Tag Archives: Milwaukee

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

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The power of publicity: Mader’s

Compared to cities of comparable size in 1910 — such as Los Angeles, Minneapolis, or New Orleans — Milwaukee at first appears to be a town where people rarely ate outside the home. But statistics can be deceiving. In the city made famous by its breweries, most eating places were primarily saloons before Prohibition, usually set up in business by one or another brewery.

This is how Charles Mader got his start, as a saloonkeeper who also served meals of the homely sort. Although 1902 is commonly given as the year in which he began, I suspect it was a few years later that he opened his own place. Throughout most of his early career he worked with a partner. He and Gustav Trimmel joined up in 1915, the year the saloon moved to the present-day restaurant’s address. In 1921 Mader had a new partner, Charles Ruge, with whom he remained in business until 1928. Thereafter his partners were his sons George and Gus who assumed ownership when Charles died in 1937. [pictured above, 1950s]

Although many restaurants get a good share of patronage from out-of-towners, relatively few located in America’s midsection make a determined bid for nation-wide recognition. Mader’s was one of those that did so successfully. A late 1920s photograph in the historic photo collection of the Milwaukee Public Library shows the restaurant with a prominent “Tourists’ Headquarters” sign in its front window. In 1929, a newspaper item suspiciously resembling an advertorial (publications didn’t identify them as such then) claimed that Mader’s had won a reputation for hospitality extending “the length and breadth of this land and to distant lands as well.”

Charles Mader was known for his belief in advertising, often remarking, “If your business is not worth advertising, advertise it for sale.” Beginning afer Prohibition, Mader’s would intensify its advertising program and accentuate its Germanness, following a kind of reverse assimilation common to other German-themed restaurants in the US. Very likely this reflected a proportionate shift in patronage from German-American Milwaukeans to a wider clientele of conventioneers, traveling businessmen, and tourists of all stripes looking for an identifiably ethnic experience. The trend would continue: a 1968 newspaper story reported that at Mader’s and Karl Ratzsch’s, mostly patronized by tourists, German dishes were popular, while at restaurants patronized exclusively by Milwaukeans such as the Fox and Hounds, filet mignon and lobster tail were favorites.

In 1935 the Maders remodeled the 3rd Street building to look more typically German in a style suggestive of medieval architecture with a high stepped gable and two bas relief panels depicting quaintly costumed servers. By contrast, only a couple years earlier Mader’s had a typical plate glass storefront with a centered, recessed entryway and a moderne sign with its name spelled out in bold aluminum lettering. In subsequent decades, the Mader’s compound has been further extended and embellished, given a vaulted ceiling and decorated with heraldic swords and shields. It has taken on a castle-like appearance.

Along with arch competitor Karl Ratzsch’s, a Viennese-inflected restaurant pursuing much the same strategy, Mader’s began to win awards and listings in national magazines and restaurant guides, such as Duncan Hine’s Adventures in Good Eating and those of the Automobile Club of America and Ford Motor Company. It began attracting visiting Hollywood stars in the 1930s, hanging their autographed photos on its walls. In 1937 and again in 1949 and 1952 a poll of traveling business men voted it America’s favorite German restaurant and one of their ten favorite restaurants overall. Accolades continued coming in up to the present day.

Mader’s is a survivor, having outlasted most of Milwaukee’s venerable German restaurants, some of which, Forst-Keller and the Old Heidelberg for example, were associated with the city’s breweries. Cafes originating with Fritz Gust, Joe Deutsch, and John Ernst have all passed from the scene, the last as recently as 2001.

Long considered “heavy” eating, German cuisine has perhaps sunk in popularity somewhat from the middle of the 20th century, although Pork Shanks – ever popular at Mader’s – remain on the restaurant’s menu to this day. Notably, though, this once-humble dish has become an expensive entree.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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