MILWAUKEE &

It wouldn't be Friday night in Milwaukee without a fish fry.

Nearly every restaurant has one, including drive-thrus, Latin supper clubs and pizza joints. Kathleen Hohl even spotted a sign for one at a local Wendy's.

"I about drove off the road," said Hohl, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

Fish fries are common in many places during Lent, which starts next week, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a spot where they are as pervasive year-round as Wisconsin.

A Roman Catholic ban on eating meat on Friday, German traditions, access to the Great Lakes and the lifting of Prohibition combined to make fish fries a staple of Wisconsin social life, said Janet Gilmore, a University of Wisconsin-Madison folklore professor who has studied them extensively. They even continued to grow after the Catholic church eased its rules on abstaining from meat in the 1960s.

"It was sort of a habit that people got into, and people kept on doing it, both in churches and in restaurants," Milwaukee historian John Gurda said.

Mike Minor, 27, of Whitefish Bay, isn't Catholic but his family went to a neighborhood church each Friday for fish when he was growing up. His 24-year-old wife, Hillary, and her family always went to a friend's restaurant in Appleton for their fish fry.

When it came time for their wedding rehearsal dinner &

on a Friday &

they had it there.

"You don't even really think about why," Mike Minor said. "Just any time you think about the word Friday and dinner, you think of fish."

Fish fries developed in Catholic communities such as Milwaukee in the 1800s, Gilmore said. The church had designated Friday as a day of abstinence in memory of the crucifixion. People exchanged meat for fish as a form of sacrifice.

At the same time, German immigrants established family-friendly neighborhood taverns. Many offered free lunches to draw customers, and fried fish &

too difficult and smelly to cook at home &

was popular. The bars made up the cost in beer sales.

When taverns reopened after Prohibition, many offered fish fries as a way to revive their business, Gilmore said. More than 70 years later, when fish is no longer cheap or difficult to make at home, the tradition continues.

P.J. von Paumgartten, 41, of Whitefish Bay, used to go to the Bavarian Inn with his parents and grandparents. Now, he takes his wife and three children to the folksy inn where waitresses wear traditional German dresses and a pianist or polka band provides live music.

During Lent, they're there every Friday night, as fasting from meat is an important part of their faith and heritage.

The biggest fish fry in the city &

and the world, if one believes the promotions &

is at American Serb Hall. The cavernous cafeteria-like hall serves 1,000 people on a typical Friday. On Good Friday, a few thousand people usually eat there, office manager Donna Oberhofer said.

When Bob Kroll, 55, of Franklin, went there as a child, the fish was either fried or served Serbian-style, with stewed vegetables. Today, the menu includes baked fish, breaded shrimp and sides such as garlic mashed potatoes and a vinegary cole slaw.

Now, with a busy family, his wife, Cathy, 53, will pick up fish at the hall's drive-thru and leave it in the refrigerator for him. She also will take a serving to her 74-year-old mother for lunch.

"During Lent, we always do a fish fry because we don't eat meat on Friday," Cathy Kroll said. "The rest of the year, we do a fish fry because we like to."