Fish Fry Anyone?-

You Donít Have to Ask

Twice in Wisconsin

By Tanya Gillitzer
Folklore 530 Project
Prof. Ruth Olson
May 5, 2003

Original Word Document

Traditions of the Upper Midwest are plentiful, but one that seems to stand out when people think of Wisconsin is the Friday Fish Fry.† Businesses boom on these nights with regulars and newcomers appearing to continue, or simply get a taste of, a large piece of the Wisconsin culture.† How, why and when this tradition was started has been researched and written about all over the area.† So, coming to understand this event may just leave oneís mouth watering.


††††††††††† Kimberly Plude and I went to Tallardís Station in Middleton, Wisconsin to get a taste (no pun intended) of fish fries in the area.† It seemed to be very similar to the other places we had heard about, encompassing a large gathering of people who come together, no matter how different they are, to enjoy the food and the atmosphere. The dinner special seemed to be typical: all-you-can-eat deep-fried cod served with coleslaw and French fries.† (They also offered fried perch, or one could choose to have their fish baked, but this choice wasnít very typical).† To no surprise, beer was also a hot commodity on their menu.†

Then we set out to see what type of people attended and why they came.† It was interesting to see the similar responses we received upon conducting our interviews of the customers of this establishment.† We tried to interview as many people as we could, talking to people of all different ages.† All of the people we talked to were part of groups that were no smaller than 4 people.† After conducting my first interview of a group of 2 couples, I soon found that the following ones would supply me with similar responses.† Don of Rhinelander, Wisconsin says he has been attending fish fries for 60 years because it is ďa typical Wisconsin Friday night, and of course, the beer helps too!Ē† He presently lives in Illinois, but says he travels to Wisconsin almost every Friday because he says fish fries in Illinois are not numerous and donít compare to those in this state.† He said, ďWisconsin is the place he always wants to be on a Friday night.Ē† The fact that he has to travel each week doesnít really allow him to become a regular at any particular establishment, but he doesnít seem to mind.† He feels that most share the same easy-going, relaxed atmosphere he is looking for.† The reasons he gave for coming to these events stemmed from his past, being Catholic and because his family used to frequent them also when he was younger.†

My next interviewees would provide me with nearly the same responses.† They were a group of 3 couples, one of which was from California. This couple had never been to a fish fry before and wanted to see what it was all about.† (After getting their food, they seemed thoroughly impressed by it along with the atmosphere they experienced.)† The rest claimed to frequent fish fries regularly, with Tallardís being the place they attend most often because the food is good, the people are friendly, and itís somewhat near their home. The four who claimed to be regulars all said that they started coming with their families when they were young and believed that had a lot to do with their Catholic backgrounds.† One member of the group, who grew up in Milwaukee, recalled his early experiences with eating fish on Fridays. He said that his dad would often bring home ďgrub in a tubĒ since the children were little and more difficult to have out in public.† This meal consisted of fried fish and French fries served in a large white cardboard container with ďat least and inch-and-a-half of grease on the bottom.Ē He remembered them all running to the table and grabbing as much of this food as their tiny hands could hold. The 2 couples said they also brought their children when they were younger, but now that they are in school, it has become more of an escape for the adults, a chance for them to get away.†

Daryl, a University of Wisconsin student, also provided some information. He attended fish fries often with his family while growing up.† While he doesnít get to do this much anymore because heís in school, he said that he cannot wait to be able to start this tradition with his own kids someday. Since he is not a Catholic, his religious background didnít play a role in his familyís attendance. He said that it was their love for fish and a chance to get out together that kept their tradition alive.† Daryl pointed out that it was very often that his family got to sit down and eat dinner as a family, Friday nights were sort of the solution.†

These 3 examples are just a sample of the ones that Kimberly and I conducted, but they are representative of the responses that we received.† The majority of those in attendance at Tallardís Station were of a Catholic background.† Also, everyone we spoke to, besides the couple from California, said that attending fish fries was a common experience for them as children.†


††††††††††† All of the responses we received seemed to go hand-in-hand with the research that has been done by others.† From what people were eating to the reasons they came were all similar to those given by researchers.

††††††††††† Fish fries in Wisconsin usually serve perch, cod, or walleye because of the abundance of these fish in the area.† They can be caught and cooked inexpensively, so they have become a popular choice (Hoehne).† The water bodies near Wisconsin support environments for these fish to grow in large numbers.† The foods that are served with the fish are usually the same too.† Most often it comes with French fries and coleslaw, with some areas still serving helpings of German potato salad.† On top of all of this, some type of bread is usually served also.†

††††††††††† There are many reasons that people have found for the popularity of fish fries in Wisconsin.† Jeff Hagen, who has done much research on this topic, has come up with three reasons.† The first, he says, is the fact that Wisconsinís population consists of a great number of German Catholics, and they have continued their traditions of meatless Fridays (which began with the Lenten season and seems to have spread to all Fridays for some). The second is the location of Wisconsin. It lies near the Great Lakes as well as the Mississippi River, providing the large amounts of fish needed. The third reason he gives is what is known as the ďGerman imbibement factor.Ē† This phrase means that families Wisconsin frequently take their children to the taverns on Fridays to have fish, and many continue this tradition with their own children (Wineke).† Janet Gilmore, a lecturer on the subject, claims that this tradition stems all the way back to the fishing culture of the Ojibwa tribe who mainly lived along the Great Lakes.† They later intermarried with immigrants in the area and their ways continued (Martell).† And yet another reason provided by E.E. LeMasters, a former UW professor, is that it is the beginning of the weekend.† He explains that many men used to get paid on Fridays so they would take their wives out for fish and get a chance to relax (Freedman).† The cheapness of these meals has also led to their continuation since parents were able to take out their entire families and feed them.† So, it is clear that being Catholic isnít a requirement for enjoying these weekly events.† These reasons for the continuing popularity of fish fries in Wisconsin are numerous, but they are different then the factors that led to the creation of the actual fries.

The first evidence of a commercial fish fry is from 1920 in Appleton, Wisconsin (Martell).† During Prohibition, many taverns and bars had to find new ways to draw customers in, so many started fish fries because entire families could attend (Martell).† Once Prohibition was lifted, others began the idea of fish fries spread to draw people back into the bars (Hoehne).† When they started, fish fries were very popular, and there hasnít been a decline in the near century they have been occurring.†

As one can see, many, not just Catholics or even Wisconsinites, enjoy this Wisconsin tradition.† No matter oneís background, the food and the atmosphere seem to draw people in, and often keep them coming back.†


Freedman, Samual. (1983, May 4). The Wisconsin Fish Fry: Matter of State. New York Times, p.C3.

Hoehne, Mary Rita. (2001, March 5). All You Can Eat. Shepherd Express. V.22, I 12.

Martell, Chris. (2002, August 5). Talk Aims to Feed Curiosity About Fish Fry Tradition. Wisconsin State Journal, p. D1.

Wineke, William.(2003, March 5). Best Fishes!; In Wisconsin Itís Always Open Season For the Fish Fry. Wisconsin State Journal, p. D1