Fried whiting: Washington’s fillet of soul
By Tim Carman,
For thousands of Washingtonians, fried whiting needs no introduction: a stack of white-fish fillets pulled hot and golden from a deep-fryer, piled high between two slices of sandwich bread and often served with a thin, vinegary hot sauce that goes down as smooth as moonshine. It’s comfort food. It’s food built for sheer caloric consumption.
It’s also one of Washington’s most common dishes, more widely available than half-smokes or jumbo slices (maybe even half-smokes and jumbo slices combined). The fish is found at family gatherings, sporting events and takeouts all over the District, and like Marion Barry and the Anacostia River, it’s a symbol of the racial divide that has defined the city for decades. Unlike other soul food staples such as fried chicken and waffles, fried whiting has not found a home in mainstream dining rooms, even though gentrification has swallowed up some of the neighborhoods where it once dominated.
Fried whiting may mean next to nothing in the part of town known (demeaningly) as “official Washington,” but for Patricia Ann Faggett, the mere mention of Horace & Dickies, the District’s most recognized outlet for the fish, lights up her face. As she sits with her husband, Walter, in the basement of the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Southwest Washington, Patricia Ann begins to reminiscence about a time in the 1990s when she was a patient advocate with the District’s Addiction Prevention and Recovery Administration.
“A guy who worked there made these Horace & Dickies runs twice a week to bring back these great, wonderful sandwiches,” says Patricia Ann, 64. “I would eat a sandwich, but I would have enough left over to take home.”
Almost every Friday for nearly nine years, Walter and Patricia Ann have been attending Jazz Night at the church, where they dig into a spread of fried whiting, fried chicken and other soul food dishes provided by Southwest Catering, an arm of Westminster Presbyterian. The couple, in fact, met at the Friday night jam session before marrying about seven years ago. Walter, 75, a retired medical director for the District’s Medicaid program, almost always orders the fried whiting. He has a cut-to-the-chase take on why the fish remains so popular among local African Americans.
“It reminds us of past times,” he says.
That’s one short sentence, with decades and centuries of history behind it. For Walter Faggett, “past times” refers to his carefree undergraduate years at Howard University, when he would enjoy the rare treat of fried whiting from a nearby soul food restaurant. But it also could be a reference to a far more unpleasant period: slavery in America.
“African Americans have been associated with fishing since the early days of slavery,” says Adrian Miller, former deputy director of President Bill Clinton’s One America in the 21st Century, an initiative for equal opportunity for all races. Miller is now a self-described “soul food scholar” who has studied the cuisine for years; his book, “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time,” will be published by the University of North Carolina Press in the fall.
Many slaves came from coastal societies in West Africa and “were noted rivermen and fishermen,” Miller says. “A lot of times, people would just go to the riverbanks, get their fish and cook it right on the spot, because in some cases, masters wanted a cut of whatever the catch was. So if you eat it up, you don’t have to give anything to the master.”
As with so many foreign foods deemed strange or exotic by the mainstream culture, fish eating among African Americans was commonly mocked in the media in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, notes Miller, as if diet were one more way to separate the races. Interestingly enough, Miller’s research showed that Southern whites around the same period had a taste for whiting, apparently blithely devouring the maligned seafood much as they did other slave foods. For their part, African Americans leaned toward porgy, the broad term for a number of species common to the American side of the Atlantic.
“But that has changed over time,” Miller says, “which just tells you how fluid tastes can be.”
Those tastes also vary widely according to region. Fried fish has been a staple in black communities across America for many decades, from Saturday night slave cookouts to South Carolina fish camps to Delta juke joints. But the type of fish served in each community has differed, often based on, as you might suspect, the species available in local waters. Or the price of the fish itself. You might find catfish in Texas, buffalo fish in Mississippi or croaker along the Atlantic coast.
“The big story is that tilapia is just taking over,” Miller says. “It’s becoming more and more widespread. But whiting still has a special place.”
As hard as it is to believe, whiting had no place on Richard Shannon’s menu when he opened Horace & Dickies off H Street NE in March 1990. Shannon, now 75, took over a former fish carryout that specialized in perch, and the new owner carried on that tradition. It didn’t sell, so six months into his new venture, Shannon expanded the menu to include croaker, trout and whiting. That last fish would soon become his most popular item by far, outselling all others 4 to 1.
“I don’t know why it’s so popular,” Shannon says. “I guess because it really doesn’t have a fishy taste, and the texture’s pretty good.”
