D & K’s Fried Fish
Along the marshy coastlands of Georgia, known as the Coastal Empire, seafood is a staple in the local diet. Below is one family’s recipe for crispy, moist, fried fish.
- 6-10 spot-tailed bass, depending on size (crappie can be substituted)
- 1-2 boxes of Jiffy Cornbread Mix
- ½- 1 cup Milk (water can be substituted)
- ¼ cup Wesson cooking oil
- Salt and pepper, to taste
1. Clean the fish and cut into fillets.
In the yard of the single-wide trailer that will haunt you for the rest of your life, watch as your father pulls fish from the cooler, one by one. The icy water is pink from diluted blood. Your twin sister is there, too, helping. She helps in a way that you have never helped, unafraid to plunge her hand again and again into that pink water. You feel bad for the fish, so small, so helpless. The fish couldn’t see what was coming.
Just as the fish can’t see, neither can you. A year after the fish fry, this trailer will burn. Your family’s collapse has already begun. It’s in the air, even then, but you don’t realize it. You are hungry. You look at the fish and your father and your sister and the gray dirt below your feet.
You eat fish because fish is free. You eat fish because your daddy likes to go fishing more than anything—except drinking and the needles he shoves into his arms. The tiny white joints he smokes. The powder he snuffs up his nose. He is always happy after fishing. He hums to himself, an upbeat tune.
Your father runs his knife along the scales. A hunting knife works best for this. He shucks the scales away like corn from a cob. Be reminded of him shaving in the morning, running the razor over his face so smoothly, and the day that you tried to mimic him, slicing the razor over your own clean lip.
He carves the belly down the middle with the same large knife, the one he uses to dismantle deer and turkeys, and lets the blood leak away. Watch as he rips out the guts, wads of orange and red and pink, and tosses them to the side. He says that one of the fish was carrying an egg sac and shows it to you, a glistening orange blob. He adds it to the pile of muck. After that, he cuts off the fish’s head.
Your sister picks up a freshly dead fish, though their scales and fins can nick a finger as easily as glass. She flecks the scales from their bodies with her pocketknife. Your father takes his shirt off and they work until they are both speckled with blood and shiny scales.
As the blood flows out of the fish, remember the blood filling your mouth from the cut in your lip, the way it wouldn’t stop bleeding, and the pain, raw and open so that you could do nothing but scream and sob. The cut was so deep that you should have had stitches, your sisters still joke. Someone should have taken you to the hospital because it wouldn’t stop bleeding.
Even with a huge knife in his hand, the scales and blood covering his shorts and arms and hair, he isn’t scary. Not in the sunlight, not out in the yard. He is drunk, even that early in the day, but as a child, you don’t think that way. He simply holds cans and bottles all the time.
Watch as he runs his finger through the center of the fish. He sprays the interior of the fish clean with the water hose, and gray clods of mud jump around him. He eases a hook from its mouth, catching his finger with the rusted, barbed point before carrying the bodies inside. He leaves the tails on.
Before you follow him inside, help your twin sister toss away the guts, tied into empty ice bags, into the field beside your trailer. Tobacco or cotton used to grow there. Now it is full of weeds and snakes.
2. Prepare the breading.
Once, when there were fish to fry but no flour, your mother found a box of Jiffy cornbread mix in the cabinet. She used the mix to batter the fish that night, and your family loved the salty-sweet crunch so much that it is now what you always use to bread fish. Your father carries the cooler into the kitchen.
Clear away a space on the counter while your mother makes sure she has clean dishes to use. She lifts them from the pile in the sink and washes them with harsh blue soap. Her hands are always dry and flaky because she dips them over and over again into a bucket of bleach water at the bar where she waitresses.
You will have nightmares about the trailer, but not as many about the kitchen. Everything in it is yellow. There is a fish tank full of newspapers on one counter that the cat likes to sleep inside of. Newspapers are everywhere, some of them yellowed with cat spray, others discolored from the sun. The floor is dirty yellow, and the stove is a pale yellow, like all that tarnished paper.
Walk out of the kitchen, through the living room where your sisters are watching TV, and down the hall to the bathroom. Clothes clog the hall, forming a spongy layer to walk on. In the bathroom, there is a hole in the floor so that you can look down and see the gray dirt below the trailer when you sit on the toilet. Stare at the gray dirt for a moment, swinging your feet over the hole in the floor. Wipe yourself with newspaper. Flush and rinse your hands and notice the small plastic razor near the sink, the same place it sat the day you used it.
Your parents’ room is covered in clothes, and your sisters’ room, too, but the room you share with your twin isn’t. It is full of hand-me-down toys and things your mother buys by the boxful from thrift stores and yard sales. You don’t know the word hoarder yet. You don’t know that every room of the trailer is full of kindling, that it is destined to burn down.
