Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - September 16, 2022

Fish tales

When I was a youngster growing up on the plains of Kansas, the only fish I remember "catching" were rectangular - about four inches long, one inch wide and a half-inch thick. They were rolled in some sort of breading and served on Fridays in our school lunchroom. While nothing to write home about, I liked them - especially with a dollop of tartar sauce.

Dad was a farmer and he didn't fish, so our meal mainstays were chicken, pork and beef. But for a change of pace, mom would buy frozen "fish sticks" and bake them. Her other piscine-based variations included sandwiches or casseroles containing tuna and salmon made into a loaf or patties. The tuna and salmon were fresh from the can!

My love of seafood has grown considerably due to personal travel and speedier transportation bringing fresher fare to my land-locked state. Trips to California introduced red snapper to my palate. Peace Corps days on Ecuador�s Pacific coast presented the delights of fresh shrimp and lobster.

Of course, not all introductions were to my taste. Octopus was available in Ecuador, but I had no clue how to prepare it. Boiling left a hint-of-seafood flavor, but with a consistency much like that of a rubber hose. The locals in Germany�s north eagerly consume sandwiches made from fresh eels. But one bite was enough for me. It seemed like a bun filled with oil.

Yet most experiences have been great. When any of the family travel to Great Britain, we search out "fish and chips" shops. British friend Jan introduced us to "Oh My Cod" - one of our favorite take-away places. Just hearing the name makes me smile. And Art's enthusiasm for the dish left an impression. After missing several years due to the pandemic, the owner did a double take when Art walked in. He immediately said, "I remember you!"

The fish isn't fancy, by any means. It's deep-fried, sprinkled with malt vinegar, wrapped in newspaper, and served alongside a huge order of chips - what we in the States call french fries.

Art noted that the Brits bring a secret weapon to their fish-and-chips. Vinegar just flows off the fish, producing a need to constantly add a fresh dose. So to bring the tasty condiment to the taste buds, they liberally apply it to the chips, which absorb it.

Whether in Britain or somewhere else, by now I've eaten a lot of fish and it's hard for me to pick out a favorite. Art's fresh-caught brook trout - fried, grilled or baked - would be close to the top of my list.

Another is the whitefish at Brown's Fisheries Fish House in Paradise, Michigan. Its claim to fame is the fish is caught in the cold waters of Lake Superior the same day it is prepared. Ratings by Yelp, Tripadvisor and others are 4.5 stars or greater out of five. Recommendations from the likes of The Detroit Free Press and New York Times have brought people from across the world to the rather ordinary-looking diner in the Upper Penninsula. People line up at the door at opening time. This, in a place so small it has no official population. Eckerman, the closest place they considered worthwhile to count souls, is 20 miles away. The tally? 277 people!

Then there are the Door County, Wisconsin whitefish boils, where onions, potatoes, fish and corn on the cob are boiled in a single large pot over a large outdoor fire. In other parts of Wisconsin and Minnesota, walleye is considered the king of seafood the way lobster might be in Maine or Massachusetts.

I also enjoy Wisconsin's ubiquitous "Friday night fish fries." One of the first things I did when we arrived at our Northwoods cottage this past summer was to check when there would be a fish fry at the Oneida Village Inn parking lot. The inn - a community landmark for decades - burned a few years back, but that didn't stop enterprising townspeople from using the vacant parking lot. The food truck of JPN's Concessions can be found there on holiday weekends, downtown-shopping days, and Fridays. Occasionally a band makes the time waiting in line pass more quickly.

Art and I partook of the Labor-Day weekend Friday fish fry, and weren't disappointed. The deep-fried haddock - crispy outside and flaky inside - was really nothing special, I suppose. But served with tartar sauce, crispy seasoned fries, creamy cole slaw and a piece of caraway-seed laced rye bread - well, it really hit the spot.

Why is the Friday night fish fry so prevalent in Wisconsin? I knew it had something to do with the Catholic church, just as those "fish-stick Fridays" did in our school. According to TravelWisconsin.com, the tradition is attributed to three things: the Catholic church, the state's proximity to fresh water, and Prohibition.

The Catholic church had called for their parishioners to abstain from eating warm-blooded meat on Fridays as a way to commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday. European Catholics of Polish and German descent brought that practice with them when they moved to America. Minnesota is called "the land of 10,000 lakes," but Wisconsin has more than 15,000. The lakes and streams meant fish were plentiful. Prohibition's arrival made life difficult for Wisconsin's taverns. To stay afloat financially, they began promoting fish plates on Friday evenings.

In the mid-1960s, the Catholic church changed the rules and only required parishioners to abstain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent. But by then, for Catholics and non-Catholics alike, going out for fish on Fridays had become an integral part of Wisconsin life.

Raised on a farm far from the sea, my love of beef, pork and chicken are steadfast. But it's no fish tale that seafood is an integral part of the menu in our home.

Top (l-r): Placing our order at JPN's Concessions in the Oneida Village parking lot; some of our fellow diners; a meal of fish-n-chips hit the spot during our Wales trip this past spring; Art's mother Donna frying a mess of trout at our cottage in northern Wisconsin. Bottom (l-r): Art with the proprietor of "Oh, My Cod" in Oswestry, England; The Fish House in Paradise, Upper Michigan and owner Buddy Brown (above) who died in 2018; whitefish in the basket ready for cooking at Pelletier's, a Door County, Wisconsin restaurant featuring fish boils; after the cooking is completed, kerosene is added to the fire. The increased heat causes a boil over and the oil from the fish floating on the water top flows into the fire below. The resulting fish pieces are virtually oil free.

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