Fish Camp revival
Written by Emily Storrow | Photos by Peter Taylor
The uninitiated often dismiss the South as the land of deep-fried anything. And while the stereotype doesn’t come close to capturing the heart of the cuisine, we’ll put our fried seafood up against the best of them. There’s a robust tradition along the region’s coastline, from Gulf oysters to Calabash seafood. But head inland in the Carolinas and you’ll stumble upon a specific institution, lowbrow temples of fried seafood known as fish camps. Defined by their no-frills atmosphere, limited hours, and barebones menu, fish camps are modern day relics of the area’s forlorn textile economy. Back in the day, enterprising cooks would set up shop along riverbanks, frying up the community’s fresh catch, along with simple sides, for a small fee. Eventually these waterside stations evolved into brick and mortars open Thursday (the day mill workers were paid) through Sunday. It was here that blue-collar Southerners perfected fried seafood: salt and pepper catfish, fried shrimp, and a particular hallmark, whole fried flounder.
The whole-fish preparation might come off as intimidating. But it shouldn’t, says Joe Kindred, a Charlotte, North Carolina, chef who tips his hat to the fish camp tradition a restaurant on the banks of Lake Norman. He calls the joint Hello, Sailor; on the menu is a modern spin on whole fried flounder, coated in masa flour and drizzled with a bright mojo verde. He’s got the process down pat—and has a few tips for first-timers. Start with scoring the flesh. Not only will it ensure the breading gets nice and crispy and adheres to the fish after cooking; it makes it easier to eat, too. “You can break off these perfect bites,” Kindred says. When bringing oil up to temperature, your best bet is to use a deep-fry thermometer. But in a pinch, borrow a trick from his wife, Katy: Lower a chopstick to the bottom of the pan and watch for activity. “If it looks like a stream of Champagne bubbles, it’s ready,” she says. And when you’ve fried up your flounder, resist the urge to dig in right away. “A lot of people don’t talk about resting seafood,” Kindred says. His recipe calls for pulling the fish from the oil just before it’s done; ten minutes on a resting rack will ensure it’s crispy outside and tender inside.
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