By Bill Turner
Wisconsin is unique in so many ways. The fans own the professional football team—the Green Bay Packers, of course. Located in the tiniest city in the NFL, the team is the only one in the league with this type of ownership structure. Here’s another tidbit you may not know—Wisconsinites are also the largest per capita consumers of brandy in the world. You’re probably wondering about that, but the next time you are in your local watering hole, check out how many people are having brandy Manhattans. The number is huge.
Then, there is the Friday night fish fry. Sure, some places in Illinois serve a fish fry, but you will really have to search for those places. In Wisconsin, on the other hand, almost every restaurant has a fish fry on Friday night. And, the side dishes are always the same—potato pancakes and applesauce. Maybe you’ll get a little cole slaw also. The traditional beverage is a good Wisconsin beer.
Try this. Google “Wisconsin Friday night fish fry.” You’ll get 1,640,000 search results! The fish fry is a big deal!
LET’S START WITH THE BEGINNING
The origins of the Friday night fish fry are varied and disputed. Christians eating fish on Friday in remembrance of Jesus’ crucifixion dates from the first century.
According to many sources, Wisconsin’s earliest settlers were Catholics of German and Polish descent, which meant eating meat on Friday was forbidden. In addition, Wisconsin’s many lakes with plentiful fish offered a perfect alternative for the main meal on Friday.
If you’ve been to Door County you may have attended a fish boil, originally made popular by Scandinavians who settled there. Northern Wisconsin’s lumber camps also favored the fish boil because it was a popular way to feed large groups. In this age old process, a large cauldron is placed over a roaring fire and potatoes, white fish and salt are cooked to exacting standards. Whatever the cooking method, fish has been a staple on Friday in Wisconsin for generations. As a kid growing up, I certainly remember no meat on Fridays.
Others say that the breweries in Wisconsin started the fish fry tradition as a way to promote beer sales. Many of the breweries had bars in the early 1900s and they recognized that adding a fish fry was a way to attract families for dinner. Dad could say he was promoting Christian traditions and still enjoy a few beers.
YOU CAN’T GO WRONG WITH PERCH OR WALLEYE
For a long time, the fish fry was always cod, broiled or deep-fried. But, with the resurgence of the Lake Erie walleye and perch fishery (see sidebar on page 130), these two species are often available. The walleye is actually a member of the perch family.
Freshwater perch and walleye are, in my opinion, some of the tastiest fish available. When I was young, my grandfather would take me fishing on Cedar Lake in Indiana. It was a great lake for perch and other pan fish. Cleaning was laborious, but my grandmother would lightly bread and deep-fry the little filets and we soon forgot the work. It was wonderful. There are perch in Geneva and Delavan lakes although they tend to be small, but you might get lucky and catch a mess suitable for a fish fry. You won’t find too many walleye. Who knows why.
Almost all of the fish available for your Friday night fish fry, perch, walleye and cod, have been “previously frozen,” which is okay. Not much else is possible with the walleye and perch coming from Lake Erie and the cod from the Atlantic. Bag limits in Wisconsin for walleye range from one to three per day—not enough for a fish fry.
The great thing about perch and walleye is that they are usually available sautéed or pan-fried with a light breading. If you haven’t tried it, this is the way to go, especially if you want a change from cod.
HOW ABOUT A FISH FRY AT HOME
While everyone should get out and try some of the great fish fries in our local restaurants, you can try it yourself. Here’s how I learned to do a Wisconsin Friday night fish fry at home.
One Friday last year, after playing golf with my good friend, Gary, he suggested that I have dinner at his house. My wife was gone on a “girls weekend” so I was an easy target. His wife, Priscilla, is a great cook and when I heard she was cooking perch, I immediately accepted the invitation.
As I watched her cook, I realized that this was not only a fantastic meal, but also very easy. Below is her recipe, which works equally well with perch or walleye.
WISCONSIN FISH FRY
- 1 ½ lbs. of perch or walleye filets—perch and walleye are generally available in good supermarkets. Daniels Sentry in Walworth often has both fresh and frozen.
- 1 cup flour
- 1 cup Panko breadcrumbs
- 2 eggs
- 1 tsp. salt
- ½ cup vegetable oil
- Tartar sauce
- 1 lb. Tater Tots
- One six-pack of good Wisconsin beer
- Bake the Tater Tots in the oven per package instructions. Start this first so they are ready at the same time as the fish.
- Heat about ¼” of vegetable oil in a large frying pan over medium heat.
- In one shallow bowl, whisk a couple of eggs. In another bowl, mix the flour, Panko breadcrumbs and the salt.
- Dredge the perch filets first in the egg and then in the flour/breadcrumb/salt mixture.
- Cook the filets about 2 minutes on each side and cool on paper towel.
- Serve with some good tartar sauce and cold beer.
Priscilla served Tater Tots with the perch. Wow, I had forgotten how much I like Tater Tots. You buy them frozen, plop them in the oven on a baking sheet while you cook the fish. Then you watch everyone’s eyes light up when you serve them. I was thinking that we ought to do potato pancakes from scratch, but the Tater Tots were quick and easy.
We’d love to hear about your fish fry recipes or your favorite place for a Friday fish fry. Post your suggestions, recipes and photos on the At The Lake Facebook page. Those of you who are foodies, this is a challenge I’m posing to you. I can’t wait to see what you come up with!