Fish Fry, a Family Tradition
Published 12:57 pm Friday, November 17, 2023
My dad fished Sardis Lake nearly every week when I was growing up. Me and my brother would fish with him when he wasn’t fishing with some of his old fishing buddies. My dad was that good at finding the fish at Sardis. (Bill Dance used to call my dad in the 70’s to find out where the fish were. My dad knew the lake like the back of his hand.)
We had fresh caught bass nearly every week — sometimes he had a whole ice cooler full. On Saturday my dad would catch the fish, and clean it on Sunday afternoon outside. He would always use newspapers to catch the mess, and then roll it up and take it to the trash. Might have been a neighborhood cat or two who hung around.
Every Monday night was fried bass night. I am sure my dad’s catch really helped stretch the grocery bill, as we had a great source of protein from my dad’s catch.
The bass fillets would be in washed off fillets and stored in a big bowl in the refrigerator. My mother would pull out her well grease-stained stainless steel fish pot and put it on the stove.
When the fish was frying, oh the smell of fried goodness. The whole neighborhood knew we were having fish. Next day waking up was not as pleasant. Fried fish was not a smell you could cover up in a small house with a small vent. Stale fishy oil air filled the house.
But, as unpleasant as day old fish fry smell was, it was not as unpleasant as the cigar smoke. My dad smoked Dutch Masters cigars at home and in the car. My dad always smelled like cigars, fish and Old Spice. Later, we got a fancy fish fryer with propane and would fry fish outside.
Of note, the old red Coleman ice chest was a job when I wanted a house job that paid money. I might get fifty cents to scrub the stinky, fish smelling inside of the cooler on the back concrete porch with baking soda. Dried on scales were especially annoying to clean but squirting that water hose with some pressure putting my finger over the hose helped. Baking soda was the cleaning method of choice, and a good abrasive and helps get the fishy smell out. Scrubbing the the fish pot was more, as it took a lot more muscle and hours. Baked on grease is tough and near impossible to remove. I would work at it though, and the fish pot would again have a silver tone rather than a baked-on orange haze.
When I first started dating my husband, he would get to the house 15 to 20 minutes early, which infuriated me. I was never ready, and just getting the hot rollers in my hair and makeup on. He did that because he wanted to see if there was any left-over fish in the refrigerator. He would eat it cold – and days old. We would never eat it cold! We could not understand how that could possibly be any good. We would never eat cold fish, and would always heat it up. We had so much fresh fish, we did not love the leftovers.
Leftovers always depended on how much my dad caught and how much he would freeze. The freezer was always full of fish that was more than we could eat in a week. And, we had neighbors and friends we could rely on to come to a Monday fish fry — or we were ready to take excess fish from off our hands.
Once and a while, we would have a fish fry over at a close family friend’s house. We loved that because we got to play with their kids who were just my brother and my ages, and they had a treehouse and a minor bird named Rocky. (Look up minor birds, they talk just like a parrot. It had two things it said over and over. “I can talk, can you fly?” and “No” in exactly the mom’s voice!.) Also, they seemed to think our fried bass was the best thing they had ever eaten. They would keep the leftovers, and the fishy smell in their house, which was fine with us.
Years later, they would tell the story that the leftover fish in the fridge never lasted till morning. Each one, would think about that last bit of fried fish and tiptoed into the kitchen to the refrigerator to get a piece. They never crossed paths with each other. There would have been enough left for a whole second meal, but it never made it till morning.
Note, even if you are not a mustard fan, try this recipe. You will not taste the mustard, but it keeps it from having a fishy taste and the crust stays on so much better. It has a golden hue and a crunch that is out of this world.
Mustard Fried Bass
(Recipe courtesy of her mom, Joyce Dickerson and the fish by her dad, Lee Dickerson.)
Bass filets (cut in small 4” pieces so it cooks quicker, and has more crust)
Mustard – Half cup for each pound of fish
Half a Quart of Peanut oil (Canola and Vegetable oil work too.)
Soak fresh filets in salt water overnight.
Put fresh bass filets in a bowl and coat with the mustard. Let it sit half hour to dry – out of the refrigerator to come to room temperature.
Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl, ready to dredge. Prepare a large pot so that no more than half the pot is 1/3rd filled with the oil. Bring the oil to a slow rolling boil.
Take the mustard coated fish fillet and shake off any large amounts of mustard. Dredge in the cornmeal mixture and place in the oil, just a few pieces at a time. With a slotted spoon flip the pieces after a few minutes to get the fish golden brown. Put the pieces in one at a time and do not over crowd the pieces so they do not stick and so your oil stays at a steady temperature. Make sure to watch the heat, and do not let any piece’s burn.
Put the fried fish fillets on a cookie sheet that has a layer of newspaper, covered with layers of paper towels. Cover with paper towels and clean kitchen towel to hold in the heat.
Cost savings, cool the oil and strain it. You should be able to get 2-3 more times of frying out of the oil.