Fish on Fridays

As early as the 1860s cheap eating houses in New York City were featuring fish on Fridays for their Catholic patrons. By then, one out of seven people living in the U.S. was Catholic and many of them lived in NYC.

By the next decade demand for fish by Catholics in New York largely oriented the city’s seasonal fish trade. According to an 1876 Herald story, the trade geared up at the start of Lent (the period of penitence preceding Easter), when the sale of fish reached a yearly peak. Hotels in New York and Boston – and no doubt cities elsewhere – used tons of fish in Lent and on Fridays year round.

It’s likely that many of those not of the Catholic faith also ordered fish on Fridays since it was offered as a special in restaurants in many cities and towns and was also likely to be at its peak of freshness on that day. In the early 20th century, for example, restaurants in towns as far flung as Victoria TX, Holyrood KS, and Mansfield MO advertised fish on Fridays. When meat prices rose in 1916, even more fish was sold. The country’s largest restaurant chain, Childs – which had previously only put fish on its Friday menus – began offering it every day.

Fish could be baked, of course, but in the 1930s many restaurants began to advertise Friday fish fries. Judging from the number of advertisements, fish fries were especially popular in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin. In Milwaukee WI, tavern fish fries were particularly popular. There the Haller Inn in 1935 advertised a fish fry for only 15c with music by the Melody Boys.

Fish was also a popular menu item during World War II when meat was rationed. By the war years, it had become such a Friday menu staple that many operators decided that since so many people ordered fish on Fridays anyway they would promote eating fish on Tuesdays to save their meat ration points.

Fish on Friday was so popular that in the early 1960s a Cincinnati man who operated a McDonald’s persuaded Ray Kroc to add a fish sandwich to the chain’s menu. Kroc resisted the addition, preferring to keep the menu restricted to hamburgers, but in 1962 began to introduce the Filet-O-Fish sandwich. It became a permanent menu item around the country within a couple of years. [McDonald’s ad, 1992]

In December 1966, the Vatican released Catholics, now numbering 45 million in the U.S., from the ban against eating meat on Fridays. For a couple of years the fish industry suffered significant losses, particularly with cheaper frozen fillets whose use had been growing since the 1950s. The industry responded by encouraging the public to eat fish on any day of the week. Fast food chains appeared featuring fish and chips. Fish once again became a notable part of the American diet, despite the fraction of Catholics who had come to dislike it. Rather surprisingly, at the end of 1969 the head of the Commercial Fisheries Bureau of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proclaimed that fish was very popular and that lifting the no-meat ban was “the best thing that ever happened to us.”

But the fish on Fridays custom lived on in some places, especially during Lent (when the no meat on Friday ban still held). But not only in Lent. Although nowhere did the custom remain as popular as across the Midwest, restaurants with Friday fish fries and fish specials could even be found in North Carolina, which historically had the fewest Catholics of any state in the U.S. [Uncle John’s, Greensboro NC, 1970]

Milwaukee deserves special mention for Friday fish fries. In the 1980s even Greek and Vietnamese restaurants in that city held Friday fish fries. In 2000, a Milwaukee Sentinel poll revealed that readers ranked fish fries among their favorite restaurant choices, citing 320 different restaurants by name, and showing a strong preference for neighborhood places. Most often mentioned was Serb Hall, which will probably enjoy a lot of business over the next few weeks.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020


Filed under food, restaurant customs

8 responses to “Fish on Fridays

  1. Judith

    Another great food mystery of Central New York: the overwhelming presence of fish fry stands, and fried haddock at that. I have attempted to discover just how haddock became so popular in Central New York — along Route 5? – the Thruway towns, Erie Canal towns especially, and where I was born raised, Syracuse. I have lived next to the sea in various areas, and I have never eaten better haddock. While the number of fish fry places has dimnished, sadly, one can still find them, and, from what I’ve heard, you can still get a gigantic piece of haddock for cheap cheap money.

    Although I suppose part of me knew better, I never questioned the haddock phenomena… It didn’t come from Onondaga or Oneida Lake. And, there was not a big fish market that I know of…but there might have been.

    But Syracuse, and the surrounding areas, absolutely had the best food I’ve ever eaten anywhere, (during the 1950s), and that’s my stomach, not nostalgia, talking. The ubiquitous fish fry stands so far inland, remain a mystery.

    Thank you, Jan, for your love of everything I love.

  2. Interesting and enjoyable post. I believe that humanity has benefited from the Church’s “no-meat Fridays.” I wonder if the abundance of cheese from Catholic France and Italy, for example, would have occurred without no-meat Fridays. I’m thinking about pizza with tomatoes, cheese, and vegetables. Also, vegetable soups. Spain’s paella. Eggplant-based ratatouille. Today, traditional Catholics like myself continue the observance throughout the year.

    Friday remains a Day of Penance —

  3. Great post! Generating much discussion among my Catholic colleagues at America magazine, many of whom were unaware of how popular Friday fish fries were in the Midwest. In New York City, McDonald’s fish often suffices.

  4. Eva Fierst

    Growing up in Germany during the 50’s and 60’s and NOT being catholic, Friday’s was either a fish day or a vegetarian day, as to refrain from ‘carnal’ pleasure on the day Christ had died. That was part of the rural patterns such as laundry on Mondays, fish on Fridays, and sweeping your side of the walkway on Saturdays.

    • Eva — So interesting — and I think the idea of days for certain chores and certain foods remained popular in the U.S. for quite a long time, maybe particularly in cities where a lot of Germans had settled.

  5. Anne Bonney

    What an interesting history. I’m heading for the Academy Tavern for their fish fry (pike, coleslaw, mac and cheese) – good stuff.

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