Here Is The History Of Black America’s Relationship With Fried Whiting

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Written by Ann Brown
Whiting
Here Is The History Of Black America’s Relationship With Fried Whiting Photo: Flickr

Ask my West Virginia-reared mother what fish meal she wants, and nine out of 10 times, she’ll say “fried whiting”. African Americans, particularly those with roots in the South, have a preference for the cod-like fish found along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

Whiting outsells other fish choices four-to-one at African-American Richard “Dickie” Shannon’s hugely popular Horace & Dickies. It’s one of the most common requests at his Washington, D.C., eatery, which closed its main site in February due to neighborhood gentrification. Horace & Dickies remains open at 6912 4th St NW, Washington, D.C.

“Whitefish 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,” was how The Washington Post described Shannon’s dish in a 2013 article.

But the history of Black America’s relationship with fried whiting is deep. 

“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 initiative and author of the book “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time.” 

Many slaves came from coastal societies in West Africa and “were noted rivermen and fishermen,” according to Miller.

“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.”

Miller’s research found that Southern whites around the same period had a taste for whiting as well. African Americans favored porgy, the broad term for a variety of white fish common to the American side of the Atlantic.

“But that has changed over time,” Miller said.

Still, fried fish has been a staple in Black communities across the U.S. for decades — “from Saturday night slave cookouts to South Carolina fish camps to Delta juke joints,” The Post reported.

Although Black people have been eating whiting since slave days, Horace & Dickies’ Shannon said he first heard of fried whiting when the Nation of Islam became popular. “I think the Muslims during Elijah Muhammad’s era started the whiting craze,” Shannon said. “That’s the first time that I’d heard of a fish called whiting.”

Shannon’s theory isn’t off the mark. It is true that the Nation of Islam had an influence on the whiting market, as the organization urged its members to move toward eating more fish. And in fact, the group opened up fish eateries in cities where NOI chapters were located, such as in Harlem, New York.   

In 1974, Nation of Islam introduced an international buying program through which they would order large quantities of whiting. The New York fish house, for example, ordered a quarter‐million pounds of imported whiting, which a spokesman described to The New York Times as “a good food that people can afford.”

In 1974, Nation of Islam Minister Abdul Rahman Muhammad of Atlanta estimated that 200,000 pounds of fish had been sold in one month.

“By 1974, NOI enterprises had taken on an international dimension with its agreement with a Peruvian fishing distributor to provide 1 million pounds of whiting fish from that South American nation. NOI members sold the fish door-to-door in Black neighborhoods to Muslims and non-Muslims alike,” Black Past reported.

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Whiting was listed as a “staple item” in Black homes in a 1975 issue of Muhammad Speaks. 

Its affordable price was a factor in the use of whiting by Black households.

“Catfish is a popular eating fish in the south and amongst Black folks. But, as a bottom feeder, catfish is a prohibited food to Black Muslims. Whiting became a great alternative because its texture was most similar to catfish (but way cheaper), so it was an easy transition,” Stroke Ass Stuart reported.

Black America’s taste for fried whiting remains as strong as ever.