What Is a Friday Fish Fry?

Learn the story behind this time-honored tradition. 

plate with lemon wedge, fork, fried battered fish, and fries next to bowl with tartar sauce and candle, all on wooden table
Photo: Bob Stefko/Meredith

The term "Friday fish fry" means something different to everyone, depending on where you're from, as well as your religious and cultural background. This delicious tradition has deep roots dating back hundreds of years. We're going to explore these roots, as well as provide menu ideas that will inspire many fish fries to come.

The Origin of the Friday Fish Fry

If you're from the Midwest, the Northeast, or parts of the Southeast, you may already be quite familiar with the Friday fish fry. During the season of Lent — a 40-day period leading up to Easter — the Catholic Church calls for members to abstain from eating meat on Fridays (the Church defines meat as the "flesh of warm-blooded animals"). Since fish are cold-blooded animals, they became the natural alternative during this season.

When European immigrants came to America in the 1800s, they brought with them the Catholic practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays. Many German and Polish immigrants settled in the Midwest and took advantage of the numerous lakes the region has to offer.

Prohibition, interestingly enough, helped to further solidify the practice of Friday fish fries: From 1920 to 1923, bars and taverns could no longer sell alcohol, so instead they began selling fried fish to stay afloat. And with the rise of supper clubs by the mid-1900s, Friday fish fries became a year-round tradition for Midwesterners. In fact, McDonald's Filet-O-Fish sandwich was added to its menu when a Cincinnati franchise in a predominantly Catholic neighborhood struggled to sell hamburgers on Fridays during Lent.

In the South, the fish fry started as a Saturday night tradition among enslaved Africans on plantations: "The work schedule on the plantation would slow down by noon on Saturday, so enslaved people had the rest of that day to do what they wanted," food historian Adrian Miller told The New York Times.

After Emancipation, the tradition turned into a business for many black families, opening restaurants in the South and around the country. With time, the tradition moved to Friday night, possibly due to the Catholic influence in cities.

Today, the tradition carries on in many forms all around the country, with the sides differing from region to region. A predominantly Hispanic Catholic Church in St. Louis, St. Cecilia Parish, created their own take on the Friday fish fry, coined "The Original Mexican Fish Fry." The feast features chile relleno, bean tostadas, and fried cheese quesadillas in place of the traditional potato and coleslaw sides.

Regional Fish Fries

Midwestern Fish Fry Menu

Nowhere is the Friday fish fry tradition stronger than in the Midwest, particularly Wisconsin, where supper clubs have made fish fries standard fare year-round. A typical Midwestern Friday fish fry may consist of beer-battered fish (oftentimes cod) served with tartar sauce, lemon wedges, and French fries (or German-style potato pancakes), coleslaw, and rye bread.

Main Dish: Beer Batter Fish Made Great

Side Dishes:

Southern Fish Fry Menu

In the South, catfish reigns supreme, as it is easily found in Southern lakes and rivers. It's often dipped in a cornmeal batter and deep fried. Southern fish fries are typically outdoor, community events, and aren't complete without French fries, hushpuppies, and coleslaw (and a little sweet tea never hurts!).

Main Dish: Southern Fried Catfish

Side Dishes:

Northeastern Fish Fry Menu

Home to many Roman Catholic settlements, including Upstate New York and Pennsylvania, the Northeast has a longstanding Friday fish fry tradition as well. Here the menu features battered or breaded fish (oftentimes haddock, cod, or flounder), as well as fries, coleslaw, dinner rolls, and sometimes macaroni or potato salad.

Main Dishes: Simple New England Fried Fish

Side Dishes:


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