While Wisconsin is known for its staple foods — cheese curds, beer and one usually served on Friday nights with a side of tartar sauce.
Just as barbecue is to South Carolina and lobster rolls to those in Maine, Wisconsin has its own iconic culinary symbol associated with the state: the fish fry.
The Roman Catholic Church’s practice of abstaining from eating meat on Fridays and the wave of European immigrants settling in the state during the late 1800s were the roots of the fish fry. It also represents the states strong fishing culture, creating a sense of pride and a reason for Wisconsinites to celebrate.
Each restaurant has its own take on this tradition.
Wisconsin native, Food Historian and Culinary Expert Kyle Cherek said the fish fry dates back to the Middle Ages — 1249 AD to be exact. The Catholic Church asks those who follow the religion to abstain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent.
Father Greg Ihm, who serves as the director of vocations for the Diocese of Madison, said the practice of abstaining from eating meat is more of a “spiritual practice” as a way for Catholics to discipline themselves and “strengthen their ability” to resist sin and temptation. Friday is associated with Good Friday, as a way to remember and commemorate the day Jesus was crucified and died, he said.
When the mass waves of European settlers, mainly German, Polish and Scandinavians, immigrated to the United States, they took the ritual with them.
Cherek said the fish fry became centered around Milwaukee when Baltic sea fishermen from Northwest Poland settled on Jones Island, what is today considered the edge of Milwaukee. The island had an abundant supply of fish with the easy access the water, so those who followed the no meat rule on Fridays made their way to the island to partake.
Jones Island had 11 taverns but that changed when Prohibition hit in the late 1920s. Because restaurants needed a way to bring people in when the nation went dry, promotions of fish lunches for a low price started popping up around the city.
As those people started to move out into other areas of the state, opening restaurants took notice and started hosting Friday night fish fries as a way to guarantee people would come in on Fridays and the tradition was born.
While its origins are rooted in the early days of the settlers, the fish fry also celebrates the culture of Wisconsin. Cherek said the fish fry celebrates the state’s geographic culture, with its surrounding rivers and a Great Lake as well as an abundant fishing supply.
“It makes sense we would have a cultural meal that celebrates one of the aspect of this geography,” Cherek said. “That’s standard for anywhere you go.”
Cherek said a traditional German fish fry meal consists of fish, red cabbage, rye bread and German potato salad. The classic fish fry consists of fish, mainly cod or perch, cabbage variations, choice of potato and bread, he said.
However, the variations depends on where you live and what each restaurant offers.
J’s Pub and Grill Owner Jayson Pettit said what make its fish fry unique is the variety. The Reedsburg restaurant uses haddock and prepares its fish fry four ways: fried, pan-fried, butter crumb broiled and broiled. Having the other four options provides an option to those looking for a more healthy alternative to fried fish, he said.
“I think our fish fry is pretty straight forward,” Pettit said. “We want to be unique and offering different ways. But at the same time people have an expectation fish fry and I think we fit that mold.”
Pettit said the restaurant’s traditional fried fish is the most popular option. J’s Pub and Grill uses Japanese panko breadcrumbs for its breading, a courser product that does not absorb a lot of oil.
“You get a less greasy fish,” he said.
The second popular option is the butter crumb broiled fish, the newest addition to the menu. The butter and Japanese panko breadcrumbs are toasted ahead of time. A sprinkled secret house seasoning is added over top of the fish, creating a crunchy sensation without frying. The dish is put on a pan and oven broiled for 8-9 minutes.
A gluten free option is also available as a rice panko, he said.
Pan-fried is the other popular option, a dish sautéed in butter and lightly coated with seasoned flour. The option is available upon request and will be added to a new menu expected in October, he said.
The fish fry comes with a choice of potato, salad and soup. One of the soup options include a homemade clam chowder, made with bacon, onions, celery, potatoes and clams.
“It’s a very thick, creamy, hearty soup,” Pettit said.
A two-piece meal is served at lunch from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. while a three-piece meal dinner from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. For a drink option, Pettit recommends sticking with another Wisconsin tradition, paring with a brandy old fashioned.
Sand Bar Part Owner Joe Malina said the Wisconsin Dells restaurant takes “great pride” in its fish fry, making sure every batch leaving the fryer is perfect before serving to customers.
“If people tell me (it’s) the best then I want it to be the best,” he said.
Malina also considers its fish fry a mix of traditional and non-traditional.
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“You have your old Wisconsin flavors but with our little unique twist,” he said.
Sand Bar uses a battered cod recipe, which Malina said he obtained from a retired Italian chef. The batter is made with flour, secret spices and five different quality beers, like New Glarus Spotted Cow and Dells based Port Hereon Brewing Company’s Czech Engine Pilsner.
