A Sunday Afternoon Delta Juke Joint Fish Fry

Small town and rural Delta juke joints and honky tonks share many traits, including Sunday afternoon fish fries. (Please don't tell that to a racist redneck unless you like to fight.) There's a fine honky tonk about three miles from my home, and I've eaten free fish there many Sunday afternoons. If there's extra, Dot the bartender will let me take some home for the next day.

Dot the bartender is a friend of mine.
She feeds me catfish for free.
And she's quick with a joke and to the owner she spoke
So now there's blues on the jukebox for me.

In the first place, no Delta juke joint or honky tonk is located more than a mile or two from some sort of fishing hole. In the case of both ZZ's juke joint and my honky tonk, a bayou is an empty beer can throw from the front door. In the second place, 99% of the customers of Delta juke joints and honky tonks either fish or eat fish. (One doesn't necessarily mean the other.) All it takes is for a customer with an overflowing freezer in need of room for even more fish to say to the owner or bartender, "Hey, my deep-freeze is full of (name the species). Let's have a fish fry."

Word gets around and other folks in need of room in their freezers make a donation. The juke joint or honky tonk cooks the fish and provides everything needed for free--except the beer. That they sell and sell lots of it because everybody in the Delta knows that it will make you sick if you eat fish without drinking beer. I don't know how Baptists and holyrollers get around that fact, but I have a good idea. Y'all ever heard of a "40-mile Baptist"? That's a Baptist who drives 40 miles from home to buy his beer.

Right now some Yankee who has to drive 200 miles to catch 2 tiny fish is probably thinking, Hey, those southern hicks can't possibly catch than many fish.

Guess what? We do. I'll bet there's enough catfish alone in the Mississippi River alone to feed everybody in the world for about a week. Back at the beginning of summer a couple of years ago a neighbor of mine raised his hoop nets and caught an estimated 800 lbs of catfish. They would have more than filled the bed of a pickup truck. I still have 20 or 30 lbs of those fish in my freezer--dressed and ready to fry. That's in addition to about a dozen gallon milk jugs filled with bream and white perch, "crappie" to you Yankees. So, yes, Delta folks catch a lot of fish.

We've been catching a lot of fish since the Delta belonged to the Indians. Back around 1720, a Frenchman named La Page du Pratz noted of the area around what is now Natchez, Mississippi, that one Indian could catch more fish in an hour than a horse could carry. The Indians fished much the same as my neighbor. They used nets and traps. One method was to sew up a fresh buffalo or deer hide and prop it open with sticks, making a device similar to my neighbor's hoop nets. Put it in the river this afternoon, then pull it out in the morning and you've got more catfish than you can eat in a week.

Delta folks eat a lot of fish. However, the kind of fish they eat is based mostly on the race of the folks. Delta white folks primarily eat catfish, bream, bass and white perch. Most Delta black folks eat any fish that swims. It's strictly economics. Go back only one generation, and if a black or a poor white Delta family went fishing and didn't catch any fish, they didn't eat. So if it got caught on their hook, it went in their skillet.

What that really means is they learned how to cook the fish most white people consider trash fish--carp, buffalo fish, grinnel and garfish. One of the most delectable morsels to ever touch my lips was something the elderly black woman who cooked it called "gar balls." It was egg-sized and deep-fat-fried lumps of ground-up garfish meat mixed with black pepper and other herbs and spices.

I hereby nominate myself to learn the process of how she prepared and cooked that garfish. If anyone knows that process, it's Carolina Henderson, the combination cook/barmaid/old-blues-song expert at ZZ's juke joint in Ferriday, Louisiana. My next trip to Ferriday, I'll ask her. Watch JUNIOR'S JUKE JOINT for photographs and a recipe. You'll be able to impress your friends at your next dinner party.

CarolinaHere's Carolina at the stove in ZZ's kitchen. She's frying the fish for the Sunday Afternoon Fish Fry on September 7, 1997.

They normally fry the fish on a portable butane burner out in the parking lot, but "It's too hot out there today," Carolina said.

I've decided to teach you folks how to fry fish--Mississippi Delta juke joint and honky tonk style. You'll learn how to mix the batter and even how to make hushpuppies. So pay attention. Here we go. . . .

Notice the pots on Carolina's stove. They're cast iron, the best for frying fish. The oil doesn't burn as easily as with aluminum.

Look at the oil in the pots. Notice that it covers the fish. Especially in the background pot, you can see the oil boiling and bubbling. It's hot. Some reckless Delta folks, before they start frying fish, check the temperature of their oil by dropping a kitchen match in the oil. If the match ignites, the oil is hot enough. That's dangerous and dumb, so don't do it unless you want to burn down your house. Cooking oil is flammable.

