I have to admit, having spent most of my life in New York City, around these parts a soup supper is more common than the fish fry. But when I visited Ohio a few years back during Lent, it was a revelation: town after town, church after church, proudly proclaimed with posters, billboards and banners that they were hosting a weekly fish fry during Lent.
How did this tradition get started?
Glad you asked. Here’s a little history from Daphne Chen of the website Chowhound:
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.
And check out some fish fry recipes here.