Friday fish fry mixes more than tasty ingredients
If you go
What: St. Patrick’s fish fries.
When: 5 p.m. Friday, March 30, and Friday, April 2.
Where: St. Patrick’s School, 305 Lincoln St., Janesville.
Cost: Tickets are $9 in advance, $10 at the door.
For more information: Call the school at (608) 752-2031.
JANESVILLE Reporter: What’s in the recipe?
Capt. Smartypants: Beer and batter.
Wednesday marked the beginning of Lent, a time of prayer, reflection and no meat on Fridays.
That, right there, is reason enough for a fish fry.
But if you live in Wisconsin, and your fish is good enough to prompt more than 50 people to form a line that snakes down a hall, around the corner and into the cafeteria, then you have an even better reason to hold a fish fry more often—say twice in February and once every other month between September and April.
On Friday, St. Patrick’s School was holding its second February fish fry. By 4 p.m., the school cafeteria was ready to go. Three stations of drinks and condiments had been set up. Regiments of desserts were lined up in formation along the front wall.
The lemons were cut, the coffee made, the steam table prepped and the well-coiffed raffle-ticket ladies were at their station, ready to sell.
And in the kitchen, the well-orchestrated magic of the fish fry had begun.
Mr. Wisenheimer: It takes 10, 10-ounce cans of beer to make the batter.
Reporter, writing it down: Really?
Wisenheimer, grinning: Beer comes in 12-ounce cans, get it?
Reporter: (After a long pause) OK, now I get it.
At St Patrick’s, the menu includes baked cod, hand-battered fried cod, cheesy potatoes, regular potatoes, French fries, salad, cole slaw, rolls, a serious lineup of homemade desserts and—heresy—chicken strips for children and non-Catholics.
The school’s kitchen is tiny, and it requires a careful choreography of hot pans, prep work and temperature checks to keep thing moving smoothly.
The standard dance steps include fetch and carry, batter and drop, scoop and shake—all accompanied by the snap of pop top lids, the whirr of the mixer, the scrape of the whisk against an aluminum bowl and an almost constant stream of teasing and smart remarks.
“It is like a ballet,” said head cook Mary Richards as she watched her workers weave gracefully around each other.
In their serious moments, which were few and far between, the kitchen workers all credited Richards with the success of the fish fries.
“She’s really the one who does it all,” said Karen Minott as she battered and dropped fish into the boiling oil.
It’s true. Richards’ cheerful presence seemed to keep everything on track.
Need more baked fish?
Here it is.
Can’t find your grandmother?
Come with me, honey, and we’ll find her.
Richards, who volunteers almost 40 hours each week in the school kitchen, gives credit to her fish-frying team.
“We started this fish fry about eight years ago when we needed to raise money for an elevator,” Richards said. “We had 250 people and were really happy.”
They held another one, and the numbers increased. Now they serve between 400 and 500 people. At the final fish fry of the year, they have as many as 575 people.
Bertha Janis is one of the many regulars. So are Jim and Irene Krause.
“The fish is absolutely wonderful,” Janis said.
Irene Krause chimes in immediately, “Oh, yes, it’s just wonderful, wonderful. We buy our tickets in advance.”
And the cole slaw—a critical part of any fish fry—is good, too, they both agree.
Oh, and the desserts, the desserts! The ladies can’t say enough.
Even the rolls are good. Not for St. Pat’s those squashy white things that exist in the purgatory between dough and an actual roll.
On Friday, the rolls came from Texas Road House, and were carefully cooked and basted with butter.
Back in the kitchen, the work and the banter continued. One of the volunteers was leaving early, and everybody had something funny to say about it.
Susie Smarty: You’re going? Well, even a one-armed monkey can prepare baked fish.
Volunteer currently preparing fish: Hey!
Susie Smarty: I didn’t mean you, I meant that other guy.
General laughter, all around.
Wisconsin fish fries have history of hospitality, religion and illegal booze
Most Wisconsin residents assume Friday fish fries are linked to the Catholic tradition of abstaining from meat Fridays during Lent.
That’s not exactly the case.
In their book, “The Flavor of Wisconsin: An Informal History of Food and Eating in the Badger State,” Harva Hachten and Teresa Allen consider the food-history-culture links in Wisconsin.
In Wisconsin, Friday fish fries are “nothing less than an institution, in which food, history, geography, ethnicity and religion intertwine in a unique expression of regional culture,” Hachten and Allen write.
UW-Madison folklore professor Janet Gilmore traced the fish fry to Prohibition. Desperate bar owners lured people in with “free lunches” of fish and then sold alcohol under the table, the book says.
“Another feature of the fish fry phenomenon is gemutlichkeit, the German concept that connotes geniality, hospitality and good fellowship, often in the context of food and drink. Wisconsin is one of the most German states in the heritage in the Union, and the practice of gemutlichkeit is a durable thread in its cultural fabric,” the book notes.
Now add to that Wisconsin’s German-Catholic history.
“The earliest Europeans to arrive in Wisconsin were French fur traders, followed closely by Jesuit and Recollect missionaries,” according to the Wisconsin Historical Society website, wisconsinhistory.org.
The missionaries weren’t terribly successful. It wasn’t until Father John Martin Henni became the first bishop of Milwaukee in 1843 that Catholicism flourished.
The “Wisconsin diocese assumed a reputation for catering to the needs of German speaking settlers throughout the 19th century. In 1896, 172 of the 382 parishes founded in Wisconsin had German origins, with slightly more than half in Milwaukee,” the website notes.