Congressman Jim Clyburn’s World Famous Fish Fry has made its name over the years as a pivotal piece of political theater for rising hopefuls within the Democratic Party looking to connect with voters in the Columbia area. But there’s a central draw to the annual event that transcends politics and taps into a communal tradition — the quintessential Southern fish fry.
Addie Moultrie, owner of Palmetto Seafood Company along with her husband, Lucius, has fried more fish in her life than most could dream of, including catering 13-plus years of Clyburn’s event until her husband’s retirement three years ago. Free Times caught up with Moutrie ahead of this year’s installment of the Clyburn fish fry to better understand how fish, bread and hot sauce bring the masses together.
Before buying ingredients or even thinking about breading a piece of fish, getting a guest list in order is paramount. Knowing how many people to prepare for is half the battle, and it’s wise to err on the side of caution, prepping more food than may be necessary.
“No matter how you try to organize it so it would come out right, it never did,” Moultrie says of trying to feed an exact number of people, explaining that there are bound to be a few folks who hop back in line for seconds whether they’re invited to or not.
In Moultrie’s experience, this is the make or break point for a great fish fry experience. A well organized setup allows cooks to have all their necessities within reach and guests to flow through the line with ease. A prep table for the fish, a large gas burning fryer and gallons of frying oil are the minimum requirements for a smooth cooking operation, while a separate serving table needs to be stocked with plates, napkins, cutlery and drinks to keep everyone in line happy.
The type of fish doesn’t matter so much here, Moultrie explains, though whiting, catfish and tilapia are often standard fare. The real star is the breading. Palmetto Seafood Company uses a proprietary blend of cornmeal, flour and spices that fries up crisp without being too greasy. Any great dredge consists of a similar makeup. When figuring out your own breading recipe, remember that the meal and flour provide the crunch. Garlic powder, salt, pepper and myriad other spices of the cook’s choice give the fish its signature seasoning.
Enriched. White. Bread. These three words aren’t what foodies or calorie counters want to hear, but they’re the only acceptable descriptors for the leavened portion of a Southern fish fry and it’s what Moultrie serves alongside her fish at the restaurant. The spongy quality of the classic slice is perfect for sopping up any grease, hot sauce or crunchy bits of breading left behind after the fish is devoured, and the bread’s milky sweetness makes it an excellent palate cleanser.
The Hot Sauce
Subtle, tangy heat is the goal here — something with a vinegary kick that’s just enough to accent the spices in the breading while not overpowering the delicate fish. Texas Pete is the obvious choice in the Carolinas, Moultrie notes, as the Winston-Salem-based sauce packs a slightly more heated punch than its contemporaries, making it the stuff of Southern legend.
Sides? None Needed
When catering to a large crowd, Moultrie says don’t bother with the burden of making sides as well.
“When you’re feeding a mass of people, in order for everybody to enjoy what you prepared, you can’t,” she advises.
If a fish fry is truly proper, the main course and the sense of community should be more than enough, she reiterates.
“People are just happy with one piece of bread and one piece of fish,” she says, “and then something to drink and just the socialization.”
What: Jim Clyburn’s World Famous Fish Fry
Where: EdVenture Children’s Museum Coble Plaza, 211 Gervais St.
When: Friday, June 21, 7:30-11 p.m.