“Good food should be joyful. There should be laughter and chatter, not people sitting there like they’re in a funeral-parlor waiting room.”- Jim Harrison
I’m having a moment. My wife brought me a meal from a local meat and three. Bless her heart. I applaud her efforts but the BBQed chicken gave its life for naught it would seem. The cabbage slaw, way too sweet. The hush puppies were awful, hard on the inside and even harder on the outside, but they triggered a memory which led to a pig trail. I’m sure there is a rabbit hole to fall into at the end.
Hush puppies are fried balls of seasoned cornbread batter. I like mine sans sugar with finely chopped onion and garlic mixed into the batter. A Southern staple served alongside anything fried or BBQ, they should be a golden, crispy brown on the outside and a creamy, moist yellow or white on the inside.
Supposedly hush puppies were fried up and fed to dogs to keep them quiet while fish were fried on the riverbanks where they had been caught as friends and family fellowshipped with each other. Thus, the name, “Hush puppies.” (According to Wikipedia, the name “hush puppy” or “hushpuppy” first appeared in print in 1899)
An alternative theory, a theory that is just as likely to be true, is that escaping slaves used fried cornbread to silence pursuing hounds and to throw them off their scent. Both work for me but the first theory follows better with my pig trail.
At some point hush puppies became a fish camp side dish, and my rabbit hole led me to a seafood platter featuring deep fried flounder or catfish fillets and Calabash shrimp along with mayonnaise slaw and hush puppies.
Fish camps gained popularity before World War Two and owe their beginnings to gatherings on the side of rivers or coastal shores, “creek camps” if you will. Everyone chipping in with fish caught that day, deep fried in seasoned batter, or pan fried after dredging in a seasoned cornbread and flour mix. The main course was served alongside cabbage slaw and hushpuppies. Simple food prepared cheaply, and might I say majestically, with a good dose of fellowship to go with it.
Enterprising souls saw a business opportunity, threw up rough structures, and served up deep fried fish on Friday and Saturday nights. As roads and transportation improved local catfish, carp, and crappy were replaced by flounder, shrimp, and oysters. The ocean’s bounty was transported to the upstate and served on Fridays and Saturdays.
Fish camps once were numerous on both banks of the Catawba River where I grew up. Cute names like “Catfish Cove” or simple ones like the Riverview Inn were prolific. The Riverview Inn featured its own pirate, Captain Windy, complete with a real peg leg but missing the eyepatch and parrot on his shoulder. I really don’t remember it as an Inn and my family was not there for the view. They once served a ton of flounder over one weekend.
In the Carolinas, upstate fish camps were tied to textiles and families. Many were family-run businesses that opened on weekends after the shiftwork of the week was completed. Textile workers flocked to the fish camps and visits to the fish camp became as routine as church on Sunday.
Unfortunately, fish camps are as scarce as hen’s teeth in my part of the world in the foothills of the Blue Ridge. Coastal Carolinas and Georgia have the fish camps, I’m sure Florida does too, but inland fish camps have dwindled into obscurity or become the pricier seafood restaurants.
I’ve been to some of the local ones claiming to be fish camps and if there are good ones, they remain hidden to me…nothing cheap or majestic about their offerings. My taste has changed or I’m still looking for the one perfect fish camp that existed in the late Sixties or early Seventies.
My fondest memory was a wreck of a building at the end of a hard-packed dirt road. A graying whitewash lapboard building covered by a rusty metal roof. Picnic tables with holes in the middle over a trash can to throw shrimp tails or oyster shells. The choices were simple; shrimp, fried or boiled, oysters fried or roasted, and the catch of the day which this day was deep fried flounder fillets. Sides were cabbage slaw, fries, and hush puppies with a hint of onion fried into them.
Squeeze bottles of tartar sauce and spicy cocktail were spaced conveniently around the table along with cheap paper towels to wipe your hands. Sweet tea or iced down PBRs washed it all down. Boiled shrimp and roasted oysters were served on newspaper, the rest in paper “boats.”
I remember a couple of “church” fish fries as a child. My humble Methodist church was a bit more “hellfire and brimstone” and had taken a page from our Baptist brothers. The best way to gather new members was through their stomachs. We just drew the line at requiring a casserole dish to enter Heaven’s Pearly Gates.
From down the road from my home, if the winds were right, late summer would bring the smell of fish frying during the annual camp meeting at the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church that sat just off the Catawba on one of the creeks that fed it. Later, snatches of them making a joyful noise unto the Lord would be carried by the same breeze. Judging from the smell and the sound, they knew the way to heaven, even if it might have been heaven on earth, deep fried and seasoned by angels from generations past.
Fish camps and their predecessor, “creek camps” bode to a simpler time. Life revolved around work, family, and friends. Fishing was a form of recreation in addition to adding protein to the table. It was also a form of creation as many stories were told on the riverbank about the one that got away.
Combining necessity, recreation, and fellowship can’t be bad. Throw in a “jug band” and a bit of amber liquid and you might have hit on something.
Don Miller’s Authors Page https://www.amazon.com/stores/Don-Miller/author/B018IT38GM?ref=ap_rdr&store_ref=ap_rdr&isDramIntegrated=true&shoppingPortalEnabled=true