Wisconsin Fish Fries
††††††††††† Food is a significant part of every culture. The types of food served at mealtimes, when and where meals are consumed and whom meals are eaten with can provide insight to the values, religion and social expectations of a specific group of people. In Wisconsin, the Friday fish fry is a popular tradition that draws crowds year-round. The Wisconsin fish fry is an example of how foodways are fundamental to social and cultural life, as fish fries have played a role over the years in intertwining various Wisconsin cultures. The result is an activity that families can participate in together and that is wid ely recognized and practiced throughout the state. Primary and secondary research was conducted in order to determine the sentiment and reasoning behind the tradition of Wisconsinís fish fries.
††††††††††† Foodways can be defined as, ďa whole interrelated system of food conceptualization and evaluation, procurement, distribution, preservation, preparation, consumption, and nutrition shared by all members of a particular society (Kaplan, et al, 1). This rather wordy definition simply means that the food itself is not as important as the traditions and actions surrounding it. Applied to fish fries, this encompasses who attends the fish fries, how the food is prepared and who you eat with. However, Kaplan recognizes the complication of this definition when introduced to ethnic groups, which are more loosely structured than one particular society (Kaplan et al, 2). With the meshing of many cultures, foodways are going to be reshaped and altered to adapt to the specific resources that are available (Kaplan et al, 2). Fish fries can be described as ethnic foodways because of the integration of religion and fishing culture that contributed to the Wisconsin tradition. This integration is an important factor of ethnic foodways because they rarely resemble the exact traditions of the homeland. As lifestyles change, so do the foodways (Kaplan, et al, 3). For example, feeding large groups of people with fish has been tradition since fishing cultures, but ways of cooking the fish: broiled, fried, etc., have evolved to suit the tastes and resources of certain communities.
This evolution is consistent with Kaplanís insistence that foodways are not static (Kaplan, et al, 4). Traditions are constantly altered to adapt to personal values and the fish fry has moved from backyards to taverns to church picnics while retaining the emphasis on family and community. More on the dynamic nature of foodways will be discussed later in relation to the primary research conducted at a local fish fry in Madison, WI.
††††††††††† On Friday, April 25, 2003, my research partner, Tanya Gillitzer, and I attended a fish fry held at Tallardís Station in Middleton, WI. We chose this particular establishment because a few people when asked to provide suggestions for authentic Wisconsin fish fries in the Madison area recommended it to us. This particular restaurant was built three years ago, but the first Tallardís Station was built in 1941 with the intent of providing a relaxed family atmosphere for good food and entertainment. The history of Tallardís Station played a strong role in the decision to make it our fish fry destination. The atmosphere reflected the family tradition the restaurant was built upon. I overheard the host calling a manager, ďMom,Ē and black and white photographs and magazine clippings of the first Tallardís Station were displayed on the walls. The tables were all in one open area, leaving no one feeling secluded in a corner. The way a restaurant is decorated and set up is a clear indicator of the values and goals of the establishment. Tallardís Station clearly embraces its history of family and strives to extend that to its guests. Since the fish fry is mainly a family tradition, other restaurants and taverns serving fish fries are likely to provide a similar environment.
While Tallardís Station cannot represent the entire stateís definition of the quintessential fish fry, we found the establishment to completely represent the main themes and qualities of a typical Wisconsin fish fry. Interviews with the customers helped us establish the themes. Those interviewed do not necessarily represent a random sample of Wisconsin residents; however, many age groups were approached and interviewed, which validates our study by making the selection relatively broad. Everyone gladly spoke with us for a few minutes and answered questions about their experiences with fish fries and reasons for attending. Children, middle-aged and elderly attendees were all asked the same questions, which allowed us to pick out themes among their various stories. The themes found through the interviews, correlated to the descriptions of traditional fish fries depicted in the secondary literature.
