Is Fried Fish and Spaghetti Soul Food’s Most Debatable Dish?
As African Americans left the South, this controversial coupling migrated to parts of the U.S.
Much like chicken and waffles, shrimp and grits, and okra and tomatoes, fried fish with spaghetti is one of soul food’s greatest culinary combinations: End of story, or, so I thought. It turns out, it’s not beloved by all of Soul Food Nation and to my surprise, it may be the most controversial soul food coupling since someone decided it was a good idea to marinate dill pickles in Kool-Aid.
It all began when I tweeted a Lent-inspired poll to find people’s favorite side dishes to pair with fried fish. Spaghetti was such an obvious option to me that I didn’t think much of adding it to the list. Even though it didn’t poll very well, several respondents went out of their way to express how much they loved, hated, or had never heard of fried fish with spaghetti. Those patterns followed on my Facebook and Instagram posts on the same subject. Then, two significant influencers weighed in. The first was Derek Kirk (@soulPhoodie), who bewilderedly tweeted these memes:
I pushed the issue by asking “Fried Fish and Spaghetti — Yeah or Naw?” and reactions rolled in strong. James Beard Award-winning author Michael W. Twitty (@koshersoul) expressed his disgust in several tweets, but this was the funniest:
I could deal with the masses debating the merits of this dish, but I was truly taken aback by Kirk’s and Twitty’s reactions. How could two people of this stature — who I thought understood the guts of soul food cuisine — have never heard of this pairing?
That’s when I learned that fried fish and spaghetti has a strong regional vibe, not a national one. The Deep South and the Midwest proudly claim the dish, even though people from elsewhere think they have lost their minds. Like many others, Kirk and Twitty hadn’t experienced fried fish and spaghetti in its native habitat.
Those who don’t know the dish ask, “Why on earth would anyone put these things on the same plate?” The “fried fish” side of the equation is easy to understand because African Americans are a seafood-loving people. Most people of African heritage in the United States trace our roots to a band of countries hugging the West African coastline from Senegal to Angola. Seafood is an important part of the cuisines in those countries, and our ancestors passed down that West African culinary heritage to the present day. Any fish would do, though strong regional preferences for fish emerged in the American South based on what was plentiful.
Catfish ultimately became the most popular choice that transcended regional boundaries because it was so easy to farm and ship nationwide. Still, no soul food aficionado would be surprised to see buffalo (not bison), carp, porgy, tilapia, or whiting on their plate. Frying was a popular way to prepare fish for small and large groups alike, and the Friday or Saturday night fish fry was a highly anticipated event in the rural South.
Spaghetti seems like the real head-scratcher here, but it shouldn’t be. Italians have long been in the American South as explorers, agricultural and railroad workers, and eventually, entrepreneurs. A large number of Italians settled in Louisiana and Mississippi in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Italian and Greek restaurateurs featured pasta dishes on their menus. African Americans in the South became familiar with spaghetti by either patronizing these restaurants or cooking it at the public places or private homes where they worked — and eventually, their own homes.
Thus, black Southerners were early adopters of spaghetti decades before the dish entered the American mainstream. By the late 1920s, spaghetti recipes were regularly appearing in African American cookbooks. In time, spaghetti eventually made the jump from entrée to side dish, and black Southern cooks thought nothing of pairing it with fried fish, much like they would with coleslaw or potato salad. The combination caught on, especially in the Mississippi Delta. My first experience eating fried fish and spaghetti in a restaurant was at Betty’s Place in Indianola, Mississippi — near the birthplace of blues legend B.B. King — in 2011. My experience was slightly unusual since the fish was deep-fried buffalo fish ribs instead of a catfish filet.
Though it’s a regional dish, looking back, I recall I had eaten it years before at potluck dinners and fundraisers hosted by predominantly black churches in Denver. How did it get there?
The likely answer is “The Great Migration,” the decades-long movement of millions of African Americans from the American South to other parts of the U.S. Just like any other migrants, they took their love for their favorite foods with them to new locales — and while Denver is an outlier, it’s not so unusual. Those leaving the Mississippi Delta area tended to head north to major cities along the Mississippi River and beyond: Memphis, St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, and Milwaukee. It’s no coincidence that the people who gave fried fish and spaghetti the most love have connections to those cities — and occasionally a far-flung place like Denver.
Migrants to urban areas often settled in housing that had inadequate cooking facilities. So they relied on churches, restaurants, and street vendors to sustain them until they had better home kitchens. For restaurateurs, specializing in barbecue, fried chicken, and fried fish were sure bets to make a decent living. Some black churches ran full-service restaurants during the day, but weekend fundraising meals were prevalent. With better kitchen equipment, churches’ fried fish dinners became a regular Friday gathering for many black households.
The fried fish dinner shapes up differently depending on where you eat it. Go to a seafood restaurant and the standard dinner is fried fish, coleslaw, French fries, and hush puppies with hot sauce, lemon, ketchup, and tartar sauce as possible condiments. The fish dinner at a black church fundraiser is a completely different animal. In addition to the fried fish and spaghetti (usually with a meatless tomato sauce, but not always), any combination of coleslaw, collard greens, green beans, a green salad, macaroni and cheese, or potato salad would go into a styrofoam container with some bread (cornbread, garlic bread, or just plain white bread) and some sort of dessert — a slice of pound cake being my favorite. The same variety happens when one eats a fish dinner in someone’s home.
As the social media reactions churned on, this was the most fitting retort, and Midwestern benediction, to the naysayers, and Twitty in particular:
What these soul food cooks have joined together, let no skeptic tear asunder!
Adrian Miller is a James Beard Award-winning author who lives in Denver. He is currently writing a history of African American barbecue culture titled “Black Smoke.”