Food is an important part of culture. Everyone has some familiar favorite from their youth and it can be hard for a chef or even a spouse to live up to the way that you are accustomed to – the way that Mama used to prepare some favorite dish.
One defining food favorite in the southern United States is fried fish. Of course, people fry fish all over the world, but I’m not talking about the cornstarch powdered fried fish like you might find in Asian countries and I’m not talking about breadcrumb breaded whitefish that you might find in Britain or New England.
I’m talking about Mississippi Delta farm-raised catfish encrusted with spiced cornmeal and deep fried – the fried fish that you find around the Gulf Coast and especially around New Orleans. The kind of fish that you find in deep south fish houses accompanied by a slice of raw onion and a couple of hush puppies.
I grew up accustomed to that sort of fish fry and then when I moved off to University let me tell you, I was in for a culture shock! I didn’t expect such a large difference in such a staple of southern culture, especially since University was in the same State and only 200 miles to the north.
Here’s how it happened.
There is a famous, totally awesome BBQ and fish place named Little Dooey. Dooey’s is famous for its barbeque and even more famous for its hot barbeque sauce. One reporter wrote that Dooey’s ships its hot BBQ sauce to the Mississippi Highway Department, which uses it to remove paint from asphalt! It’s HOT! Even the most die-hard, spiciest of locals tend to cut the hot sauce by 50% with mild sauce to be able to survive it – but that’s a story for another day.
I walked into Dooey’s because a roommate or someone told me it was awesome, and when I looked at the menu, I immediately got the fried fish. We went and found a table, which at that time was covered with plain white paper placemats that customers were encouraged to draw on with the provided crayons. The walls were covered with years worth of placemat masterpieces and you were considered to have reached the height of society if one of your sauce-stained artistic creations was selected to grace the walls at Dooey’s.
Eventually, the server brought the food and when they slid it in front of me, I was confused.
“I ordered the fish plate.”
The server pointed at it, “That’s the fish plate.”
“Where’s the rest of it?”
See, in the country fish houses of my youth, it was common practice to offer a large or a small fish dinner. The large would come with 5-6 pieces of fish and the small would come with 3-4 pieces. This that was in front of me was one fish fillet.
To be fair, the fish houses of the south would usually take one large fillet and cut it longitudinally into two pieces – but for the price that I paid at Dooey’s I was expecting a whole pile of fish. And to be extra-fair, Dooey’s served excellent fish! Maybe the best I’ve ever had – thick as my hand but still fried crispy on the outside and tender and flaky on the inside. But one piece!?
I figured it was some glitch that was peculiar to Dooey’s, so imagine my shock when I discovered that all the restaurants around there sold fried fish by the piece! For years I searched for a good-old-fashioned country fish house where I could get a mound of fish on my plate without having to take out a bank loan – but alas. There were none within driving distance of the university.
Eventually, I got used to places selling fish by the piece. I’ve even seen this diabolical piecemeal practice infecting more and more restaurants and cafeterias back home.
Even though I know that one fillet might be a much healthier and more realistic serving size, I still occasionally long for the halcyon days of fish house heaven.