How Whiting Became The Preferred Fish of Black Muslims
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It was the 1990s in Sacramento, CA. The sighting of “The Brothers” was a regular occurrence in my childhood neighborhood, Oak Park. Yolanda and I sat on opposite sides of the back of the bus. On both sides of the street at the corner of Martin Luther King Blvd and Broadway stood two brothers in perfectly fitted suits, black bow ties, and fresh fades. “Fresh Call, brother? Bean pie, sister? How you doing today sister? All right. As-Salaam-Alaikum.”
We got off at the next stop, a few steps away from Flowers Fish Restaurant. We cut through the tiny parking lot sandwiched between two abandoned brick buildings – one turned into a (now defunct) beer brewing supply shop at the height of gentrification – and headed inside for fried whiting. We walked through the door and turned left to the counter, the open kitchen directly behind. The cook – oblivious to us and in his own world – continued singing an Earth, Wind and Fire song to the floating golden fillets of fish in the deep fryer. We put in our orders for two fried whiting combos and walked down the street to Stanford market to get a couple of 50-cent Tahitian Treat sodas and a 75-cent Black&Mild. By the time we walked back to Flowers, our whiting was ready. We opened our to-go containers and made sure to sprinkle Crystal’s hot sauce on our fish before we left.
We took our boxes and posted up on Bigler Way to wait for the American Legion School crowd to pour out. We sat down under a tree, on the raised sidewalk with our feet in the gutter, tore into our containers and the assemblage started. A mountain of thin fillets cut into irregular squares and rectangles with curled edges, white flesh on one side and a charcoal stripe on the other side beneath light cornmeal dredge, sandwiched between two pieces of generic sandwich bread, a slather of tartar sauce, our sprinkling of Crystal hot sauce. Salty from the seasoning, fatty from the mayonnaise, tart and acidic from the vinegar in the hot sauce, crunchy from the cornmeal batter and years of fried fish education. We washed it down with the hyper-sweet soda that satisfyingly burned our throat from the chug. We were mighty pleased with these sandwiches. It didn’t matter that we had no idea what the fuck whiting was.
While I rarely, if ever, see Black Muslims selling bean pies on the corner anymore, the masjid is still on Broadway near the corner of MLK. And luckily, Flowers still stands and still serves fried whiting. And whole bean pies. The NOI created healthy alternatives to sweet potato pie (that would spike any diabetic’s blood sugar), that consists of a smooth custard made from mashed navy beans, vanilla (not alcoholic extract) and your usual cast of spice all-stars; cinnamon, clove, ginger, nutmeg. The beans having a mild flavor, the spices are really on the forefront. And whiting also having a mild flavor, whatever seasoning you choose to use will be on the forefront.
Catfish is a popular eating fish in the south and amongst black folks. But, as a bottom feeder, catfish is a prohibited food to Black Muslims. Whiting became a great alternative because its texture was most similar to catfish (but way cheaper), so it was an easy transition. Whiting was listed as a “staple item” in black homes via a 1975 issue of Muhammad Speaks. This issue also mentioned the prize of a recent National Fish Salesman contest – via the Nation of Islam’s Imported Fish program – where the grand prize winner was awarded with a “one-week expense-paid trip to Peru (the exporters of the fish) on a Nation’s Jet and the return on a shop carrying Whiting H and G. Bro. Barry sold 23,045 pounds of fish during the 90-day plane drive.” After a quick research on what Whiting H and G could possibly be, the name of a track by Kool and the Gang on their Way of the World album, but finally revealing itself as “head and gut.” Otherwise known as, whole. It seems “Black Muslims here import from Lima, Peru, 35,000 pounds of whiting fish each month for sale door-to-door and distribution to their temples in Baltimore and Richmond,” a 1975 Washington Post story noted. The Nation of Islam owned thousands of their own businesses including grocery stores they set up in underserved communities and restaurants that catered to their specific diets. And whiting was featured in both. “It clearly registered the Nation of Islam as an influential force among huge segments of the African American community even if the actual NOI membership remained less than 30,000.” Even those in the community that didn’t belong to the NOI shopped at these stores, where whiting was so affordable that folks started preparing it in casseroles, soups, gumbos, salads and replacing it in sausage in place of meat. Black folks, who traditionally consumed fish in fried form once a week, were including it in their daily diets. Got a backyard garden? Cool. Because the parts of the fish that are usually discarded, such as the bones, can be used as compost.
Whiting isn’t as popular as its textural doppelgänger, cod. Whiting is in fact from the Merlucciidae family, where cod and haddock are distant relatives, including most hakes. Pacific Whiting, also known as Pacific or Argentine Hake, is the most abundant fish resource off the West Coast and are native to cold water in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans coming primarily from California, Oregon, Washington State and British Columbia. Pacific Seafood states that, “Every spring, huge schools of whiting migrate from Baja up the coast to waters off Oregon and Washington…”
Although it swims in abundance on the West Coast, I haven’t seen it on many menus. New York and Washington DC seem to know a lot about the fish. Horace and Dickie’s in Washington DC is still producing a long ass line for those ordering the fried whiting sandwich. Since the flesh is so delicate, the fish is best consumed straight from the fryer. It’s said that if it sits for longer than 15 minutes, call it quits. And it’s easy to see why Horace and Dickie’s might have an upper hand on the fried whiting market. The “sandwich” is mostly a heaping pile of golden brown fried fish, with a drizzle of vinegary hot sauce, covering two pieces of sandwich bread. No produce, no filler, no bullshit.
When I asked Chef Michael Twitty if he had ever heard of whiting and if he knew anything about its popularity in soul food restaurants, he responded, “It was a neutral tasting so called trash fish and therefore cheap.” Pretty straight-forward. What’s not straight-forward is attempting to track down the fish being served in restaurants. It was once the stuff of legends at the Oakland-based Your Black Muslim Bakery and at Wooden Spoon/OB’s Cafe, where you had the option of ordering it with “the works” that included pickles, tomato, dressing and a high pile of alfalfa sprouts, but both places are now defunct. Tilapia has taken over restaurant menus as a cheap and sturdy fish, the chicken of the sea. Luckily, there are still a few places in the area that still sell the fried whiting sandwiches of my youth.