Wisconsin’s tourism department has a unique — some might say downscale — marketing pitch: Come visit and experience a fish fry.
“If it’s Friday night in Wisconsin,” Travel Wisconsin says on its website, “chances are Wisconsinites are trying to answer one question, and one question only: Where am I getting fish fry tonight?”
Fish fries are a tradition in Wisconsin, the tourism department says, because of three factors: Most settlers were Roman Catholics who were told to abstain from eating meat on Friday; taverns sold plates of fish to stay financially solvent during Prohibition, and freshwater fish are abundant.
The state’s restaurants haven’t wavered from the tradition and depend on the income generated from fish-fry customers. Restaurateurs also disagree with the notion that a fish fry is a long way from haute cuisine.
“When the fish fry is done right, I’d put it up against any seafood entree served by Michelin-starred, James-Beard-award-winning chefs and restaurants anywhere,” says Chris Wiken, the general manager of the Packing House Restaurant in Milwaukee. “The fish fry is a staple in Wisconsin for so many reasons. Done the right way, it’s an entree anyone in the world would enjoy.”
Wisconsin’s fish fries are about more than the entrees, says Danielle Baerwald, the owner of Erv’s Mug in Oak Creek.
“Our Wisconsin communities embrace the fish fry event in churches, VFW posts, community centers and neighborhood restaurants,” Baerwald explains. “Whether we serve cod, haddock, bluegill, perch, walleye or any other of the many fish varieties, it’s about community.”
The Packing House began serving a fish fry soon after it opened in 1974. In 1986, the restaurant added a drive-through window for fish-fry customers.
“We have used the same recipe from day one,” Wiken says. “Nearly everything on the plate is made from scratch — our breading, tartar sauce, coleslaw and potato pancakes. We take no shortcuts.”
Baerwald credits his father for establishing a fish fry soon after opening Erv’s Mug in 1979.
“For him, beer batter was the only choice for his fish fry,” Barewald says. “Beer batter creates a moist, puffed-up coating that seals in the flavor of the fish. Our batter is made fresh twice a week with spices, eggs, flour and, of course, a whole lot of beer! For a more delicate fish like perch, we skip the beer and bread the petite filets in just the flour and spices before frying.”
What about health concerns about fried foods? Many Wisconsin restaurants also offer baked and broiled fish options, and Baerwald points to his grandfather’s long history of eating fried fish.
“My grandfather lived to 105. and fish fries filled his Friday nights,” he says. “His motto was everything in moderation. Certainly, an individual has to make the best diet choices for one’s health, but smart choices can be made dining out and dining at home to allow for an occasional deep-fried treat.”