African-Americans have made their mark in New York City since its earliest days, most especially where food and hospitality are concerned. Born in Haiti and known during his lifetime as Black Sam (the facts of his birth and race are in some dispute), Samuel Fraunces founded the Queen Charlotte Tavern at the corner of Pearl and Dock Streets in 1762; a few years later it assumed the historic name of Fraunces Tavern, where George Washington bid adieu to his troops. In 1825 Thomas Downing established the city's first and finest oyster house at 5 Broad Street, forerunner of a type of restaurant quintessential to 19th-century New York. During the succeeding decade, Thomas M. Jackson — also from an oyster background — became high-society's most sought-after caterer, as detailed by Williams Grimes in Appetite City. Indeed, in Victorian New York, there were probably far more black chefs and caterers than there are today.
But many of the group's most notable contributions to the culinary life of the city came a century ago as African-Americans, fleeing poverty and racial violence, migrated northward en masse, principally from Georgia and the Carolinas, to settle in neighborhoods like Harlem, Ft. Greene, and Bedford-Stuyvesant. There, such dishes as fried chicken, barbecued ribs, buttermilk cornbread, collard greens, potato salad, okra, and chitterlin's were instated as citywide favorites, as large swaths of Brooklyn and Manhattan became populated with small cafes run by women serving what later became known as soul food. Sadly, few of those cafes remain.[All photos by Robert Sietsema]
But if one were to choose the African-American dish that has persisted most successfully in these rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods today, it would be the fried-fish sandwich. Here's my theory about how this delicacy first arose. The transplanted black Southerners brought with them a love of catfish, but found none here when they arrived. What they did find in abundance was whiting, a low-cost local fish whose slender filets resembled those of catfish in shape, size, and price, but lacked the marvelous muddy taste of the best creek-caught catfish. Deep-fried or pan-sauteed, with a crust principally containing flour and cornmeal, these filets were readily incorporated into sandwiches that were typically dressed with tartar sauce and vinegary Southern hot sauces such as Tabasco, Crystal, Louisiana, and Texas Pete. There remain probably three dozen places that specialize in fried fish sandwiches in Harlem alone, providing, at from $4 to $7 apiece, one of the neighborhood's most dependable and satisfying bargain meals. These were once served on store-bought commercial white bread, but over the last few years, whole wheat has become more popular, not only due to its enhanced flavor and pleasing appearance, but because of the health considerations that finally overtook the soul food genre. (As also seen in the smoked turkey wings that have been substituted for pork fatback in recipes for collard greens.)
A friend who lives in the neighborhood recently invited me on a fried fish sandwich run in his Central Harlem neighborhood. His son accompanied us on scooter. Visiting places known to both him and me, we cruised eight establishments in just under four hours, and found six of them open. At each, we attempted to order the same whiting sandwich on whole wheat, and dress it with the house tartar sauce and hot sauce. Sandwich prices are given, and we rated each one on the combination of value, frying technique, fish freshness, and overall desirability on a scale of 1 to 100.
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