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 widely recognized
and practiced throughout the state. Primary and secondary research was conducted in
order to determine the sentiment and reasoning behind the tradition of Wisconsin’s fish
Foodways can be defined as, “a 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 Kaplan’s 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 Tallard’s 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 Tallard’s Station was built in 1941 with the intent of providing a
relaxed family atmosphere for good food and entertainment. The history of Tallard’s
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, “Mom,” and black and white photographs and magazine clippings
of the first Tallard’s 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. Tallard’s 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 Tallard’s Station cannot represent the entire state’s 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. Hagan’s 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 Tallard’s Station’s fish fry agrees with Hagen
stating, “When 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.” However, not all
interviewees cited religion as the reason for their constant attendance, which is consistent
with Hagen’s second and third justifications of the fish fry’s popularity. The second
reason is Wisconsin’s 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. “We live right next to the Great Lakes,”
he said “Of course there is going to be fish and of course we are going to eat it.” Hagen’s
third reason is what people call the “German imbibement factor,” 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
Tallard’s 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. “The 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,” she says. “Then 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 Wisconsin’s 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
Wisconsin’s 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 it’s always open season for the
fish fry. The Wisconsin State Journal. pp. D1.
Zimmerman, R. Personal interview conducted on 4/25/03.