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Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2010

Polish Center of Wisconsin’s Authentic Fish Fry

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Along with brewing delicious beers, crafting exquisite cheeses and growing most of America’s ginseng, there is yet another thing the great state of Wisconsin knows how to do right: the Friday fish fry. In terms of scale and devotion, no other state in the union even remotely compares in hosting this time-honored tradition. According to “Wisconsin’s Friday Night Fish Fry Tradition” by renowned folklorist Janet C. Gilmore, in cities such as Green Bay and Milwaukee, “reputedly three out of four restaurant meals served on Fridays will be fish, while over a million 8-ounce servings of fish are consumed each Friday in the state.”

You can visit just about any restaurant or tavern in Wisconsin on Friday night and find a delicious, reasonably priced meal of fish. The Polish Center of Wisconsin, which evokes the architectural style of a Polish country manor house and overlooks a small spring-fed lake in Franklin, distinguishes itself from its fish-frying brethren by offering a popular Lenten fish fry that is run by a group of dedicated volunteers.

“Because the Polish and Polish-American communities are predominantly Roman Catholic, it was a natural extension for us to offer fish fries once the center opened in 2000,” explains Cindy Lemek, the center’s executive director.

While Catholics have a long history of observing their faith through strict fasting and abstinence practices, many traditions lost steam after the modernizing Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. Before Vatican II, Roman Catholics were required to abstain from eating meat every Friday—a sacrifice honoring the day Jesus Christ died—and fast on all weekdays in Lent under the threat of mortal sin. Now, Roman Catholics are expected to avoid meat only on Ash Wednesday and Fridays during Lent, and fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

Every Friday during the 40 days of Lent, the Polish Center’s volunteers serve a compelling buffet-style fish fry that includes Wisconsin’s usual suspects: fried and baked cod (hand-breaded by the volunteers), two kinds of coleslaw, potato pancakes and rye bread. What gives the buffet a unique Polish spin is the appearance of pierogies, the delicate little dumplings of unleavened dough stuffed with one item or a combination of ingredients such as mushrooms, sauerkraut, potato and white cheese. To round out the meal, try one of Poland’s famous sweet tortes available at the dessert table.

A choice of coffee, tea or milk is included with the buffet, but many fry-goers opt for the Polish Center’s impressive selection of Polish brews and vodkas. The cash bar boasts Okocim, Zywiec and Stawski, often on tap, as well as bottles of Tyskie, Perla and Lomza, among others. Chopin, Belvedere, Stawski and Ultimat are on the Polish Center’s roster of homeland vodkas. If your appetite for Polish libations craves expansion, visit the center for its Polish beer-tasting and vodka-tasting events, held every July and November, respectively.

Set to a soundtrack of polka music and the occasional appearance of a live accordion player, the family-style seating offered at the Polish Center’s fish fry encourages diners of many different religious backgrounds to mingle with one another as they share a common meal and a beloved tradition.

The Polish Center of Wisconsin (6941 S. 68th St., Franklin) serves its fish fry every Friday during Lent, Feb. 19 through April 2, from 4:30-8 p.m. $10.95 for adults; $4.50 for children 6-12; children 5 and under eat free. For more information or to make a reservation, call 414-529-2140.