Smelt Fry at Ranchero Supper Club (Webster, MN)

We moved to Minnesota in 2007. It took us eight years to finally get around to eating lutefisk and only another four to finally go to not only our first fish fry but also to our first smelt fry. “What is a smelt fry?,” you might ask—particularly if you don’t live in Minnesota. Well, it’s a Minnesota tradition, albeit one that doesn’t stretch back further than the middle of the 20th century. Smelt are not native to the Great Lakes region and were not found here till 1946. (The story of the rise and fall of smelt in Lake Superior is a neat little allegory of human impact on nature.) The population is now far reduced from its peak but the smelt fry tradition remains and the catch in March/April is one of the harbingers of spring in Minnesota. Smelt are gathered up by the bucketful, fried and eaten by the handful. The major schisms seem to be between those who behead the fish and those who cook and eat ’em whole, and between those who batter and those who bread. For those without direct access to the tiny fish, smelt fries spring up in church basements and clubs and also in some restaurants. And it was to a restaurant we went, to Ettlin’s Ranchero Supper Club in Webster. Continue reading