“He insisted it,” he said of the chef who gave him the recipe. “You use a better quality beer and your batter stays on your fish and he’s right.”
The lake perch is fried with the seasoned flour mix as a lighter option because it’s a thinner fish, he said.
“You don’t want to overwhelm it,” he said.
Sand Bar’s fish fry run all day on Fridays – from the time it opens at 10 a.m. until 10 p.m. Malina said Sand Bar serves fried two-piece hand battered cod and has a lake perch option. Jumbo shrimp on the menu is served three ways, fried, buffalo and coconut.
Malina offers a cod and lake perch combo for those who want to try both. The menu also lists an “ultimate seafood plate,” with one piece of cod, three pieces of lake perch and three shrimp.
The meal comes with house made coleslaw, Texas toast, a choice of French fries or “baby bakers,” beer battered French fries served with sour cream and butter. House made tarter and cocktail sauce is available. Another option, like drawn butter, is available upon request.
Sand Bar also serves a fish sandwich basket, a lunch option for those on the go or another fish option for a sit down meal.
Malina said what separates Sand Bar’s fish fry from others is the restaurants attention to detail. He makes the homemade batter fresh every Friday morning and chills it to temperature. The service is also what separates Sand Bar from other restaurants.
“We take care of our people,” he said. “We want to make sure they are happy.”
Consistency and quality
Buckhorn Grill and Bar Owner Ryan Bodi said quality and consistency is what customers like about the Necedah restaurants fish fry.
Bodi said its menu has more of a traditional fish fry with a choice of cod, perch or walleye that comes with a choice of potato, including beer battered, natural cut fries and tater tots, house made coleslaw and a slice of bread or a dinner role.
Bodi said what separates its fish fry from other restaurants is its house made recipes and the “good potion” sizes. A dinner consists of three 4-ounce fillets of cod, one fillet of walleye is 6-8 ounces and perch is three fillet at 3-4 ounces.
The perch is dipped in a dry batter, mixed with spices, cornstarch and beer, and fried golden brown. On Friday mornings, Bodi whisks together Keystone Beer, eggs, salt, pepper, garlic powder and onion powder for the beer batter. Bodi stirs the mixture it throughout the evening to keep it consistent.
Perch and walleye will each get a light coating of dry batter. Customers can choose between a pan fried or deep-fried option. The restaurant fish fry also serve lemon pepper baked cod with butter, onion and garlic powder seasoning is available.
Bodi said the beer battered cod is the most popular option with customers because the crust isn’t to dense and the inside is moist. Liz Rotchford, a Necedah resident, agreed while eating her first fish fry at the restaurant Sept. 20.
“It’s not overdone,” Rotchford said. “It’s just done perfectly.”
Bodi recommends pairing its fish fry with a brandy sweet old fashioned, a popular request at the restaurant. It also has Hillsboro Brewing Company Oktoberfest brew on tap.
Green Acres in Sauk City has used the same batter recipe in its fish fry for over 30 years and Owner Dan Cunningham said there isn’t plans to change the recipe.
“We want to honor the tradition,” he said.
Cunningham said the history of the recipe is what makes the supper club’s fish fry unique compared to other restaurants. He didn’t give away all the secrets of the three decade old recipe, but said it consists of a mixture of flour, spices and a Miller based beer. Cunningham said the beer “holds the moisture of the fish” and creates a crunchy outside.
“It’s the crispiness that I think makes it so unique,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham said the supper club uses haddock because it’s a more “meatier” fish compared to cod. Green Acres also has a broiled haddock option available.
He said another secret is the freshness of the fish. Each piece of fish is made to order and batches of batter are made fresh that day, even throughout the evening depending on how busy the restaurant is, he said. The tarter sauce is made with heavy-duty mayonnaise and a homemade dill relish recipe, Cunningham said.
“We make it with love, we make it with tradition and we make it with quality ingredients,” he said.
The meal on Friday is served with a choice of baked potato, hash browns or French fries, homemade coleslaw and an choice of salad bar. The Friday fish fry also offers a potato and cheddar crusted cod, a baked cod with a potato, cheddar and herb crust and a fresh fish.
The haddock meal is available on the regular menu every day for $19 and includes salad bar. Green Acres fish fry special is also served on Tuesdays for the same price as the Friday Fish Fry at $14 for fried and broiled for $15. Cunningham said the reason for the extra day is so people who are busy on Fridays can still take the chance to indulge.
Cunningham recommends paring its fish fry with an old fashioned, made with its homemade simple syrup. For beer, he recommends on tap options of New Glarus Spotted Cow on tap and New Glarus Seasonal. For its wine selection, Cunningham recommends a glass of Wollersheim Dry Riesling, Ferrari Carano Chardonnay or Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc.
Follow Erica Dynes on Twitter @EDynes_CapNews or contact her at 608-393-5346.