How Whiting Became the Prefered Fish of Black Muslims

February 25, 2018

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 programwhere 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 stories, 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 would normally only consume 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 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.

Chef Michael DuBose’s Fried Whiting via Washington Post

James Beard Awards 2018 – Puerto Rican Edition

October 25, 2017
In 2012, Puerto Rican chefs on the island became eligible to compete in the James Beard Awards. They are in the “Best Chef South” category competing with Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas. Chef and colleague Ibrahim Sanz reached out to me to ask if I would vote for him in the 2018 James Beard awards. Of course!
The winner of 2017 Best Chef South was beloved Santurce chef, Jose Enrique. Enrique has been extremely indispensable in the hurricane Maria relief efforts in regards to assisting fellow chef, Jose Andres in feeding millions of people on the island via funds from Andres’ organization, World Central Kitchen. A lot of the service workers there are having to flee the island because they can’t work. But, some of the restaurant and bars are open for business during this time as a place for community to gather. For some reason I got a hair up my tuchus and decided to vote for other Puerto Ricans doing extraordinary things in the food and beverage industry. I’d be so incredibly grateful to you if you could also take a moment of your time and vote for them.
Click here to vote >> James Beard 2018
Outstanding Baker | Diego Martin-Pérez, Levee Baking Co., New Orleans, Louisiana
Outstanding Bar Program | La Factoria, Old San Juan, Puerto Rico
Best Chef Mid-Atlantic | Ibrahim Sanz, Haven Restaurant in Edgewater, New Jersey
Best Chefs New York City | Manolo Lopez, Mofongo, NYC, NY
America’s Classics | La Bombonera, San Juan, Puerto Rico
They poured four-years and endless money into revamping La Bombonera, making the 102-year-old restaurant and bakery into a modern dream with marble countertops and penny subway tiles.

“From Puerto Rico: Comfort In A Bowl Of Corn” for SF Chronicle

September 12, 2017
Working with Paolo Lucchesi has been awesome, he’s a dream editor. The Chronicle allowed me to write another story for them and this time it was about a recipe I had been developing for a few years. It’s something I came up with on a whim, but turned out to represent me pretty well: A blend of traditional Puerto Rican ingredients with seasonal Northern California produce. When Carrie Sullivan asked if I’d like to do a demo at the CUESA chef demo tent at the SF Ferry Building, I chose the shrimp and funche recipe. Get the recipe by clicking on the photo.

First article in the SF Chronicle Why aren’t there more Puerto Rican restaurants in the Bay Area?

August 6, 2017

Chicharrones de pollo at Parada 22 in the Haight. Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez

I had been pitching the idea around for a year, why aren’t there more Puerto Rican restaurants in the Bay Area? I pitched it to several publications and if I wasn’t met with radio silence, it was a kind rejection. On a whim, I decided to pitch to the SF Chronicle. In December 2016, they asked if I could contribute a little something to their holiday food traditions piece. Based on that alone, it gave me the balls to approach them. And it paid off. They were totally into the idea and after some back and forth editing between myself and Paolo, the idea was in print June 2017. It allowed me to reach out to the Puerto Ricans who I admire in the food industry. Those making a real change and doing things no one else is doing. I’m grateful that Manolo, Paxx and Alicia gave me the time of day because they’re all so damn busy. They’re all so damn talented. READ IT!


February 4, 2017
Don’t forget to come and check out my market to table demo at the SF Ferry Building, with the help of CUESA. rice and beans

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 2, 2017 –12:00PM TO 12:45PM

Stop by the CUESA Classroom for a cooking demo featuring the seasonal bounty of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.

EatGordaEat is the name of Illyanna Maisonet’s self-published Puerto Rican cookbook and her popups. Illyanna grew up in the Sacramento Delta, surrounded by an abundance of produce that grew wild in her backyard.

When Illyanna started documenting her grandmother’s cooking, she thought she was just putting her family’s recipes in writing for the first time. Little did she realize that the series of recipes she’d collected would turn into a little cookbook and would serve as a time capsule for a diminishing craft; cocina criolla (country cooking). Since then, she has developed recipes for Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo, been featured as a writer for Paste and Lucky Peach Magazine, and been invited as a guest speaker for La Cocina’s Voices from the Kitchen. She is currently working on a cookbook with her editor, Lesley Tellez, writer of acclaimed cookbook Eat Mexico.

All demos take place in the CUESA Classroom (under the white tents in front of the Ferry Building) and are free to the public, with recipes and samples for all.