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

How Fish Fries Turned a Staple of Black Southern Tradition

The Cultural Significance of Southern Fish Fries

Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

When a Southern barbecue wraps up and Black families and friends begin to say their goodbyes, the signs of a satisfying gathering are everywhere. Cast-iron skillets with remnants of cornmeal from fried fish cool on the stove. Bits of cabbage and carrots from the slaw and empty plastic bags that once held slices of white bread are scattered around. French’s mustard and Crystal hot sauce bottles lie abandoned, their caps seemingly misplaced. As the last person exhausts their conversational creativity and the final car door closes, the cleanup begins. Those kind enough to assist the host engage in a dance of clearing plates and bagging trash, their soft laughter echoing the event’s significance.

As a Black Southern woman with roots in Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee, fish fries are more than just social events—they are cultural rites. My recent visit to Chattanooga, Tennessee, reminded me of the power of food traditions that bind us together. This wasn’t my first visit; I have spent many weekends in Chattanooga visiting family. Last fall, when I asked my relatives where to find the best local food, they recommended Uncle Larry’s, a Black-owned barbecue spot renowned for its fish. Days later, I visited with a craving for catfish. It had been months since I’d enjoyed the crunch of perfectly seasoned cornmeal and the tender fish beneath the batter. Covered in hot sauce and yellow mustard, folded into a soft, slightly warm slice of white bread, this food connects me to generations of Black fellowship.

a plane flying over a beach with a mountain in the background

“I see fish fries not just as gatherings of friends, family, neighbors, and loved ones, but as cultural rites.”

Owner Larry Torrence had been the designated fish fryer at family reunions for years. Ten years ago, his wife and other family members encouraged him to open a restaurant. The first Uncle Larry’s opened in Chattanooga’s MLK District, near the Bessie Smith Cultural Center.

Uncle Larry’s offers more than just fish because fish fries for Black Southerners, though common, are far from ordinary. These events happen throughout the year for various occasions: celebrating a new baby, Lenten gatherings known as “fish Fridays,” family visits, or simply to share leftover catfish, whiting, or tilapia.

Historically, the combination of fried seafood and starch is not new. The British have fish and chips, featuring beer-battered cod with steak fries. Some historians believe Portuguese or Spanish Jews introduced the concept to British diners as early as the 1600s. Centuries later, European immigrants brought the tradition to the Americas, often with religious ties, especially during Lent. In the South, fish fries have different roots. Native Americans had their own fish frying traditions, which often intersected with enslaved Africans’ communities. Fish were one of the few resources enslaved people could catch without interference from slaveholders. Catfish, abundant in the Mississippi Delta, became the fish of choice. In other Southern areas, like Georgia, it was tilapia; in Alabama and Tennessee, whiting or swai.

While in Chattanooga last year, I focused on catfish. At Uncle Larry’s, I chose lemon pepper catfish with pasta salad, hushpuppies, and onion rings. With the first bite, I was transported from a Chattanooga hotel room to my childhood in Huntsville, Alabama, watching my mother and aunts prepare for a barbecue. They would dab dry fish with paper towels, season it with Lawry’s, coat it in cornmeal speckled with salt, pepper, and cayenne, and the sizzle of the fish hitting hot oil would erupt in a chorus of joy.

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Nneka M. Okona is a writer from Atlanta, via Stone Mountain, Georgia. Her work has appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Wall Street Journal.

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