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.