Back in the kitchen, your mother dries the plate she just washed. She covers the plate with a torn-up paper bag from one of the piles she keeps on the counter. Your father moves the cooler of cleaned fish to the floor beside the stove.
His bare chest is still dappled with blood. He is a good-looking man, thick brown hair and blue eyes and toned, young arms. Rugged. It is hard to see what he does to himself.
As an adult, you will find out that he is slowly dying of Hepatitis C and needs a liver transplant, presumably because he used a dirty needle once. Sometimes, when you can’t sleep, you’ll wonder what year he caught it, if it was before you cut your mouth with the razor he used so many times, nicking his face that looks so much like yours.
Your mother pours water into a shallow bowl because there is no milk. On a paper plate, she combs salt and pepper into the cornbread mix with a fork.
Your father picks a scale from his arm and opens a new beer.
3. Get ready to fry.
Your mother pours vegetable oil into a deep skillet. It is one of the scuffed-up nonstick pans that your family uses all the time. The oil can be new, clear and freshly poured from the bottle, or it can be some of the brown, stale-smelling oil kept in jars after frying other things, like the hamburgers your mother coats in seasoned salt. She uses some of this dirty oil tonight. Your parents light cigarettes in the kitchen while the oil heats up. They are always smoking. The smoke detectors don’t work.
This is the mother you describe as your hero in elementary school. She works night shift in a bar. She often cleans the bathrooms during the day for extra money. Sometimes you help her empty the trashcans and sweep the floors. The urinal cakes smell faintly of spearmint. You helped her decorate the bar for Christmas. You stood on the wooden bar and hung glittering strands of garland from the ceiling. When you go with her, you and your twin sister can eat all the crackers from the baskets that you want and drink as many syrupy Shirley Temples as your stomach can handle. Your mother tells corny jokes and cries in the middle of the day sometimes. You will realize later that she must have always been afraid.
She heats the oil until it starts to bubble. Tiny bits of batter from past fish fries float in the oil and blacken.
4. Bread the fish and fry it up!
When the oil is so hot that grease bubbles are lapping over the edge of the pan, it is ready. Your mother pulls a fish from the cooler and lightly dredges it in the water, first one side, then another. The fish are all flat fillets now. Once the fish is coated in water, she plops it into the dish of cornbread mix. If there is enough room on the plate, she dredges more than one piece of fish at a time. Next, she drops the fish into the oil. The oil hisses and splatters the wall behind the stove, which is already streaked with cooking stains.
The fish is ready when it turns the dark brown of overcooked bread, almost burnt. When the fish is fully fried, she eases it out of the oil with a metal spatula, scraping the edge of the spatula against the bottom of the pan, and sets it down on the paper-covered plate to drain.
Your father leans against one of the messy counters, smoking, the tops of his shoulders and back red from sitting in the boat all day. He opens a fresh beer and slurps.
Repeat the process until all the fish are fried or until the breading runs out.
5. Serve and enjoy!
Gather around the coffee table with your three sisters and parents to eat. You don’t use the kitchen table, which is stacked with newspapers. Your parents sit on the couch. Sit cross-legged on the floor with your sisters. Eat from paper plates nestled in plastic plate holders.
Your mother garnishes the fish with lemon wedges if there are any. Tonight, there aren’t. She serves fried fish with the only side dishes her finicky palate can stand: macaroni and cheese from a box, boiled potatoes with shredded cheese and salt and pepper, or corn on the cob. Tonight, it is boiled potatoes.
Watch as your mother covers all of her food with salt. Your father opens yet another Miller Lite. He raises his hand. Your oldest sister tenses. You all notice, all tense. He picks a scale from his hair and laughs, slurping the beer. Your sister relaxes. You turn to your plates.
Dip your fish and potatoes in ketchup, as much ketchup as your plate can hold. Crane your neck around to see the TV from where you sit on the floor. Wipe the grease from your fingers on the edge of your shorts.
The night the trailer burns down, your father will wake you up by throwing you out the back door. The ceiling will melt into his shoulder and back, leaving a deep red rivulet that will never go away. You will be the last one out.
But this isn’t one of the nights that you will have to run away with your mother and sisters to the shelter. It isn’t one of the nights your father will try to kill your mother, a metal baseball bat suspended in the air between them, or the slash of his hunting knife through the top of her foot. It isn’t the night you will run from a ball of fire. It isn’t years later, when you won’t know them anymore.
Eat the food that your father killed and cleaned with his hands and that your mother cooked, and be caught in that moment, scarred but blind to what is truly coming, like a fish snared from the sea.
Mash the meat of the fish around in your mouth, and watch out for the sharp bones. They hide among the soft white flesh, almost perfectly camouflaged, and you’ve been known to cut yourself.
Rumpus original art by Clare Nauman.