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The Wisconsin Friday Tradition

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Lisa Parsley
March 18, 2010

Everyone around here has heard of a Friday fish fry, right? Duh. It is only when you encounter people from different states or countries that they look at you quizzically when you mention it. My husband, who is not from around these parts, was a complete novice to the idea but soon warmed to it. We partake of this Friday tradition as often as we can and have been trying to mix it up in terms of location. I generally like the spots that: A. Are smoke free (which pretty much limits us to the City of Janesville or else bars/restaurants that have distinctive smoke free sections ); B. Offer baked fish at no extra price (did I mention I’m cheap?); and C. Make a good brandy old fashioned (yes, I AM from Wisconsin). Otherwise, I’m pretty easy to please.

A Friday fish fry was our family treat growing up, and we did it probably once or twice a month. Back then, though, you could get a three piece dinner for about $2.25. Kids up to ten could eat for a dime for each year of age. Great deal for a family that had four kids in five years. And remember when cod was the cheap fish? Now cod has been so overfished and nearly endangered, thus expensive. I still order it, but feel guilty about the environment it if that helps.

I like to discovery what it is that people like about a particular fish fry. Is it the batter—thin, thick, beer batter? Is it the little paper cup of coleslaw? The rye bread? (where did that get started, I wonder?) Or is it the “all you can eat” element that appeals to the big eater?

For me, it’s all about the tartar sauce. I love the stuff. I’d order a tartar sauce sandwich if I thought I could get away with it. When we go out, I generally order baked fish (yes, sacrilege for a fish “fry”) so that way I can have a bit of tartar sauce on the fish without the double layer of calories. I try to do one bad habit at a time instead of stacking them.

What do you look for in a good fish fry? And if you are feeling generous, tell us your favorite spot.


I don’t “fry” fish at home, other than when I too infrequently get fresh pan fish. Those I will gently saute’ in butter with a dusting of flour. I think I could probably eat a dozen bluegills by myself cooked that way. Otherwise, our stay at home Friday night staple is fish stew, a recipe adapted from a restaurant we visited on Edisto Island, South Carolina. It is simple and no fail. Just throw in whatever fish you have. It will be good.

Low Country Fish Stew

1 medium onion, diced fine

1 green bell pepper, diced fine

1 Tbsp olive oil

2 large potatoes, cut into 1/2 inch cubes

1 28 oz can stewed tomatoes, crushed

1 Tbsp Old Bay seasoning

2 lbs of whatever fish you like as long as it smells fresh, not fishy. Shrimp works too.

Salt and pepper to taste

  1. In a sauté pan, cook the onion and pepper in the olive oil until tender, stirring occasionally--about 8-10 minutes.

  2. Meanwhile, place the fish in a medium saucepan and barely cover it with water. Bring up to a boil and cook a couple of minutes until just starting to flake. If foam appears on the top, skim it off. Remove the fish and set aside. Err on the side of under rather than overcooked fish at this point. And save the fish stock you need it!

  3. Add the onion and pepper mixture and potatoes to the fish stock and cook until the potatoes are just beginning to soften. Add about a teaspoon of salt to the water then add the tomatoes and the Old Bay seasoning and continue cooking.

  4. When the potatoes are fork tender, add the fish and heat through. The fish should flake apart easily but not be overcooked.

Serve with crusty garlic bread.



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