Fish Frys, Catholicism and Prohibition

History of Wisconsin Fish Fry

What’s the history of fish frys in Wisconsin?

Two words: Catholicism and Prohibition.

When thousands of Roman Catholic families from Germany, Ireland, and Poland settled in Wisconsin, they brought with them their tradition of abstaining from meat on Fridays. And thanks to Lake Michigan, fish became a popular and affordable meal.

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It’s #tartarsauce day & the first Friday of #lent so you know we had to do something on #Wisconsin #fishfry – where’s your fav fish fry in WI?

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But what makes this way more interesting is the role Prohibition played. Milwaukee was already full of breweries in 1920, and a constitutional ban on alcohol really threatened to suck the life out of it. You would think these breweries would all go out of business. Instead, they got creative.

If you’re a tavern, how do you get people to come in if you can’t sell them beer? You sell a fish lunch, particularly on a Friday. And if you maybe sneakily include a beer because people get thirsty when they eat a salty fish, no big deal.

This tactic started in Milwaukee and then spread like wildfire throughout the state. Luckily, the authorities didn’t have enough capacity to find all those sneaky beers—disguised as water?—in the countless bars across the state. Fusing fish, beer and Fridays in Wisconsin became forever more.

What I love most about this story is how Catholics were so adamant about following the rules of the church and not eating meat on Fridays, but when it came to not drinking booze because it was now illegal, they were like “nah.”

In Wisconsin, meat might be a sin, but beer is a necessary function of life.

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