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Clyburn's annual fish fry one of many Lowcountry communal meals vexed by social distancing

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Election 2020 Fish Fry

People gather for Majority Whip Jim Clyburn's "World Famous Fish Fry" on Friday, June 21, 2019 in Columbia. File/Meg Kinnard/AP

There are mixed feelings about the lifting of stay-at-home ordinances, but most people are itching to get out of their homes and get back into their communities. Crab cracks, oyster roasts and seafood boils are part of the daily life that Charleston residents have missed. They wants to sit together to relax, celebrate and share conversations with one another.

Yet the coronavirus may completely change how we dine. And with so many of our traditions linked to food, those shifts could bring cultural and political change, too.

Begun as a way to say "thank you" to the campaign workers who helped secure his seat, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn since 1992 has hosted his "World Famous Fish Fry" to celebrate community and connect hopeful politicians directly with his constituents. People use the event to dance, dine, and discuss what and who would best serve the Lowcountry. Last year and in years before, presidential hopefuls were able to speak candidly with gathered voters and experience South Carolina culture.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Clyburn’s office has decided to hold off on announcing any details of this year’s fish fry until a decision has been made regarding the S.C. Democratic Party’s convention.

Election 2020 Fish Fry

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders arrives at Majority Whip Jim Clyburn's "World Famous Fish Fry" on Friday, June 21, 2019, in Columbia. The event has become a mainstay on the campaign trail through this early-voting state. File/Meg Kinnard/AP

S.C. State Rep. Marvin Pendarvis, D-North Charleston, a Charleston native, believes delaying any decisions regarding the fish fry is the best idea to ensure safety. But Pendarvis remains hopeful that events like the Clyburn fish fry will be able to resume. For him and many others, the fish fry and similar community events are not only inspiring, but necessary to build a bridge between citizens and their elected leaders.

“I’d never seen anything like it,” Pendarvis recalls, speaking about his first time attending one of Clyburn’s famous events as a student at the University of South Carolina Law School. “Early on I found out that anybody who was anybody, not only in the state, but beyond, was there and it was incredible.”

Election 2020 Fish Fry

Supporters of California Sen. Kamala Harris rally for the Democratic presidential hopeful ahead of Majority Whip Jim Clyburn's "World Famous Fish Fry" on Friday, June 21, 2019, in Columbia. File/Meg Kinnard/AP

Although the "World Famous Fish Fry" had humble beginnings, it’s turned into an event with thousands of attendees eating around 4,400 pounds of fish. Clyburn has picked up the tab since the beginning, quite literally feeding his community and conveying an atmosphere similar to a large and lively family cookout, removing the undertones of political professionalism that the average political rally or dinner might call for.

Tina L. Singleton, founder of Transformation Table, knows firsthand how important eating with others is. Her private dinner series is based around having diverse guests eat together at one table. She says her guests can obtain a level of social intimacy that you can’t quite get at a restaurant. Simple acts such as passing a plate or fixing a drink, which are usually done by a paid employee, turn into acts of service among strangers sharing a meal.

Singleton has had to adjust her business model to fit with the times. By transitioning from dining in the homes of community members to an online experience, she has been able to continue to connect people around a virtual table.

She says, “The food takes on a different spin when you’re virtual.”

While professional chefs may not be preparing the food in Charleston homes anymore, which is how it worked prior to the pandemic, people from all over the country and world have been able to participate.

Still, she thinks about people like the elderly who are especially at risk for contracting the COVID-19 and others like it.

“I think about people like my 94-year-old aunt. She has a computer and phone, but she doesn’t know how to use things like Zoom or Facetime, or even text. We have a responsibility to figure out a way to keep in contact with one another and continue our conversations, keeping in mind who we may be leaving out.”

Something as simple and old-fashioned as a phone call could work in many situations. But for wakes, funerals and family reunions that require a number of people coming in conjunction to sup, it may not be enough.

One summer many years ago, my extended family came down to Charleston from New York. It was my first time meeting them, and on their rounds of family visits they stopped by our home where we had lined our kitchen table with newspaper and placed hot sauce and butter for the crab crack we had planned in anticipation of their arrival.

At first, they were terrified of the feisty blue crabs and squeamish about the head-on shrimp and fish we had, but by the end of the day they were deliriously full from the food and good time they had. They developed a new skill in picking crab, learned local slang, and built relationships with their families and culture they would be able to carry with them back to their home.

Nothing comes to mind when I think about what could replace the Clyburn fish fry or our personal cookouts and get-togethers. But with careful planning, we may see a different type of communion with our neighbors and friends. Shaking hands and strapping bear hugs could be a thing of the past for the foreseeable future, but people will always find a way to share a meal and exchange conversation, especially when fried fish is involved.

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Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.

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