The Origin Story Of Fried Catfish

You may recognize fried catfish as a soul food staple, but it has roots that reach back to West Africa and the Atlantic slave trade. Fish was commonly eaten along the West African coast by many of the people who were captured and forced into slavery in America between the 16th and 19th centuries. Africans brought their cultural and food traditions with them and adapted them to their environment.

Fishing offered a way to supplement enslaved people's diets, as they were often confronted with a dearth of sustenance. Catfish were abundantly found in Southern lakes and rivers, and the taste was similar to the species of catfish found in their native countries. The convenience with which they could be prepared and cooked in large quantities helped contribute to their use in fish fries. A catfish fry became one of the rare occasions when the enslaved Black community could come together and enjoy each other's company. They were about more than just eating; the fries were about fellowship and collective survival in the face of daunting circumstances.

The proliferation of fried catfish nationwide

The tradition of the fish fry eventually spread to other parts of the country as Black folks left the South in droves. During the period known as the Great Migration, they spread out over the Midwestern, Northern, and Western states to flee the forced segregation and oppression of Jim Crow policies in search of a better life. These fish fries were later adapted to fit local geography, with an array of different fish being incorporated depending on location. Fish fries eventually became associated with Black church fundraisers as well, according to the New York Times.

The Soul Food Movement, which arose in the 1960s, was part of an endeavor of the African American community to revisit and reclaim the traditional foods of their past, and fried catfish became one of the signature items identified with the movement. Today you can find the dish gracing the menus of soul food restaurants not only in places like Atlanta, but all over the country. The next time you pop a piece of that crunchy, flaky, fried fish into your mouth, remember that this simple but comforting dish has an important origin story and a meaningful connection to history.