The Wisconsin Department of Tourism has a unique — some might say low-end — marketing pitch: Come visit and experience a fish fry.
“If it’s Friday night in Wisconsin,” Wisconsin trip says on its website, “Chances are the people of Wisconsin are trying to answer one question, and one question only: Where am I going to eat fry tonight?”
Fish fries are a tradition in Wisconsin, according to the tourism department, due to three factors: Most settlers were Roman Catholics who were told to abstain from meat on Fridays; taverns sold plates of fish to stay financially solvent during Prohibition, and freshwater fish are plentiful.
Restaurants in the state have not strayed from tradition and depend on revenue generated by customers from frying fish. Restaurant owners also disagree with the idea that a fish fry is far from haute cuisine.
“When fried fish is done well, I would parallel it with any seafood dish served by Michelin-starred, James-Beard-winning chefs and restaurants,” says Chris Wiken, general manager of Packing house restaurant in Milwaukee. “Fish fry is a staple in Wisconsin for many reasons. Done the right way, this is an entry anyone in the world would enjoy.
Wisconsin fish fries aren’t just for entrees, says Danielle Baerwald, owner of Erv’s Mug at Oak Creek.
“Our Wisconsin communities are embracing the fish fry event at churches, VFW stations, community centers and neighborhood restaurants,” Baerwald explains. “Whether we serve cod, haddock, bluegill, perch, walleye or any other variety of fish, it’s a matter of community.
The Packing House began serving fry soon after it opened in 1974. In 1986, the restaurant added a drive-thru window for fry customers.
“We’ve used the same recipe since day one,” says Wiken. “Almost everything on the plate is homemade — our breadcrumbs, tartar sauce, coleslaw and hash browns. We don’t take any shortcuts.
Baerwald credits his father with creating a fish fry shortly after Erv’s Mug opened in 1979.
“For him, beer batter was the only choice for his fry,” Barewald says. “The beer batter creates a chewy, puffy coating that seals in the flavor of the fish. Our dough is prepared twice a week with spices, eggs, flour and, of course, lots of beer! For a more delicate fish like perch, skip the beer and bread the small fillets in just the flour and spices before frying them.
What about health issues related to fried foods? Many Wisconsin restaurants also offer baked and grilled fish options, and Baerwald points to his grandfather’s long history of eating fried fish.
“My grandfather lived to be 105 and fish fries filled his Friday nights,” he says. “His motto was everything in moderation. Certainly, an individual should make the best food choices for their health, but wise choices can be made in restaurants and at home to allow for the occasional treat.