††††††††††† Jeff Hagen, a writer and illustrator from Mount Horeb, Wis., wrote two books on the subject of Wisconsin fish fries and has been featured in national newspapers for his expertise on the topic (Wineke, 2003, Mar. 5, D1). Hagen identifies three reasons for their popularity in Wisconsin, each of which was reinforced through the personal interviews conducted. Haganís first reason is the large population of German Catholics in Wisconsin, who brought the tradition of meatless Fridays with them. Jeff Hasley, a Middleton resident and regular customer of Tallardís Stationís fish fry agrees with Hagen stating, ďWhen I grew up, I grew up as a Catholic and my family on Friday would eat fish instead of meat, so I kind of got into it on Fridays because of that.Ē† However, not all interviewees cited religion as the reason for their constant attendance, which is consistent with Hagenís second and third justifications of the fish fryís popularity. The second reason is Wisconsinís proximity to the Great Lakes, which provided an abundance of inexpensive fish available throughout the state. Rick Zimmerman, also a Middleton resident, shared the story of taking his lunch break every day and eating fish at a local restaurant for the sole reason that it was cheap. ďWe live right next to the Great Lakes,Ē he said ďOf course there is going to be fish and of course we are going to eat it.Ē Hagenís third reason is what people call the ďGerman imbibement factor,Ē which simply means Wisconsin, unlike many other states, has a family tradition of bringing their children with them to the bar or tavern. I found this to be true while surveying the attendance at Tallardís Station and seeing elderly couples dining next to families with young children.
††††††††††† However, strict interpretations of such a unique tradition are not satisfactory to many folklorists, who dig deeper and insist the fish fry evolved from the meshing of many cultures. Janet Gilmore, who has a Ph.D in folklore believes the fishing culture of the Ojibway tribe played a major role in the evolution of the fish fry. ďThe only way for the Ojibway to survive here was to eat white fish and lake trout, which they dried so they could make it through winter,Ē she says. ďThen all these immigrants descended on the area-Scandinavians, Belgians, French, Germans, Poles. They intermarried with each other, and with the Ojibway, and everyone kept on fishing (Martell, 2002, Aug., 5, D1).† However, eating battered fish in bars and restaurants did not become a social tradition in Wisconsin until around the time of Prohibition, Gilmore notes. These establishments had to find a gimmick to replace alcohol to consistently draw crowds. Offering fish fries on Friday nights was affordable for the whole family, which made Wisconsin one of the only states where entire families attend taverns together. Since then the standard fare for the fish fry is battered or deep-fried fish accompanied by a potato (baked, mashed, French fries, etc.) and cole slaw. By the time Prohibition was lifted, the tradition had already been cemented in Wisconsin and now a favorite beer could be ordered to wash down the fish (Martell, 2002, Aug., 5, D1). Not one of the interviewees mentioned Prohibition as a reason for the popularity of fish fries, probably because it was before their time, but many noted the hand-in-hand relation of fish fries and beer. This could point to a relationship between the lifting of Prohibition and fish fries, but could also reflect Wisconsinís overall love for beer.
††††††††††† The tradition of the Wisconsin fish is a local example of the role of foodways in defining the social values of a group. Field research at a local fish fry gave insight to Wisconsinís feelings about fish fries and the personal traditions they hold. After conducting this research, I feel lucky to be associated with such a strong cultural activity and am excited to participate with my own family.
Hasley, J. Personal interview conducted on 4/25/03.
Kaplan, Anne R., Marjorie A. Hoover, and Willard B. Moore. (1986).
Introduction: On ethnic foodways. The Minnesota Ethnic Food Book.
Martell, C. (2002, Aug. 5). Talk aims to feed curiosity about fish fry tradition. The
††††††††††† Wisconsin State Journal. pp. D1.
Wineke, W. (2003, Mar. 5). Best Fishes! In Wisconsin itís always open season for the
††††††††††† fish fry. The Wisconsin State Journal. pp. D1.
Zimmerman, R. Personal interview conducted on 4/25/03.