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‘Fish Fry Night Milwaukee’

Ron Faiola talks up Friday tradition

Oct. 5, 2009
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German rivaled English as the spoken language of Old Milwaukee. Socialists ran a clean municipal government and Old World craftsmen built a city of impressive public buildings and pleasant neighborhoods of modest, well-crafted bungalows. A canopy of Dutch elms covered the streets. Once one of America’s most distinctive towns, an honor shared with New Orleans and San Francisco, Milwaukee has lost some of its character over the decades, becoming more like everyplace else and less like the city of memory.

But not when it comes to food. Along with bratwurst and cheese, Milwaukee has clung tenaciously to the fish fry. The documentary Fish Fry Night Milwaukee by local filmmaker Ron Faiola doesn’t seek to explain the meal’s enduring popularity but to show that it remains at the heart of the city’s culinary and social life. Signs of the old custom’s popularity are easy to find. On Fridays, traffic is backed around the corner at the Packing House, which serves fish at a drive-through window. Many drivers wait 20 minutes or more for their order. Revenue at the meat counter of Ray’s Butcher in Greenfield sank so low on Fridays that he was forced to compensate by adding a fish fry carryout.

“Ask Milwaukeeans for their favorite fish fry and you’ll get five different answers,” says the film’s narrator, longtime WMSE announcer Dewey Gill. Fish Fry NightMilwaukee is a tour of a cross-section of venues serving the city’s favorite comfort food, visiting everyplace from Greendale’s St. Alphonsus Church, where the entire community pitches in to serve fish cafeteria style, to the annual South Shore Frolics, where deep-fried fish sizzles in the summer heat. Don’t want to leave the house? P. Demarini’s delivers fish fries along with its famous pizza.

The settings are as diverse as the city’s population. Wegner’s St. Martins Inn is a barroom crammed with racing memorabilia; Libiamo, originally built by Schlitz’s beer barons from remnants of European castles, is an elegant ratskeller of dark oak. Erv’s Mug has been in the same family for two generations and Hooligan’s operates from a building that’s been on the same corner since the 1890s. Lakefront Brewery offers the classic Old Milwaukee experience, with its own line of beer, family-style seating in its cavernous hall and a performance by the Brewhaus Polka Kings every Friday. Café El Sol dresses up its fish in the fiery spices of Mexico and serves brightly colored margaritas as an alternative to beer.

The fish fry’s local origins, as the documentary points out, came from a convergence of Roman Catholicism and abundant lake perch. Dwindling fish stock in the Great Lakes combined with globalization has expanded the menu to include haddock, cod from the cold waters of Iceland and catfish from the deep South. Beer batter became popular in the 1960s. Most restaurants still serve the fish with the classic rye bread and coleslaw, french fries or potato pancakes, although here too variety has become more common. At El Sol, you can have your fish with Spanish rice and beans.

There are, however, boundaries that won’t be crossed. “No, we won’t do it,” says the owner of P. Demarini’s when asked about a fish fry pizza. “It would be inedible.” Filled with local history and local faces, Fish Fry NightMilwaukee is a charming and informative exploration of food and community.

Fish Fry Night Milwaukee will be screened at 2 and 4 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 11, at Times Cinema. Faiola and Gill will be on hand to discuss the film.

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