There’s about a month left until Easter, which means that we’re firmly in Lent season. Growing up in a heavily Christian, Midwestern suburb, I’d listen to my friends chatter about what junk food or video games they were giving up, the dresses that they’d just gotten for Easter, and, if they were Catholic, whether they were going to the Friday fish fry at church.
For those less familiar with the tradition, Lent is the forty-day period leading up to Good Friday. During that period, the Church requires that its members abstain from eating meat (or more specifically, the “flesh of warm-blooded” animals) as a form of penance.
As a young food-obsessive, I always had one question though: Why fish?
There actually isn’t really one simple answer to this question. Since the church just forbids eating warm-blooded animals, there are no prescribed rules or mandates on what should be eaten instead. Fish are cold-blooded, so many think that it was just a natural alternative for protein, especially since fish have always been important in Christian theology.
That’s not the only answer though. Another popular theory, which takes us overseas to England, suggests that the choice grew out of political and economic pressures in the 16th century. By that time, fish was a popular staple since it was fairly cheap, easy to cure and preserve, and filling. But then came King Henry VIII’s dramatic exit from the Roman Catholic church, spurred by the Pope’s refusal to annul his marriage so that he might marry Anne Boleyn. To get around that obstacle, Henry VIII founded the Church of England, spicing up history textbooks for high schoolers everywhere.
Since fish was heavily associated with the Roman Catholic church, the food suddenly became political. As the Church of England grew, the popularity of fish dwindled. It wasn’t until after Henry VIII left the throne in the 1540s that his successor, Edward VI, helped out suffering fishermen by once again encouraging his subjects to eat fish.
So how did Lenten fish frys kick off in America? Most people point to early European immigrants who settled in Midwestern states like Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana, and brought their Catholic practice of abstaining from meat (plus love of fishing) with them. Meat was also more expensive, so fish was a more affordable alternative.
Interestingly, Prohibition might have also played a part in establishing fish frys as a full-on event, transforming a simple dish into a social gathering. According to Wisconsin lore, bars and taverns in the 1920s were faced with a business dilemma after alcohol was declared illegal. Since fish was plentiful, cheap, and pretty easy to cook, many of them started to sell fish dinners to stay afloat, serving them with sides like coleslaw, potato salad, and fries. Some bars even used the fish dinners to disguise speakeasies, taking advantage of the fragrant oil smell.
Soon, fish frys became a regular fixture in the U.S. Churches began to host fish frys as fundraisers and events for their parishes to come together during Lent. After the end of Prohibition, restaurants added their own versions of fish dinners to lure in swaths of Friday pescatarians. In the 1960s, McDonald’s even added the Filet-O-Fish sandwich after one franchise owner in Ohio noticed that his Catholic base was seeking out fish sandwiches elsewhere.
Nowadays, fish frys are still common in the Midwest and Northeast during Lent (and sometimes even beyond those months), especially in places like upstate New York and Pennsylvania that were other popular settling grounds for Roman Catholic immigrants. In Wisconsin, which some point to as the site of the earliest American fish fry, there are so many restaurants and bars serving them up that you can go on your own fried fish crawl.
Some fish frys have even grown into full-blown festivals, with music, fireworks, and state fair vibes. One annual fish fry in Amo, Indiana, has been going on for sixty-plus years. Members of a primarily Hispanic Catholic church in St. Louis created what they called a Mexican Fish Fry. Instead of the typical bread, slaw, and potato salad sides, they started dishing out chiles rellenos and quesadillas.
Though the batter recipe and type of fish might change from region to region, as might the sides that come along with it, the community aspect of a fish fry remains the same.
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