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?
Obviously, this is where I paused. So this community tradition went straight from slave-era plantations to small businesses? That whole church thing is an afterthought?
I thought this was a bit strange, since my office bookshelf contains a marked-up copy of Millier’s “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time.”
When I interviewed him a few years ago, Miller and I covered the territory covered in the Times article — but ventured into church territory as well. This is not surprising since in his day job — which isn’t mentioned by the Gray Lady — he serves as executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches.
You see, there was a crucial bridge from the post-slavery era to the structures of the black community today.
We are talking about big meetings that pulled in throngs of people from all over for what has come to known as “All day preaching and dinner on the grounds.” With lots of people, you needed lots of affordable food that could be prepared in large, large amounts.
Basically, we’re talking about barbecue and fried fish (and red punch, for some reason), with my column focusing on the pulled-pork side of that equation. Thus, Miller old me, in a passage that is long but crucial, information that fits into the historical gap in the Times piece:
… Miller was especially intrigued by the role barbecue played in the waves of fiery "camp meetings," "revivals" and Gospel festivals that reshaped American Protestantism in the tumultuous eras before and after the Civil War. What pulled people together was the worship, the music and, yes, the food. Some of these gatherings evolved into churches.
"You wanted to attract a big crowd and, let's face it, you're not going to get a lot of people just with preaching," said Miller, in a telephone interview. "These things went on for days and people often came from pretty far away. … You're going to need big crews just doing the cooking for those crowds. So you build yourself a pit and we're talking barbecue. … Often it was the Baptists versus the Methodists."
When he discusses barbecue cuisine, Miller stressed that he's talking about all of the other foods that are traditionally served with it, whether on river banks or in church halls. There's fried catfish and chicken, of course, as well as greens, black-eyed peas, yams, cornbread, cobblers and pound cake.
In the early 20th Century, scholars interviewed former slaves and discovered that many of these dishes mixed foods common in European kitchens with the traditions of West Africa and the Caribbean. There's a reason the greens served with barbecue are bitter. And all that hot sauce? Many Southerners believed folk medicines made with cayenne peppers would help end a Cholera epidemic among slaves.
Participants in these camp meetings shared food and fellowship, often cooking entire animals to share with the crowds. People brought whatever they could to grace the common tables.
Some of today’s major black denominations, he argued, can be traced to connections made in those revivals and gospel-music events. To be blunt: It’s impossible to tell the story of black America without discussing those churches, which grew into formal — and powerful — institutions once the former slaves were free to build them. This is especially true in Baptist, Methodist and Pentecostal circles.
So what does fried catfish have to do with that larger story?
Well, it’s one of those foods that symbolizes COMMUNITY and FELLOWSHIP. And in large parts of America, those words are often linked to life in black churches. In other words, there’s more to this story than fried fish and fundraising.