If you spend any amount of time in Charleston's upscale restaurants, you'll probably have the chance to dine on wreckfish, triggerfish and flounder. But the one fish you'll never encounter is whiting, the central menu item of countless local lunch counters and fried fish joints.
"Unlike other soul food staples such as fried chicken and waffles, fried whiting has not found a home in mainstream dining rooms," food writer Tim Carman last year wrote in The Washington Post, calling the fish "a symbol of the racial divide that has defined (Washington, D.C.) for decades."
In Charleston, too, whiting is firmly associated with the black community. According to Adrian Miller, author of "Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine," African-Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were more apt to eat porgy. "But that has changed over time," he told Carman.
Miller speculates the Nation of Islam, which prohibits catfish consumption, could have prodded the fish toward popularity by importing 5 million pounds of Peruvian whiting when it opened a New York take-out shop in 1974.
Whiting isn't a precisely scientific term: It refers to an affordable, flaky white fish. The non-specificity of whiting - it's a filling fish that tastes good fried up hot - has given restaurateurs leeway to ditch it for a relative newcomer to the fish case.
"The big story is that tilapia is just taking over," Miller told Carman. "It's becoming more and more widespread. But whiting still has a special place."
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