BBQ Set Fried Catfish with Lemon Garnish in Tulsa, Oklahoma, United States
The Complex Origins Of Fried Catfish
By Christina Garcia
Fried catfish is a cultural, culinary icon with deep historical roots traced back to the diets of the people who built the wealth of America but gained very little in return.
Catfish are abundant in the American South, especially in the Mississippi River Valley, where the majority of enslaved people toiled.
According to "Soul Food" author Adrian Miller, catfish were already valued by many in West Africa, the region from which most enslaved Americans were transported.
This familiarity likely traveled into the American colonies, where enslaved people fished to sustain themselves. Frying was a quick and easy way to feed many people at once.
Eventually, catfish-centered fish fries became the heart of gathering traditions in Black communities. Its association with Black Americans was often furthered by stereotypes.
Prior to being called soul food in the 1960s, catfish was a central part of many Black social spaces and celebrations of Emancipation and the Fourth of July after the Civil War.
Catfish have had a bad image over the years since they're "bottom-feeders," but their "muddy" flavor is caused by their murky environment, not filthy water or dirty food.
In the second half of the 20th century, catfish farming was said to have replaced cotton farming in many areas, with Black people's labor again being exploited.
Catfish farming now makes up the majority of American aquaculture, and farmers' efforts to improve the flavor of the fish have made it a more palatable and iconic Southern dish.