Why The Friday Fish Fry Became A Wisconsin Tradition

Along with its abundant farmland, family-friendly outdoor activities, and sports teams, Wisconsin is known for many staples. These Badger State classics include cheese and other dairy products, bratwurst, Kringle, cranberries, beer, Pink Squirrel cocktails, and much more. If you ever find yourself in Wisconsin, you definitely won't experience a shortage of good eats or some brew to wash it all down.

Another type of food for which Wisconsin is famous is its Friday fish fries. For decades, restaurants throughout the state have served plates of battered, deep-fried pieces of freshwater fish — mainly cod, perch, walleye, haddock, bluegill, smelt, and catfish — to hungry customers from near and far, according to Travel Wisconsin. Some of the top-rated fish fry joints in Wisconsin include Swingin' Door Exchange in Milwaukee, Dexter's Pub in Madison, and Ron's Place in Kenosha (per Serious Eats). So, how did this tasty pre-weekend tradition become so popular among Sconnies?

The Friday fish fry became a Lenten classic in Wisconsin

It all started with an age-old tradition of the Catholic Church. During the season of Lent, which observes the 40 days until Easter Sunday, many Catholics around the world partake in a meatless diet on Fridays (per Catholicism.org).

Milwaukee's NPR spoke with culinary historian Kyle Cherek, who hosted the PBS show "Wisconsin Foodie" until 2019. As Cherek explained, the fish fry's history can be traced as far back as 1249, when canon law forbade Catholics to consume meat on Fridays. Fast-forward about 600 years to mid-19th century Milwaukee, when the fish fry became a classic lunch. Between the 1860s and 1870s, the Jones Island neighborhood of Milwaukee became the center of freshwater fishing in Lake Michigan. As it turns out, living next to a large body of water makes fish an affordable and readily available food source. Years later, during Prohibition, breweries that were unable to advertise beer drew in customers by whipping up plates of fried fish.

Today, fish fries are enjoyed by Wisconsinites year-round, not just during the Lenten celebration. No matter where you decide to dine on a Friday night, a helping of crispy fried fish with a side of rye bread and cabbage surely hits the spot.