I mentioned that foolish method of checking cooking oil temperature just to give you an idea of how hot you need to get your oil. Here's how I check it: watch the oil and wait until it starts to roll. If you can catch it about 2 minutes before it begins a rolling boil and catches on fire and burns down your house, you've caught it just right. After it starts to roll, ease in a piece of battered fish. If that piece of battered fish causes a chemical reaction-like rolling boil around the piece of fish, you're on your way to some mighty fine eating. Ease more fish in the pot.

Notice the nice brown color of the fish in both of Carolina's pots. It's almost done. When it's a golden brown color, it's done. Golden brown means take a piece out of the pot and test it. Test it means taste it. Just one cooking and you'll learn how to tell when it's done. I like mine well-done, crisp. The usual rule around where I cook fish is if anyone complains about the doneness of the fish, they do the cooking the next time.

The oil:
Any cooking oil will do. I use peanut oil. "Doesn't matter what kind you use as long as it's oil," Carolina said. "If I had some hog grease, I'd use that."

That's not as unhealthy as you might think. Hog lard has about 1/3 the cholesterol of butter. And, y'all, nothing tastes better than fish fried in hog lard.

The fish:
Cut them in deck-of-card-size chunks. If your chunk is more than an inch thick, score it with a knife. Here's how to judge the amount of fish you need: Count heads, adults and children. Figure 1 lb of fish per person. If they're experienced fish eaters and what we call "fish hungry," figure 1.5 lbs of fish per person.

I don't marinate my fish; some folks do and use either mustard or Louisiana Hot Sauce. If you want to try it, a few minutes before you're ready to start cooking dump your fish in a big bowl and daub on some mustard or sprinkle on some hot sauce and then stir gently, coating the fish. Don't marinate your fish until you've fried several batches and consider yourself an expert. Don't use hot sauce made anywhere but Louisiana or consider yourself a damned fool.

The batter:
Don't laugh. If you don't do exactly as I say, you'll screw up big time. When you go to the supermarket to buy the stuff you need to fry catfish fillets for your dinner party, tell the clerk you don't want plastic bags. You want large brown paper bags. Make sure you buy enough stuff so you'll get at least 2 large brown paper bags.

When you get ready to fry your store-bought catfish fillets, while your oil is getting hot put one bag inside the other bag, making a double-bag. Dump in a 2 lb sack of yellow corn meal. Doesn't matter if it's plain or self-rising as long as it's yellow. Then add a couple of spoons of black pepper. Then add a couple of spoons of salt. Then roll up the top of the double-bag and shake it, mixing up your batter.

Now open your bag and taste your batter. If you can't taste the pepper and if you don't think it tastes slightly too salty, add more of both. Okay, you say, I can taste the pepper and I think it's got a little too much salt. Perfect. Now dump in about 2 lbs of fish, or enough fish to fill your pot of hot oil, and roll up the top of the bag again and shake it again. Congratulations, you've just battered your first batch of fish with Delta fish batter. When your oil gets hot, start cooking.

Hint!   As you cook them, place your fish, hushpuppies and potatoes in another double-bag. Just dump them all in there on top of each other. Roll down the top of the bag and they'll stay hot. Place newspaper or paper towels in the bottom of the bag, and it will absorb most of the oil.
When you get through cooking, roll up the top of the bag of batter and throw it in the freezer. You can use it about a year or until all the batter is gone.

Look on the side of a yellow cornmeal sack for the cornbread recipe. Follow the recipe as if you intended to make cornbread. Add chopped onions to taste. Add chopped dill pickles to taste. Then slowly add cornmeal until your mixture thickens to the consistency of cooked grits. Oops! Sorry! How about the consistency of cooked oatmeal?

You should have the hushpuppies ready to fry the second you get through frying the fish. Stick a spoon in the hot oil. Then dip up some hushpuppy mix with the spoon and carefully ease the bowl of the spoon and the mix into the hot oil. When the mix leaves the spoon, repeat the process until the pot is full of sizzling hushpuppies. Cook them golden brown.

Got all that? Here's the ingredients:

  1. fish
  2. cooking oil
  3. yellow cornmeal
  4. salt and pepper
For the hushpuppy/cornbread mix, you'll need:

  1. yellow cornmeal
  2. an onion
  3. a dill pickle
  4. a cup of milk

If you want to experiment, substitute dill pickle juice for the milk. Around where I cook fish, we like to chop up some jalapeno peppers and put them in the hushpuppy mix. Use your own judgement. Again, don't try it on your first batch.

Don't forget beer because I don't want anybody to get sick and blame it on me.

Check out this picture of a fine fellow named John Stacker. He's from Fayette, Mississippi, and he drives a school bus. "I've been doing that for 10 years," he told me. "I love those kids."

From the look on his face, I'd say that he also loves the taste of Carolina's fried fish.

My plate looked about like John's plate, only I skipped the salad in favor of extra fish. I was fish hungry, and I pigged-out on catfish, bass, and buffalo fish ribs, my favorite. A buffalo fish is a carp-like fish, usually caught at a weight of between 20 and 40 lbs. The majority of the meat contains numerous tiny bones and is therefore difficult to eat. The rib meat, however, is bone-free except for the rib bones. The meat around the rib bones is pearly white, juicy, tender and delicious--the absolute best, in my opinion.

