“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.”