Tempest Oyster Bar in Madison  (Photo by Clove Zanoya-Harris)
Tempest Oyster Bar in Madison (Photo by Clove Zanoya-Harris)

Lent and beyond, as many varieties as Wisconsin has lakes

Editor’s Note: At UpNorthNews, we like food. We especially like Wisconsin food. And drink. And we like those quintessentially Wisconsin places to break bread together. We’ve already brought you tales of paczkis and butter burgers and supper clubs and just good ol’ cheese. Now contributing writer Mary Bergin is back with a look at what was once a staple of Lent but has now become a year-round weekly feast, the Wisconsin fish fry.

Sometimes innocent questions hit a nerve, including this one that I posted on Facebook: “Who serves the most elegant Friday fish fry in/near Madison?”

“Elegant? The iconic Wisconsin fish fry isn’t elegant, it’s downhome and crowded, with people standing and waiting for a seat,” responded Sara Lindsay Rath of Spring Green. “I’m not sure I’d trust an ‘elegant’ fish fry.”

“Elegant fish fry? Is that an oxymoron?” asked Chelle Walton, an Iowa native who lives in Florida.

“Does elegant mean the crackers and breadsticks come in an expensive Longaberger basket?” needled Jane Burns of Madison.

“Elegant? I have been so focused on the fish that I never gave much thought to my surroundings,” said Sharon Rook of Waunakee.

“One doesn’t usually see ‘elegant’ and ‘fish fry’ in the same sentence,” observed Joyce Carey of Madison.

Get the gist? Others expressed similar sentiments too, so I contacted Mike Seidel, who didn’t diss the topic. 

Seidel began cataloging and ranking fish fries in 2004, using an Excel spreadsheet, and then moved the info online to MadisonFishFry.com, where about 1,400 Fish Fry reviews are posted and dated. No advertising or subsidy supports his effort.

“I say ‘Fish Frys’ instead of the grammatically correct ‘fish fries’ – it’s my own little affectation,” Seidel said, in an email. “Fish Fry is an event, not just a meal.”

The computer-based mapping specialist chose Friday lake perch at Tempest Oyster Bar and walleye at Pasture & Plenty as Madison’s most elegant, as in “two of the more photogenic.” 

“There are fancier restaurants that serve Fish Fry too, but they mostly ‘keep it real,’ so to speak. I’m thinking of places like Mint Mark and Graze in Madison, and the Driftless Cafe in Viroqua. Those places are elegant, but the Fish Fry is pretty traditional.

Although Seidel acknowledged “some pretty elegant looking baked options out there,” he hasn’t reviewed them because he prefers fried fish.

Why bother with a deep dive into the Fish Fry? Seidel and buddy Gabe Krambs aimed to assist folks “who were in our shoes at one point – wanting to go out for fish but not knowing where to go or getting sick of going to the same old place over and over.”

We are smitten with the Friday fish fry all year in Wisconsin but particularly during Lenten season. Hortonville, population 2,700, is one example of that.

Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church for 24 years has served fish on seven Fridays, feeding up to 1,000 in three hours per week and racking 900 volunteer hours within the congregation of 500 families. It’s the church’s biggest fundraiser of the year.

Nobody pegs it as an elegant fish fry, but it sure sounds authentic. “We make everything from scratch,” said Mary Vanevenhoven, church secretary. That includes tartar sauce, cole slaw, potato salad and donated desserts.

There’s a shortage of shortcuts. Four kinds of seafood – perch, walleye, shrimp and haddock (also available boiled) – are drenched in a secret-recipe breading. “We start by making sure there are no bones” in filets, Vanevenhoven explained. Breading by hand happens in assembly line fashion.

Wisconsin Veteran’s Home at King, 35 miles west, brings wheelchaired and other residents to the fish fry. Care Partners Assisted Living, one-half mile north of the church, places an order for weekly delivery.

Tim Morrissey said his 92-year-old mother, at Care Partners, is among the fish fry devotees. It’s written into her care plan, he said, “and she’s not the only one there who has such a provision.”

Written into the care plan? Karen Tesch of Care Partners confirms that’s the case, for at least one dozen residents, and she appreciates the church’s willingness to deliver, in more than one way.