For a look at the roots of the Delta fish fry tradition, it's necessary to go back to the original Delta culture--Indians, the Native Americans. They had everything needed to deep-fat-fry fish exactly the way I do it at my home and the way Carolina Henderson did it at ZZ's Sunday Afternoon Fish Fry--pots (clay), cooking oil (bear, racoon and o'possum oil), plenty of fish, cornmeal (ground maize), salt and even pepper. Native Americans taught our ancestors how to catch, kill, grow and cook many of the foods we eat today.

Deep-fat-frying solves a major problem of so-called primitive cultures: how to preserve perishable food. In the heat of the Delta summer, a dead fish is inedible after an hour or two. But deep-fat-fry that same fish and it's edible for several days. I know that for a fact; I tried it.

One summer night at my little cabin on a lake, I fried too many bream. The next morning there on the table in my un-air-conditioned kitchen sat all that left-over fish. In the interest of furthering anthropological knowledge and satisfying my curiosity, I decided to see how long that fish would last without refrigeration. Besides, there were fried potatoes and hushpuppies left over too, so not only did I not have to thaw out more fish for that night, I didn't have to peel potatoes and make hushpuppy mix. That night, day #1 without refrigeration, I heated my pot of cooking oil and dropped in fish, fried potatoes and hushpuppies for about a minute, just to warm them. They tasted almost exactly like they did the night before--delicious.

The next night, day #2 without refrigeration, they tasted okay, but the fried potatoes were starting to get hard and the hushpuppies were definitely hard.

The next night, day #3 without refrigeration, the fish were starting to get hard, the fried potatoes were hard, and I was afraid I'd break a tooth on the hushpuppies so I threw them over the fence to the hogs. The fish still tasted okay.

The next morning, day #4, there on the table sat the remaining bream and fried potatoes. I picked up a fish and smelled it. It smelled okay. I broke it open and looked at it closely and then smelled the exposed white flesh. It looked and smelled okay. But anthropological research be damned, fish 4 days in a row was too much for even me, so I fed it to my cats. They fought and growled at each other over it, so it must have tasted fine.

That deep-fat-fried fish would have been edible after 7 days, I believe. That's a very important trait in a non-refrigerated society. And Native Americans before and during the time of du Pratz were not the only society without refrigeration. My grandparents received electricity and, therefore, a refrigerator, in 1947. Before that, they used an ice-box, kept cool by the erratic delivery of a block of ice.

But my grandparents could afford a store-bought ice-box, a block of ice, and then electricity when it came. When Delta bluesman T-Model Ford's family could afford a block of ice, their ice-box was a sawdust-filled hole in their back yard. My point is the fact that many Delta folks, white and black, are only one generation away from poor or no refrigeration. Therein lies the Sunday Afternoon Fish Fry tradition.

Just a few years ago, if Delta folks caught a bunch of fish they had to clean, cook and eat them fast. So they invited their family and extended family, and it became a party. Then they ate leftovers for a few days, and it was time to run their nets again.

Anthropologically speaking, then, the Sunday Afternoon Fish Fry evolved as a way to redistribute energy, fish.

Henry McKealThis fine fellow with the pipe is my buddy Henry McKeal, the owner of the Disco 86 in Waterproof, Louisiana. When I walked inside ZZ's for the fish fry, I didn't recognize Henry at first because of the darkness inside the juke joint. I saw somebody waving at me from over against the wall beside the kitchen, and then I saw that pipe.

Henry came to ZZ's fish fry with two of his buddies, Andrew Arnold and Charles Whitly, both also from Waterproof. Right before I took this picture, all of us, including ZZ the bosslady, were sitting around that table, and, y'all, Wilson Pickett was singing "In the Midnight Hour" from ZZ's awesome sound system. We clapped our hands, danced in our chairs, and had ourselves a fine time. Right after I took this picture, Henry looked at his watch and said, "Oh, my God! It's 7 o'clock! I told Annie Mae I'd be home at 6!"

Annie Mae, it's all my fault. I twisted Henry's arm.

Henry McKeal's buddy Charles Whitly provided the fish for the fish fry. I asked him, "Where did you catch all that fish?"

"I didn't catch none of it," he answered. "One fellow give me some buffalo, n' another fellow give me some catfish, n' another fellow give me some more catfish, n' a white man give me the bass."

"Just give it to you, huh? Didn't charge you anything?"

"Nope. Nothin'."

"What did you charge ZZ for it?"

"What?! Nothin'! It was give to me, so I give it to her. I just wanted folks to fill up on fish an' have a good time. Just be happy. That's all it is--be happy. Black, white, green, whatever. Be happy."

That's good advice for us all--black, white, green, whatever.

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