Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Fish Fry

Maybe it's some sort of great Southern family tradition, I don't know. But it seems that since I could remember, my great Aunt Mary and Grandma hosted a sort of joint gathering known only to us as 'The Fish Fry'. It always seemed that the event was held when the weather was nothing less than perfect -- a cool, dry afternoon at their charming old bungalow, which was literally steps away from Overton Park in midtown Memphis.

Aunt Mary and Uncle Clay sold real estate for a living, and their work schedule was such that they could afford frequent weekend trips to Florida and points in between, where they would catch the fish themselves.  So the fish they cooked up at our dinners was no ordinary store-bought catfish -- it was always fresh, and you knew where it had been.

Aunt Mary always used the same ancient electric deep fryer. For some years, I had no fondness for catfish and was content to gorge myself on hush puppies. I have eaten hush puppies from the Tennessee River to Florida, but I have never had any quite as good as the ones Aunt Mary and Grandma prepared in that fryer. The cornmeal was mixed with the grated onions in the most precise configuration, so that the taste fairly leapt off the plate and into my mouth. I simply couldn't get enough of them and would eat far more than I should have. I was young and skinny, so calories and carbs didn't matter. Honestly, I could eat hush puppies (and still can) with the best of them.

The fish fryer generally sat out on the screened back porch, and the smell would waft throughout the neighborhood. We would set up picnic tables in the back yard and feast all afternoon and into the evening, downing catfish, corn on the cob, token green vegetables, fried chicken, and gallons of iced tea. And then there was dessert, at which Grandma and Aunt Mary excelled. "You don't want that mix cake, honey. This is real chocolate cake," Grandma would say. The cakes were typically either dark chocolate, milk chocolate, German chocolate, or coconut. The grownups would always have coffee, and I'd get (more) iced tea. The feast just went on and on.

After the dinner dishes had been moved off to the kitchen, we would make short work of the cleanup. I would help clear the table and sometimes dry the dishes, then head off to the huge living room, where my Uncle Clay would be ensconced with some literary classic which he would encourage me to read. I remember that I first became interested in Steinbeck after a fish fry. My uncle and I would discuss books we both had read and what we thought of them. What music was to my mother, good literature was to my Uncle Clay. He was quite the eccentric, but I liked him very much.

And so the years passed, with my eventual departure from Memphis to attend college in Chicago. It seems that we had a few more fish fries when I returned home on breaks, but ill health started to catch up with my older relatives, and the gatherings became fewer and farther between. But I just know that wherever Aunt Mary, Uncle Clay, Grandma, and Mom and Dad are now, they are enjoying catfish, fried in that heavenly batter, with unlimited glasses of iced tea and cakes that simply cannot be contained by any cardboard box.