As a kid, I hated the taste of fish. Even now, well into adulthood, any food that carries a strong underwater flavor is likely to make me gag. Yet there are exceptions to the rule: I enjoy raw tuna, anchovies in my pasta, and even fish sauce when served as a condiment. And here in the upper Midwest, there’s one pescatarian tradition that’s all but inseparable from our identity, one that has its own special day of the week: the Friday fish fry.
Until recently, I was convinced that this beloved institution was among the most over-hyped experiences in my home state of Wisconsin. Bland cod, store-brand coleslaw, and limp, crinkle-cut potatoes—you know you’ve suffered through at least one such disappointing grease bomb of a meal. So why is it that my neighbors turn into fish-craving lunatics at the end of each work week?
I spent years in various food service jobs, frying boxes and buckets of fish, and I never saw the appeal. But sometimes it’s easy to miss the lily pads for the weed bed. With time, age, and a little seasoning, I think I’m starting to get it.
What makes Wisconsin’s Friday fish fry so enduring?
First, a bit of grammatical housekeeping. According to Webster’s New World Dictionary (via NOLA.com), the proper plural form of “fish fry” isn’t “fish fry’s” or “fish frys.” It’s “fish fries.” So that’s what you’ll read from here on out.
Something else to get out of the way is that, yes, I understand that the rampant popularity of the Friday fish fry is, on some level, an outgrowth of the religious dietary habits of our immigrant ancestors. That’s not what I’m here to discuss. There are plenty of things people eat (or don’t) for reasons of faith, but none seem to evoke the same enthusiasm as deep-fried fish. Heck, I know plenty of non-churchgoing folks who are just as haddock-happy as the most devout of Midwest Catholics.
So, if the all-seeing almighty isn’t swaying our collective palate, then surely it’s the food itself that inspires such devotion? Well, maybe. But it’s worth investigating what sets a good fish fry apart from the average. Because ’round these parts, every bar, diner, and grocery store has their own spin on it, and most of them, quite frankly, are bland.
That blandness can be chalked up to fish’s ease of preparation: batter or bread up some cod, toss it into hot oil for a few minutes, and serve. This simplicity also accounts for the overwhelming number of taverns that make fish a part of their menu. After all, they already have a deep fryer for cheese curds and jalapeño poppers.
The typical sides at a fish fry are just as basic, often consisting of rye bread, coleslaw, a dipping sauce, and some form of (generally deep fried) potato. But when the flavor of a dish relies almost entirely on a squeeze of lemon or a dunk into tartar sauce, it’s a hard formula to mess up. So what separates the blah, the good, and the great?
Subtleties, comfort, and company are key
As with so many great cuisines, the basic nature of a fish fry leaves room for individual expression. Special blends of herbs, spices, and booze often make their way into the batter, dolling up a protein that is (admit it) pretty flavorless on its own. Plus, any fry cook capable of producing a golden, shatter-crisp exterior is, in their own way, an argument for the existence of the divine. In fact, my preferred version of a fish fry has little to do with the fish itself. It’s all about that lovely crust and its interplay with the acidic tang of tartar sauce or malt vinegar, along with the beer in the batter and in the glass.
Speaking of frosty mugs, the atmosphere in which these meals are consumed plays a huge role in their popularity. Because while you can grab a McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish any day of the week, a Friday fish fry is a weekend excuse to visit a favorite restaurant or bar. And since you’re headed out, why not invite a few friends along for the ride, or perhaps even some family members? Once you get a few Old Fashioned’s in her, Mom isn’t really that bad to hang around with.
How long will the Wisconsin fish fry last?
As a millennial, I’m allegedly responsible for a multitude of societal slaughters including such sacred cows as the hotel industry, wine corks, and breakfast cereal. As for fabric softener, well, the Snuggle Bear had it coming.
But what about the fish fry? Do the generational shifts in religion, diet, and even alcohol consumption put this crispy golden staple at risk?
Short answer: I doubt it. People have been crisping food in hot oil for centuries, and just because specific tastes are changing doesn’t mean that certain traditions will be thrown out. Hamburgers with onions were popular in the 1930s and they’re not exactly scarce today, even if the patties themselves are increasingly plant-based.
All things considered, I believe history is on the side of Wisconsin’s old fashioned Friday fish fry. And if the protein in question eventually comes from a fungus instead of the sea, that’s just fine. I and my fellow Cheeseheads will eat just about anything that’s battered and fried, so long as we can do so with friends and a beer.