Shannon does have a theory, however, on why whiting became a staple in African American communities, such as Washington’s. He recalls his youth in Atlantic City, where he would occasionally bite into fried whiting. The source of this rather uncommon fish, he remembers, was the same source as in other cities: the Nation of Islam. “I think the Muslims during Elijah Muhammad’s era started the whiting craze,” Shannon says. “That’s the first time that I’d heard of a fish called whiting.”
Soul food scholar Miller shares a similar opinion on the Nation of Islam’s influence on the whiting market. He forwarded a 1974 New York Times article, headlined “Muslims Open a Fish House in Harlem,” that noted the shop “is an outgrowth of the Nation of Islam’s international buying program, which includes the importation of ‘more than 5 million pounds’ of fresh-frozen whiting from Peru.”
Less than a year later, the Nation of Islam had a foothold in the District with its whiting trade. “Black Muslims here import from Lima, Peru, 35,000 pounds of whiting fish each month for sale door-to-door and distribution to their temples in Baltimore and Richmond,” a 1975 Washington Post story noted. “The fish is served at the Shabazz Restaurant and Shabazz Fish House at 3027-3031 14th St. NW.” That’s near where the Columbia Heights Metro station sits today.
If the Nation of Islam popularized whiting in urban communities, the price of the fish helped it remain firmly entrenched. At the Maine Avenue Fish Market, whiting fillets sell for $4.45 a pound, $1.50 cheaper than catfish fillets and 50 cents cheaper than trout fillets. The whiting is even a buck less than tilapia, the farmed “aquatic chicken” famous for its bland taste and bargain-basement prices. Captain White’s Seafood City sells about 1,000 pounds of fillets a week during the off-season, when whiting is imported from Argentina, says fishmonger Santos Napoleon Coreas. From spring to early fall, many customers prefer to buy whole fresh whiting from the Atlantic, Coreas adds.
What exactly is whiting? It’s a question that has perplexed more than one writer on the subject. It doesn’t help that the word “whiting,” as NOAA Fisheries notes, “is often used for various species of hake in the genus Merluccius,” including silver hake, the most common “whiting” on the market. It also doesn’t help that residents of Baltimore refer to whiting as “lake trout,” even though there is a fish called lake trout found in cold-water lakes, according to the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland, Maine. Whiting is essentially a thin, codlike fish with flaky white flesh.
Perhaps Oji Abbott, chef and owner of Oohhs & Aahhs on U Street, has the most apt description of the fish. “Whiting is the hot dog of the sea,” he says. “A hot dog is generally pretty cheap. If you’re going to get some fish, [whiting] is the cheapest thing you’re going to get.”
Plus, the D.C. native adds, a stack of fried whiting fillets on bread “fills you up. It puts you where you need to be, and you don’t spend all your money. You can go on about your way.”
As any good chef will tell you, the key to fried whiting is to catch it fresh from the fryer. Because the fillets are thin, and thinly coated, they tend to lose moisture fast. Fifteen minutes after its hot-oil bath, “that fish is gone,” says Michael DuBose, executive chef for Southwest Catering at Westminster Presbyterian Church. “I’d rather you stand in line for a couple of minutes to get a hot piece of fish than to come to [no] line and get a cold piece of fish.”
Such a fish, it seems, would be a natural fit for more upmarket restaurants, where heat lamps are frowned on and cooking to order is the norm. But fried whiting has not made much of a dent in mainstream dining in Washington, perhaps in part because seafood chefs and restaurateurs are largely unfamiliar with the fish. That includes Jeff Black, (BlackSalt, Pearl Dive Oyster Palace), who says he hasn’t “had a whole lot of exposure to whiting.”
Not that his lack of experience would prevent Black from trying to introduce a chef-driven whiting to diners. He’s a firm believer in steering customers away from overfished species and toward sustainable fish, such as whiting wild-caught in the North Atlantic. But it’s hard for restaurateurs to swim against the current of popular taste. “When the dust settles, the dining public gets what they want,” Black says. “That’s capitalism.”
It might help if whiting had a name change, although Black knows all too well that gimmicky marketing-oriented handles can lead to environmental catastrophe, such as when the Patagonian toothfish was renamed Chilean sea bass and suffered from massive overfishing.
“Maybe changing the name of whiting to ‘oceanic white bass’ ” would help, he says. “If you come up with some sexy name, it may sell like crazy.”
Clarification: It may sell like crazy in the restaurants of “official” Washington.
More from Food: The Immigrant’s Table
Recipes: Chef Michael DuBose’s Fried Whiting