Growing up Baptist in East Texas, I learned a whole lot about fried catfish. Mostly, I learned that this was an important, even symbolic, food in rural communities and in black churches.
Later, when I married into a Baptist family in Georgia, that meant spending time in a region in which I learned, once again, that catfish was a part of life — in some parts of the community. The same thing’s true here in East Tennessee (along with barbecue, of course).
Even in Baltimore, we lived near a catfish joint that was jammed on the weekends — with African-Americans picking up stacks of take-out boxes for home and for church get-togethers.
So my eyes lit up when I saw this evocative double-decker headline in The New York Times, of all places:
Celebrating the Fish Fry, a Late-Summer Black Tradition
Catfish, hot sauce, a few sides: For many African-American families, these are makings of a time-honored gathering that feeds a sense of community.
Oh yeah, fried catfish, but also tilapia, snapper and “whitefish” — with lots of hot sauce. Then you had hushpuppies, of of course, with potato salad, coleslaw, black-eyed peas, greens and, maybe, french fries. And underneath the fish, to soak up some of the hot oil, there’s usually a slice or two of white sandwich bread.
Now, lots of good info about the food and black-family traditions made it into the Times piece, with the help of “food historian” Adrian Miller. And there’s a hint at deeper ties that bind in this key passage about this legacy of frying fish on weekends:
… The tradition took on a different meaning in the South during the era of slavery. “The work schedule on the plantation would slow down by noon on Saturday, so enslaved people had the rest of that day to do what they wanted,” Mr. Miller said.
Those who finished work early could go fishing and bring back their catch to be fried that night; plantation owners didn’t mind, Mr. Miller said, because it was one less meal they had to provide. “So the fish fry started as a Saturday-night thing on plantations, and it was like an impromptu get-together,” he said.
In the decades after Emancipation, the tradition became a business for many African-Americans, who brought fish fries with them as they migrated from the South to other parts of the country. … The fish fry was also used as a popular tool to raise money for churches.
Food for raising money? That’s all there is to it?