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Writing About Fried Fish, With a Side of History

Category: Food & Drink,Lifestyle

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When I read “Soul,” a cookbook by the chef Todd Richards released earlier this year, I saw many similarities between the meals Mr. Richards enjoyed with his family and some of my favorite meals from my own childhood. Mr. Richards grew up in Chicago, and I grew up in Maryland and Virginia, but the foods that we ate were connected by our shared black heritage and the influence of the African diaspora.

I’m now a writer who focuses on food, and I’m always on the lookout for inspiration for my next piece. So when I read the chapter in Mr. Richards’s book about fish fries, I was hooked — and ended up writing about them for the Dining section. Mr. Richards shared his memories of watching his mother fry small batches of perch in their home, which instantly transported me to the late-summer fish fries my grandmother hosted in the backyard of her small house in Norfolk, Va.

I remembered the smell that would drift over the yard as whiting fillets coated in flour hit the hot oil, and I could see my dad’s or uncles’ hands (they cooked in shifts) using a spatula to retrieve the cooked fillets out of the cast-iron caldron over a fire in the hazy heat of late August. I can hear my family laughing as they stood around the fire or in the street talking while my cousins and I played outside late into the night. I was delighted that someone else, in another part of the country entirely, shared my love of fish fries.

I had the same feeling when I visited Bucktown in Providence, R.I., where I tasted the chef Ashley Faulkner’s simple, fried seafood and learned that the recipes she uses in her restaurant are based on her mother’s recipes from North Carolina. It became clear that fish fries were more than just a great way to eat fish — they were a cultural pillar and a time-honored tradition in the African-American community. But I didn’t know why or how they started.

When I have any questions about African-American foodways, I always turn to Adrian Miller, a lawyer by trade but one of the foremost food historians in the country. (He has written two books on black food traditions in America.) Mr. Miller explained that the fish fry had ties to slavery and was one of the few meals that slaves got to enjoy on their own time with one another. He also shared that the practice was carried to other parts of the country through the Great Migration and is moving from home kitchens to restaurants like Mel’s Fish Shack in Los Angeles.

I knew that African-Americans eat more fish than any other racial group in the United States, but I didn’t know the deep roots of that history. With this information, it became clear that fish fries provide fellowship for African-Americans and are a meaningful tradition.

And as with any tradition, there are rules. One of my favorite parts of writing this article was asking each interviewee what the most important parts of the fish fry are. What has to be on the table at a fish fry? I’d listen as a smile entered each of their voices as they were transported to their family fish fries, too. The answers to this question also showed how the fish fry was adapted to different parts of the country as African-Americans migrated. Ms. Faulkner adds skate wing and cod because she’s in the Northeast, while Georgette Powell, the owner of Mel’s Fish Shack, sells red snapper fillets in addition to catfish and tilapia because she’s on the West Coast.

My article started as a simple exploration of why a chef’s memories of a meal matched my own so closely. But it turned into something more: both a practical guide to how to host a fish fry and an exploration of why the tradition is so deeply entrenched in African-American culture across the country.

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