Let's Go to the Fish Fry

The place to eat tonight is Columbia, S.C., where some 4,000 people will queue up in a parking garage for fried fish.

The fish in question is fillet of whiting, a favorite of House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC), and the mastermind/host of this annual fish fry since 1992.

He's also partial to the culinary stylings of Lucius Moultrie, who's been Clyburn's fish fry master for the past eight years. After retiring from the Columbia Fire Department 10 years ago, Moultrie switched careers and took over Palmetto Seafood, a fish market/kitchen that he runs with his wife and two sons.

Tonight's shindig, which Moultrie calls "the after party," follows the more formal Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, a major Democratic fundraiser. Every year, he's watched the event grow; "Last year, it was an off-election year, and we still had nearly 3,000 people," he says, with a laugh. With expectations of at least 4,000 hungry mouths tonight, Moultrie has procured 1,200 pounds of fish, which will be dredged in his secret-recipe cornmeal-based breading.

To cook this much fish, Moultrie has a rig of deep fryers, which he says "can turn out 100 pieces every five minutes." His team of lightning-speed fryers is but a group of four, including himself -- "I'll be the quarterback."

With that piece of fried whiting comes a slice of white Sunbeam bread, which is made just down the road in Columbia. Accompaniments for this paper-plate affair, says Moultrie, are "simple and southern" -- mustard and hot sauce.

Historically, the fish fry has deep roots in the south, resulting from the cooking traditions of slaves from West Africa and the Caribbean.

"Fish fries are working people's food," says John T. Edge, the author of several books on iconic American cooking and the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi.

"If you were an enslaved person, and had Sundays off, you had a fish fry," says Edge. "It was something the working class could take control of even though they didn't own their own farm or have access to their own livestock. They could take their cane pole and catch their dinner."

Although interpreted differently, state to state, the fish fry has always been about proximity to the source of the fish, says Edge, and often that fish was catfish. Fish shacks were found on the banks of a river, the same river that the fish was pulled from. Country stores, which often were located at the ferry crossings of rivers, ultimately became fish restaurants.

And Clyburn's Carolina is home to the fish camp, which is intricately tied to the history of textile mills, according to Stephen Criswell, a folklorist and professor at University of South Carolina Lancaster.

"Fish fries were big because mills were near rivers," explains Criswell. "When workers had free time, they'd fish in the rivers and fry on the banks. Either they'd cook themselves or hire someone to do the frying, usually an African-American woman with knowledge of these cooking traditions."

Originating as camp sites during the Depression era, the fish camp ultimately evolved into a restaurant in the 1950s, says Criswell. "The fish camp is really a permanent fish fry."

The fish fry also became a part of juke joint culture, says Edge; it was quick food, "dinner in 15 minutes." It's traditionally held on a Friday or Saturday night, when people can cut loose, dance and have a drink. In 1949, R&B musician singer Louis Jordan released "Saturday Night Fish Fry," a tune that topped R&B charts that year. (Listen to the RealPlayer audio clip.)

And its connection to politics, says Edge, is tied to its historical role as "fundraiser food." People in the community have a reputation for cooking and take pride in it," Edge explains. "So they do a fish fry for their church or fire department or favorite political candidate."

"In days past, barbecue or fish fry was part of the appeal to hear a candidate hold forth," Edge says. "For the candidate, it was marker of identity and a way to understand the place and people whose votes you seek."

In his eight years of cooking this event, that is free and open to the public, Moultrie attests to the power of the stomach over the mind (or is it political persuasion?).

"Several Republicans have told me they've switched parties because of the fish, Moultrie says, with a chuckle. "They've become Democrats because I'm cooking the fish."

But what also comes through is the great sense of pride Moultrie feels when cooking for politicians. "During the last election, when [Sen. John] Kerry and [former Rep. Dick] Gephardt were here, and you see people like George Stephanopoulos eating my fish, it kind of gives you a little 'Wow, am I really doing this' kind of feeling," Moultrie says. "We've been blessed."

Unfortunately, I won't be lining up for Moultrie's fish tonight, so I'll have to eat vicariously through washingtonpost.com political blogger Chris Cillizza, who of course, will be providing complete coverage of the event.

Alas, I couldn't just daydream, so last night, I fried up a bunch of fish, southern style, and later today, I'll provide all the crispy details, with a recipe.

By Kim ODonnel |  April 27, 2007; 10:50 AM ET African-American History , Culinary History , Seafood
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Toss the fish. According to today's Guardian newspaper, From Hitler to Pinochet and beyond, history shows there are certain steps that any would-be dictator must take to destroy constitutional freedoms. And, argues the serious newspaper, George Bush and his administration seem to be taking them all. Toss the fish. Defend America.

Posted by: Naomi Wolf | April 27, 2007 4:11 PM

Uh, ok, Naomi...I guess a fish fry takes away the undivided attention necessary over the next 20 months to undo what has been done over the past 6 years. Maybe we should all drop everything we're doing to read that British newspaper and stop enjoying each others' company, even if it's a political fish fry which has the ultimate goal of ridding ourselves of the neocon Republic-an politicians. Thanks for your on-topic insight, dear.

Posted by: Dean | April 27, 2007 4:34 PM

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