to Eau Claire and from Milwaukee to Red Cliff, find out why the entire state enjoys Friday fish fries (even if they’re not Catholic). 

In Wisconsin, Friday fish fries are one of the state’s most beloved and distinctive traditions. In both small towns and the state’s biggest city, people of all ages, backgrounds, and beliefs come together to celebrate the start of the weekend with plates of crispy fried fish and mugs of cold beer. If you were raised Catholic, you know the drill – no meat on any of the Fridays during Lent. But in Wisconsin, you can enjoy Friday fish fries not just during Lenten time, but rather all year long. How did a canonical law from the Middle Ages become a century-old, state-wide tradition in Wisconsin? Let me tell you the fascinating history of Wisconsin’s Friday fish fries!

A Wave of European Immigrants Washes into Wisconsin

European immigrants helped establish Friday fish fries in Milwaukee European immigrants making their way to Milwaukee in the late 1800s helped inspire Friday fish fries in Wisconsin.[/caption]

Beginning in the 1880s, ships from all over Europe delivered thousands of European immigrants to the “New World” daily. When thousands of Roman Catholic families from Germany, Ireland, and Poland settled in Wisconsin, they brought with them their tradition of abstaining from meat on Fridays. The waters of Lake Michigan, rich with trout, perch, walleye, and bass, made fish a popular and affordable Friday meal. In Milwaukee, many of Brew City’s breweries would offer free fried fish with the purchase of a beer.

Let me pause for a moment and explain why the Catholic Church doesn’t consider fish to be meat, because this always blew my mind when I was a kid. The way it was explained to me is that beef, chicken, lamb, and pork are all considered “hot” because they are the flesh of warm-blooded animals. But, because fish are cold-blooded critters, their meat is “cool” and therefore acceptable to eat on Fridays.

Fun Fact:  Before 1966, Catholics abstained from eating meat every Friday. But with the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI relaxed this rule to only apply to the 40 days of Lent. In Wisconsin, fish fries are a sacred Friday evening activity, but in a secular sense.

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And Then There was a New Kind of Law

At the stroke of midnight on January 17, 1920, the 18th Amendment went into effect, resulting in a nationwide ban on alcohol. In a city full of breweries, this Constitutional ban could have sucked the life out of Milwaukee as it did in other midwestern cities with talented German immigrant brewmasters. But the beer-loving German Catholics of Wisconsin were creative and found a way to save Brew Town’s economy from Prohibition’s crushing blow.

Alcohol Prohibition helped inspire the Friday fish fry tradition in Wisconsin. Alcohol Prohibition helped inspire the Friday fish fry tradition in Wisconsin.[/caption]

Although they could no longer (officially) serve beer, Milwaukee’s breweries stepped up their Friday fish fry game. Alcohol used for medicinal, sacramental, or industrial purposes remained legal. So in addition to filling the air with the aroma of beer-battered fish frying, taverns could slyly serve a draft or two under the table. As Friday fish fries helped taprooms stay afloat, it also fused the relationship between Friday fish fries and beer.

Beginning as a spark in largely Catholic areas of Wisconsin, notably Milwaukee and Green Bay, Friday fish fries took off like a wildfire and spread to every corner of the state. Over time, the tradition was infused with other cultures. For example, non-Catholic Germans and Czechs regularly gathered to eat and drink after work, typically bringing their entire family to enjoy a meal together on the weekends.

Fun Fact:  Did you know that Utah cast the deciding vote to repeal Prohibition? That’s right! While the majority of Utahns are members of the  LDS Church and do not drink alcohol, they unanimously cast the 36th (and deciding) vote to repeal national alcohol prohibition in order to curb the violence associated with bootlegging.

Fish. It’s What’s for Dinner.

While it may take on different flavors and appear in different forms, at its core a Friday fish fry includes fried fish, potatoes, cabbage, and bread. And, thanks to the 21st Amendment that repealed Prohibition, the Friday fish fry is usually accompanied by beer.

Fried fish is usually accompanied by potatoes, cabbage, and bread at Friday fish fries in Wisconsin.

Let’s break down each component of a Friday fish fry:

  • Fish. Traditionally, filets of locally-sourced fish are dredged in a beer batter and fried to a golden, crisp finish. But today, some Friday fish fries will include shrimp and tilapia. In addition to fried fish, you may also find baked fish or fish tacos on the menu.   
  • Potatoes. While you can count on this affordable starch to accompany your fish, you may have a choice of fries, mashed, baked potato, or even potato pancakes.
  • Cabbage. This side is usually served in the form of coleslaw, but you may also find it boiled or fried.
  • Bread. Usually made with rye flour, look for a slice of rye bread or the slightly sweeter pumpernickel to round out your Friday fish fry dinner plate.

Maintaining another German tradition, and perhaps to help manage the large Friday fish fry crowds, it’s not uncommon to be seated at long, community tables when enjoying one of Milwaukee’s Friday fish fries.

Pro Tip:  Louise and I enjoyed our Friday fish fry in Milwaukee at the Lakefront Brewery. To the sounds of a live polka band, I sampled a flight of excellent beers. And as we savored the crispy fried fish accompanied by the creamy crunch of coleslaw, we gazed up at the wall of accolades while our taste buds confirmed every win.

Have You Enjoyed a Friday Fish Fry in Wisconsin?

What did you enjoy most about the Friday fish fry? What kind of fish did you have? Did you wash it down with a local beer? Share your experiences in the comments section below.

Thank you for sharing!

15 thoughts on “Friday Fish Fries – Why This State Eats Fish on Fridays (Even If They’re Not Catholic)”

  1. Wonderful to read the cultural practices connection and the ingeniousness of brew brewers. I’m a serious lover of a good meal of fresh fish and chips.

  2. Such a cool history of such a popular Wisconsin tradition! Definitely sharing this with my family and friends who are Friday Fish Fry enthusiasts!

    1. I admire the scrappy way it helped protect the Wisconsin beer industry during Prohibition, and I really love that the tradition is still going strong so many decades later.

  3. I went to college in Milwaukee and one of the highlights of my 4 years there was my new college friend’s parent, who happened to be local, took us out for “Friday fish fry” every Friday! Awesome memories…and meals!

  4. I just loved this story. We recently moved to Madison, Wisconsin from Chicago. We have long been aware of the Friday night fish fry but I didn’t know about its humble beginnings. In fact, it’s Friday and guess what? We’re having fish! Thanks for sharing the great story.

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