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Tom & Jerry cocktail, Friday fish fry: History behind some Wisconsin tavern staples

fish fry
David Molina Grande/daviles
Beer and a fish fry.

Wisconsin is known for our drinks, like the Tom & Jerry and Brandy Old Fashioneds. We’re also known for our finger foods and the classic Friday fish fry. But how did they become so foundational to Wisconsin?

Nick Katona, the food and beverage director at Old World Wisconsin, shares the history behind our tavern staples.

Katona starts by explaining the Tom & Jerry cocktail: "This is along the same vein as an eggnog. It's a bit creamier, usually served warm. It contains whipped eggs, there's various sugars, vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, things like that. Normally, it has brandy and dark rum in it."

He says there are three different stories behind the Tom & Jerry name. One story is that a popular bartender, Jerry Thomas, named the drink after himself. The second is that the drink was named after the characters "Tom" and "Jerry" in a play called Life in London. Another theory says a Boston newspaper referenced it when reporting on a story about a drunk teen.

Wisconsin's other tavern traditions, like Friday fish fry and finger foods, started out during prohibition, Katona explains. Speakeasy owners decided that they should start putting out platters of little, easily eaten foods, like deviled eggs and pineapple upside down cake, to make sure patrons weren't leaving too drunk.

As for fish fries, he says the taverns that were trying to abide by the rules of prohibition decided to serve locally available fish to religious folks who were observing Lent.

"At this time, it was still OK to use the beer in medicinal and industrial applications or in recipes, so you can get away with using the beer in a beer batter. And when they had the beer there to use in a beer batter, it wasn't difficult for them to pour a little bit in the glass and and then offer it to the patron that way," he says.

Kotana says Wisconsinites should take advantage of the rich food culture available to them. "I think it's important for folks to take time to realize their local establishments and spend money with them. I can tell you honestly that restaurants are hurting. Now, we all know that COVID isn't going away anytime soon and it has extremely, extremely changed the dynamic of food and restaurants in this country."

Tavern Tuesdays is in partnership with the Wisconsin Historical Society and Old World Wisconsin to bring you stories about beer and brewing in our state. We'll be sharing these histories with you leading up to the grand opening of Old World Wisconsin’s new brewing experience.

Mallory Cheng was a Lake Effect producer from 2021 to 2023.
Kobe Brown was WUWM's fifth Eric Von fellow.
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