Monday, April 4, 2022

Wisconsin Friday Night Fish Frys Aren't Just Enjoyed During Lent


by Pamela S. Meyers 

Photo Resource:  Travel

While growing up in southern Wisconsin, you can be sure that my Friday nights often involved going out for a fish fry. When I moved out of state for a number of years, I enjoyed eating other foods on Friday nights, but nothing ever tasted as good as a plate of deep-fried Cod, coleslaw, rye bread, and fries or potato pancakes. 

It was not only a great way to end the workweek but a means of catching up with friends. Something I miss a lot since I live in a much more populated area now.

Ad from Lake Geneva Regional News
dated 1951

Nearly every eatery in town served its own version of the tasty meal, be it the clubhouse at the local golf course (that was only open during the golfing season) or a lodge next to the waters of Geneva Lake during any time of the year. 

How did Wisconsin become known for this special meal?

During the 19th Century, many Polish families immigrated to America and settled in Milwaukee on a small peninsula called Jones Island that jutted out into Lake Michigan. The men soon adapted their crop raising skills to fishing and Jones Island became the center of a thriving fish industry. Since most of the Polish were Catholic, the main component of their Friday night meal was deep-fried fish, served with a crusty slice of Rye bread and other sides. (See this article to read how a Milwaukee peninsula became an island)

Milwaukee’s historian, Kyle Cherek host of the PBS show "Wisconsin Foodie" until 2019, explains
Another ad from the 1950s. Note although
this restaurant was known for its excellent
choices it also included a fish fry
on Friday nights.
 the Friday fish fry tradition can be traced as far back as far as 1249, when canon law forbade Catholics to consume red meat on Fridays. By the mid-19th century, the fish fry had become a classic lunch for the Irish and Polish immigrants that had resettled in Milwaukee, and the Jones Island neighborhood became the center of freshwater fishing. 

The proximity to such a large body of water made fish, such as cod and perch, an affordable and readily available food source. It wasn’t long before restaurants of all types in the cities and rural areas of the state had a Friday night fish fry every week of the year. 

I lived for seven years just minutes from the Pacific in Southern California and enjoyed many seafood meals at Redondo Beach Pier and other places there, but I still think there is nothing like a Wisconsin Friday night fish fry. When I was growing up, some eateries around Lake Geneva gave diners a choice of fish with bones or without. My mom loved picking the bones out of her fish until one became caught in her throat and our meal was interrupted by a visit to the doctor. After that, she went boneless. I don’t think that choice is offered anymore. 

Ad from 2015 showing some of the local restaurants that serve a Friday fish fry in
the Lake Geneva area.
You can be sure no matter which one you pick, 
you'll be sure to see people you know. 

Does the area where you live have a century-long traditional meal? Please share. And while you do, I’m heading to my kitchen to prepare a fish fry. I’ve found a brand of frozen fish that tastes almost the same as being there when prepared in an air fryer. 

Resources: Why The Friday Fish Fry Became A Wisconsin Tradition
The Lake Geneva Regional News, various editions accessed by

Pam Meyers lives in northern Illinois with her two rescue cats. She's very happy to be within an hour's drive of Wisconsin's great fish frys. 

All Grace Bauer has wanted to do since she was a child was to fly airplanes. When the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) organizes for female pilots to ferry new bomber aircraft to stateside military bases, Grace applies. She never tires of flying B-17s and other aircraft, and dreams of being one of the first females to pilot a commercial airliner after the war.

A life-threatening illness clips her wings, and she finds herself back home in Wisconsin, thinking that God is punishing her for a past sin. Bored, she joins a ladies bowling league and meets Mac McAlister, a widowed school teacher who helps out at the bowling alley on league nights. He offers to help her restore the old family lakeshore estate, Safe Refuge—now called Rose Harbor and lost during the Crash of 1929—back to the family. She’s happy to have a good friend like Mac to help. But despite her efforts to keep their relationship platonic, Grace’s feelings for him grow. Before the relationship can move to the next level, she must tell him her secret, and when he hears it, he’ll want nothing more to do with her. She should end the relationship, but can’t imagine life without him. It is only with God’s blessing that she’ll be free to love Mac. But after what she’s done, she doubts God is willing to forgive her.


  1. I agree, Pam! There's nothing like it. I do have a hankering for a fish fry. Maybe this week. Yes, they're still a popular Friday night event up here. When I was a teenager I waitressed at a dinner club with one of the best fish fries around. The bonus was that we got to have a meal before customers arrived. Yum

  2. Haha. Good think I didn't waitress at one of our restaurants on Friday nights, I would have had a lot of extra pounds on me. But then maybe with all that running around on busy Friday nights I would have worked off all those calories.

  3. In Vermont and New Hampshire when I was growing up in the 60s and 70s many restaurants served a fish fry on Fridays. It was usually fish, fries and cole slaw but was popular. I'm not sure how it became a tradition other than for meat free Fridays often practiced by Catholic families, and maybe others just liked the idea. The tradition can still be found here and there, but not as common nowadays.

  4. I LOVE fish dinners. I've had to settle for Captain D's here in GA, but they are the best!

  5. Fish frys are still popular here in SW Missouri; my mom and dad would drive for an hour just to go to their favorite restaurants that served fish on Friday nights.

  6. Hi, Pam. Wow, as a Wisconsin girl, and a fifth generation Fish Monger, my family owned Houmann &Son's Fishmarket in Racine---Fish fries were always a staple in the community, every church, every fund raiser, every bar, and in our store every Friday and Saturday nights all year long. My Friday nights were spent delivering extra wholesale perch and fish to all the local taverns for their own fish fries. The store was long ago sold but I still have the original recipes, and two Sundays ago the family came for a fish fry! PS, I still make my own coleslaw,-my recipe-. Nothing is better than fried perch or walleye from the Midwest, even though it is hard to find Lake Perch now. But, 'It was always good fishing at Houmann's!"