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A fish fry is a classically American tradition at which the social interaction is often as important as the food itself. Similar in nature to potluck dinner gatherings, a fish fry usually affords participants the opportunity to bring their own dishes from home and share them with others in the neighborhood. The meal might consist of battered or breaded and fried fish, hushpuppies, fries, and coleslaw, served with tartar or marinara sauce for dipping and lemon slices or malt vinegar on the side. Homemade desserts often follow the main course, and beer is the drink of choice.
In the American South, fish fries evolved out of economic necessity: low-income farmers and sharecroppers relied heavily on a diet of fish because it was abundant and free. Lack of refrigeration and warm southern temperatures meant that the fish had to be consumed quickly before it spoiled. If a family had caught more than it could eat, family members would invite their friends over and have a party. The fish fry became a social event that usually took place on Saturday nights or Sunday afternoons after church, a tradition that continues to the present day.
Along the Mississippi river in Louisiana and the Mississippi delta, a fish fry provided an opportunity for field laborers to mingle with their neighbors and relax after a long week of hard work. The farmers would eat heartily, drink, and dance their cares away to music played by local blues musicians or a jukebox. Fish fries were usually either held in private homes or at the nearby "juke joint," a gathering place that provided food, alcohol, and entertainment.
Fish fries are also a popular weekend tradition in the Midwest and northern United States. In Catholic communities, churches frequently hold fish fries on Fridays during the period of Lent, a time when practicing Catholics must abstain from eating meat products. In the state of Wisconsin, the fish fry is a year-round Friday night tradition for people of all religious persuasions. Local restaurants, taverns, and civic clubs in the state host "all you can eat" fish fries that are so popular with the locals, it's not unusual for serving lines to wrap around the block.
In the Northern U.S. and Canada, fish fries are sometimes referred to as Shore Lunches, but the concept is essentially the same. The only notable difference between the two is that Shore Lunches are typically served outdoors during the warmer months while a fish fry is held indoors in the winter. New Yorkers tend to favor local battered or breaded cod fish and haddock. Many upstate New York eateries offer a fish fry not just on Friday nights, but every night of the week.
The fish fry can also be a good fundraiser for a church or other organization. The fish is usually sold by the plate and the price includes a drink, slaw, hushpuppies and dessert. Members of the organization will usually contribute homemade desserts for the fundraiser.
One popular trend is fish restaurants sending their catering trucks to an organization and their staff will cook the fish and sides, while the club provides desserts and drinks. This helps ensure consistent quality and lessens the amount of cleanup and manpower required to host the event. Some places even provide paper plates and cutlery, which further reduces expenses.
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