How Fish Fries Became a Staple of Black Southern Culture

Rooted in history, dredged in cornmeal—this humble dish is far from ordinary.

fish fry
Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist
Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

When a Southern fish fry has concluded, and the Black people who’ve gathered in a kitchen or backyard start to disperse, there are tell-tale signs of a crowd well-fed. Cast-iron skillets with cornmeal residue smolder on the stove, giving off the heat that once crisped up filet after filet of fried goodness. There are bits of cabbage and carrots left over from the slaw, and empty plastic bags where the slices of white bread used to be. French’s mustard and Crystal hot sauce lie here and there, their tops somewhere in another universe.

When the last person has run out of creative ways to prolong a conversation, and when the last car door has been slammed shut, that’s when cleanup begins. Those who have graciously agreed to help the host adopt a choreography of shuffling plates and bagging trash, and their soft laughter serves as a reminder of why the event mattered.

As a Black Southern woman with roots in Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee, I look at fish fries not simply as a social gathering of friends, family, neighbors, and loved ones, but also as a cultural rite. I was reminded of this, and of the power of food traditions that bind, when I most recently visited Chattanooga, Tennessee.

It wasn’t my first time in the city. Since I was a child, I’ve spent some weekends in Chattanooga to see family. Last fall, when I asked my relatives where I should go for legitimately good food, they heralded a local Black-owned fish fry joint, Uncle Larry’s, as having the best fish in town. I stopped in days later with a deep hankering for catfish. It had been months since I’d tasted the crunch of perfectly seasoned cornmeal and the softness of the fish beneath the batter. Doused in hot sauce and a swizzle of yellow mustard, and folded into a soft, slightly warm slice of white sandwich bread, it’s the food that connects me to generations of Black fellowship.

“I look at fish fries not simply as a social gathering of friends, family, neighbors, and loved ones, but also as a cultural rite.”

Owner Larry Torrence had long been the designated fish fryer at all his family reunions, and so, 10 years ago, his wife and other family members finally convinced him to open a restaurant. His first branch of Uncle Larry’s debuted in the MLK District of Chattanooga, right down the street from the Bessie Smith Cultural Center.

But Uncle Larry’s serves more than just fish, because fish fries for Black Southerners, though commonplace, are not ordinary. These events happen throughout the year for all sorts of occasions: a new baby, the Lenten gatherings known as “fish Fridays,” when family who lives far away comes into town, or if you’re clearing out your freezer and have some leftover catfish, whiting, or tilapia to share.

Peering back into history, the combination of fried seafood and some sort of starch isn’t a new one. The British rendition, fish and chips, features beer-battered cod with steak fries and mushy. Some historians believe Portuguese or Spanish Jews actually introduced the concept to British diners as early as the 1600s. Centuries later, European immigrants to the Americas brought the tradition with them, though when they did it typically had a religious tie, especially during Lent.

In the South, however, fish fries have other roots. Native Americans had their own fish frying traditions, and their experiences occasionally intersected with communities of enslaved Africans. Fish were one of the few things that enslaved people could catch with little to no interference from violent slaveholders. Catfish were abundant in the Mississippi Delta region, so that became the fish of choice. In other regions of the South, like where I’m from in Georgia, it was tilapia. In Alabama or Tennessee, whiting or swai.

But it was all about catfish while I was in Chattanooga last year. After perusing Uncle Larry’s menu, I decided on lemon pepper catfish with pasta salad, hushpuppies, and onion rings.

With one bite, I was not in a Chattanooga hotel room. I was a child in Huntsville, Alabama, watching my mother and aunties prepare for a fish fry to come. Dabbing dry fish with paper towels, seasoning it with Lawrys, coating it in cornmeal that they speckled with salt, pepper and a little cayenne. And the sizzle from the first piece of fish breaking the surface of hot oil, erupting in a chorus of gladness.

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Nneka M. Okona is a writer who hails from Atlanta, by way of Stone Mountain, Georgia. Her work has appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Wall Street Journal, Travel + Leisure, Food & Wine, and more.