The Fish Fry

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I still remember those summers. According to my memories, the first fish fry was in the late ‘60s. According to black and white photos, the events started long before I was born. The parents, or maybe even grandparents of those I remember, began this summer celebration at a time when cotton was blooming and catfish were jumping.

Living landlocked, my people didn’t have much of a palate for seafood delicacies. Halibut, sea bass, and wild-caught salmon steaks weren’t in our vocabulary, much less on our tables. My daddy might order oysters or clams when we drove sixty miles to Zuider Zee Restaurant. But, even those were well-battered enough to mask their true identity.

Farm folks only know one way to prepare anything that comes out of water. We deep-fry it. Our beef can be served rare and our fowl grilled, but when it comes to fish, we need plenty of hot grease.

Fish fry families know this intuitively, and we all bring lard or Crisco for the cooking pot. Of course, there is good reason for this cauldron of boiling oil. In the sixties, our most prolific seafood option was the bottom-feeding “mud cat,” said by some to taste just like its description. Since our family fried the mud out, we didn’t invite any carpers to our catfish dinners.

A day or two before the event, all the men took their fishing gear to nearby playa lakes. These low-lying spots in the prairie grass had been catching rainwater run-off since the days of roaming bison. Tradition has it that most of these “dirt tanks” originated as buffalo wallows before families homesteaded the area. By the time Daddy and his friends fished these ponds, their daddies had already deepened the “lakes” with a bulldozer.

On occasion, I fished with my daddy, but the slimy skin and unappealing color of the yellow catfish kept me away from our flopping catch. I liked digging for earthworms (Daddy’s preferred bait), but I could always find something else to do when it was time to thread this live lure onto the hook. Fishing stories aside, I managed to pull in several good-sized yellow muds, but the larger the bullhead, the more help I needed. These whiskered guys had moxie.

Once home, the women worked the catch. Armed with sharp knives, cutting blocks, and sturdy pliers, every married female took to an oilcloth spread on the ground. Buckets of fresh catfish were dumped in the center of the tarp, and women stationed themselves at each corner to gut, clean, and fillet each fish.

Since a woman’s work was never done, each went home to her own kitchen to fix the garden-fresh sides. God-ripened seasonal vegetables were sliced, stewed, and simmered to serve alongside the mustard potato salad that did not source from a plastic bucket. The same hands that prepared these dishes were the ones that had planted, watered, fertilized, debugged, pampered, and picked this field bounty. Squash, okra, tomatoes, cantaloupe, watermelon, pole beans, corn, and black-eyed peas were only hours from the vine when we dished them into our plates.

When Mama and I pulled our ’66 Impala onto the Griffins gravel drive, four generations were already busy by five o’clock. Daddy had arrived earlier and was out back, helping J.J. regulate the butane fire underneath their age-old pot. Daddy told us he needed to be there to add lard to the pot, but Mama and I well knew that he just wanted to add new embellishments to old stories.

There was always a freezer of cream churning by now, and in the early days, we cranked it by hand. I use the term “we” loosely, as my cranking usually consisted of a few swift rotations before insisting it was Danny’s turn. When an electric ice cream machine showed up a few years later, we children stayed close much longer. We crushed the milk carton ice with a hammer and sucked on the smaller fragments. If we were lucky, we were nearby when the top came off the freezer, and it was time to sample the cream. My Mama’s cooked custard ice cream was my favorite.

Once the men began dropping cornmeal-dipped fillets into the boiling cast iron pot, the women folk hurried to set their side dishes on the outdoor folding tables. Mama always brought our old green card table to the line-up, complete with one of my grandmother’s clean but well-used tablecloths.

My job was to make sure every dish had a serving utensil, and for some reason, that job always took a little longer at the dessert table. The crumbs from Ruth’s fresh blackberry cobbler or my Mama’s undone brownies couldn’t be left on the tablecloth, so I was careful to clear these promptly into my mouth. Sometimes German chocolate or Italian Cream icing would dribble onto the cloth, and I had to shoo the younger children away to keep the problem contained.

Once Ruth began to pour up her “knock-your-head-off-sweet” tea, I knew it was almost time. One of the men would bless the food, then we lined up, oldest to youngest, to fill our Dixie plates. Lest you think it unfair, know that between snitching off the tables and begging samples from the men while they fried fish, all of the children were reasonably full at this point anyway.

Sometimes there was so much food that even the adults couldn’t eat around the tables. Holding plates in their laps, they would sit on the porch or under the shade of an elm tree. Danny, Denice, Debra, little Howard, and I always took our plates to the metal playset, where glider and swing remained motionless until our sugar kicked in. As the sun dipped behind the horizon, adults and children alike welcomed the cool night air, with a more splendid view of the Milky Way than anyone else on earth.

Today, as I recall those tender times, I find myself looking through the memories like prisms of stained glass. The black and white photos expose the iridescence of those sentimental summers in the light of nostalgia. As we share these recollections, we watch the glow reveal other buried memories of long ago. Surely goodness and mercy have followed all of us.

Special thanks to Sue Griffin Stahl for helping to jog these precious memories and for the photo below. L to R: Sue and her mom, Ruth Griffin on the oilcloth preparing catfish.