Yum-yum! Fish fries in the deep South when everyone gathers around in the backyard at picnic tables and lawn chairs, waiting for Dad to serve up hot fresh catfish fillets from the spattering, gurgling deep fryer, along with all the ‘fixins,’ are a Southern ritual. Manning the cooker is almost a right of passage for the Southern male.
But back in the day, in the 1950s-60s, the fish were fried indoors in the hot, humid Southern kitchens by the matriarchs of the family. Who doesn’t remember Grandmother McCune’s fried grouper, hand-cut french fries, hot greasy hush puppies, and homemade coleslaw, all washed down with a cold glass of iced sweet tea? All the saltwater fish was provided by deep sea fisherman, Granddaddy Bill McCune.
Granddaddy’s absolute favorite hobby, second only to baseball, was deep sea fishing. For over 30 years, he loved to drive his old Plymouth or ’55 Ford or ’52 Chevy red-paneled truck south from Columbus, GA, toward the Gulf of Mexico to Destin, FL, for a few days on the green Gulf waters with his relatives and buddies. He would swap out his electrical skills at Ben Marler’s fish camp for deep sea trips. Sometimes, he stayed with Grandmother’s cousin, Jack Cousins, in one of his seaside cabins. Other times, he and his sons would remove his electrical tools from the back of the paneled truck and sleep there.
He always brought back a ‘mess’ of cleaned and filleted fish for Grandmother to fry up in her black iron skillet. Grouper and red snapper, depending on the season and what was ‘running,’ filled his ice chests on the 200-mile drive back to Columbus. I can imagine him driving home, relaxed and sunburned from his time on the boat, with the windows rolled down, the radio tuned to a favorite station, smugly satisfied with his catch.
Now that Granddaddy’s ‘work’ was over, it was Grandmother’s turn. Back in those days in the South, most homes didn’t have central air conditioning. Hot, humid summer days were relieved with window fans and table top or floor oscillating fans. Windows were open to catch any breezes that might find their way in. Standing over a hot kitchen stove was something most of the older generation of Southern women were only too familiar with. Cotton print dresses damp with sweat and protected by aprons would cling to them as they prepared the family meals. Frying food in black iron skillets with greasy steam and popping spatters was the worst. Over the years, I remember seeing many red burn marks on both of my grandmothers’ arms!
Grandmother McCune would salt and pepper the fresh fish, coat them in her special cornmeal and flour mixture, and carefully drop them in deep hot Crisco, turning until they were a crisp brown. Then she would serve up batch after batch as they were cooked to a flaky, white perfection while she continued to fry the next skillet full.
I remember carefully searching with my fingers for any tiny missed fish bones before popping the tasty morsels in my mouth. Ample supplies of extra paper napkins for greasy faces and hands and paper plates for the bones graced the tables. Grandmother was always the last one to sit down to enjoy the last pieces of fish as the rest of the family pushed back from the table with full, satisfied stomachs. We never left hungry!
Summer fish fries in the South are still fun today, but old memories from the past are the best, thanks to Granddaddy Bill and Grandmother McCune. What do you think, cousins?
I welcome your comments!