victor steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Tue May 10 05:52:30 UTC 2011

Here's the OED entry

fish-fry n.  (a) U.S. a picnic where fish is fried and eaten;  (b) = fry n.1
> 3.
> 1824    ‘A. Singleton’ Lett. from South & West 66   *Fish~fries are held
> about once in a fortnight.
> 1936    M. Mitchell Gone with Wind ii. 25   For two years he had squired
> her about the County, to balls, fish fries, picnics and court days.
> 1951    W. de la Mare Winged Chariot 10   Tiniest fish-fry in a rock-bound
> pool.

The referenced "fry" entry:

 3. a. Young fishes just produced from the spawn; spec. the young of salmon
> in the second year, more fully salmon fry.

The latter is fine as is, but the former needs work. The idea of a fish-fry
as a "picnic" strikes me as kind of silly, but, I suppose, it depends on the
definition of "picnic". Generally, especially in the Upper Midwest
(Minnesota, Wisconsin), a fish-fry is anything from a Friday night outing to
a restaurant for a meal of fried fish to a community even centered around
the same. Both would be close to unheard of in New England, despite the
common association between Friday seafood dinners and Catholicism (all my
Catholic friends hate swordfish). The little restaurants in Wisconsin that
serve nothing but fried fish and thus are identified by the moniker "Fish
Fry" would be "Clam Shack" in New England. In fact, Wiki suggests a narrower

Usually served on Friday nights during Lent as a restaurant special; often
> served "all you can eat" and occasionally as family style (serving dishes
> brought to and left at the table).

Despite the occasional association with Lent, in Wisconsin and in the South,
fish-fries are a regular affair year round, with main events attached to
local festivals or holidays, such as Independence Day Fish Fry. In New
England, where seafood items are fried quite regularly, I can't say I've
ever attended or even heard of a "fish fry".

In the South, "fish-fry" may mean just the process or the event centered on
fried fish, but it also represents the powdered mix (breading, of sorts) for
coating fish that is to be fried.

The Food, Folklore, and Art of Lowcountry Cooking. By Joseph E. Dabney.
Naperville, IL: 2010
Rice-Corn Fish-Fry Mix: A Big Seller. p. 11
> Campbell Coxe's family-owned Plumfield Plantation near Darlington, South
> Carolina, operates a gristmill. One of his big sellers is a fish fry mix
> using 50 percept rice flour and 50 percent cornmeal.
> "We take broken rice and grind it and make a very fine textured flour,"
> Coxe says. "What makes this fish fry so unique, when you dip fish into it,
> it doesn't have that 'caked-up' look. ..."

Note, in particular, that the author (from Florence, SC) uses "fish-fry
mix", while the local just says "fish-fry". But when I was in North
Carolina, I bought some packages of cornmeal mix that were labeled "Fish
Fry". So there are three levels of "fish-fry" here: the process or the event
centered on frying coated fish, the coated fried fish itself, and the mix
used for coating the fish for frying.

AHD4 gets two of these:

1. A cookout or other meal at which fried fish is the main course.
> 2, A piece of fried fish.

MWOL is similar:

1. A picnic or supper featuring fried fish
> 2. Fried fish

RH Unabridged is the same, but replacing "supper" with "other gathering".
Encarta drops "picnic" entirely, instead referring to "a meal". None of the
online dictionaries refer to regional use of "fish fry" for "breading".


PS: In case you're wondering why on earth I would pick up "fish fry" as a
review item, it's quite a chain of events. It started out with Karl Rove's
comment on Fox News concerning "Cold Peace" between India and Pakistan.
While I was working on "Cold Peace", I found an early reference in The
Strand Magazine for 1893, which included an ad for Venetian blinds and "tape
ladder". I looked up "ladder", then "fish ladder", wrote a piece on "beer
ladder", but also spotted "fish-fry" next to "fish ladder" in OED. But I
just happened to have Dabney's book out of the local library right now
(along with Amuse-Bouche that I quoted in the ladder post) and read about
"fish fry" last night, making a mental note about the mix. In the end, it's
just about connecting the dots. I'll be posting on "ladder" shortly and on
"Cold Peace" in about half an hour.

The American Dialect Society -

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