How Fish Fries Turned a Staple of Black Southern Tradition – fadiart

How Fish Fries Turned a Staple of Black Southern Tradition

Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

After a Southern barbecue winds down, and the Black folks who’ve gathered in a kitchen or backyard begin to disperse, there are unmistakable signs of a satisfied crowd. Cast-iron skillets with traces of cornmeal linger on the stove, still radiating the warmth that once crisped up filet after filet of fried goodness. Remnants of cabbage and carrots remain from the slaw, alongside empty plastic bags that once held slices of white bread. Bottles of French’s mustard and Crystal hot sauce rest here and there, their caps lost in another dimension. When the last person has exhausted all conversation topics, and when the last car door has been shut, that’s when the cleanup commences. Those who have graciously agreed to assist the host embark on a choreographed routine of clearing plates and bagging trash, their soft laughter echoing the significance of the gathering. As a Black Southern woman with roots in Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee, I view fish fries not only as a social gathering of friends, family, neighbors, and loved ones, but also as a cultural ritual. I was reminded of this, and of the power of food traditions that unite, when I recently visited Chattanooga, Tennessee. It wasn’t my first time in the city. Since childhood, I’ve spent weekends in Chattanooga visiting family. Last fall, when I asked my relatives where I should go for genuinely good food, they enthusiastically recommended a local Black-owned barbecue spot, Uncle Larry’s, as having the best fish in town. I stopped by days later with a deep craving for catfish. It had been months since I’d savored the crunch of perfectly seasoned cornmeal and the tenderness of the fish beneath the batter. Drenched in hot sauce and a drizzle of yellow mustard, and nestled into a soft, slightly warm slice of white sandwich bread, it’s the food that links me to generations of Black fellowship.

“I view fish fries not only as a social gathering of friends, family, neighbors, and loved ones, but also as a cultural ritual.”

Owner Larry Torrence had long been the designated fish fryer at all his family reunions, and so, 10 years ago, his wife and other relatives finally convinced him to open a restaurant. His first branch of Uncle Larry’s debuted in the MLK District of Chattanooga, right down the street from the Bessie Smith Cultural Center.

But Uncle Larry’s serves more than just fish, because fish fries for Black Southerners, though common, are not ordinary. These events happen throughout the year for a variety of occasions: a new baby, the Lenten gatherings known as “fish Fridays,” when family who lives far away comes into town, or if you’re cleaning out your freezer and have some leftover catfish, whiting, or tilapia to share.

Looking back into history, the combination of fried seafood and some form of starch isn’t a new one. The British version, fish and chips, features beer-battered cod with steak fries and mushy peas. Some historians believe Portuguese or Spanish Jews actually introduced the concept to British diners as early as the 1600s. Centuries later, European immigrants to the Americas brought the tradition with them, though when they did it often had a religious tie, especially during Lent. In the South, however, fish fries have different roots. Native Americans had their own fish frying traditions, and their experiences frequently intersected with communities of enslaved Africans. Fish were one of the few things that enslaved people could catch with little to no interference from violent slaveholders. Catfish were plentiful in the Mississippi Delta region, so that became the fish of choice. In other areas of the South, like where I’m from in Georgia, it was tilapia. In Alabama or Tennessee, whiting or swai. But it was all about catfish while I was in Chattanooga last year. After perusing Uncle Larry’s menu, I opted for lemon pepper catfish with pasta salad, hushpuppies, and onion rings. With one bite, I was no longer in a Chattanooga hotel room. I was a child in Huntsville, Alabama, watching my mother and aunties prepare for a barbecue to come. Dabbing dry fish with paper towels, seasoning it with Lawry’s, coating it in cornmeal speckled with salt, pepper, and a hint of cayenne. And the sizzle from the first piece of fish hitting the surface of hot oil, erupting in a chorus of contentment.

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Nneka M. Okona is a writer who hails from Atlanta, via Stone Mountain, Georgia. Her work has appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Wall Street Journal, Travel + Leisure, Food & Wine, and more.

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