Leeshia Lee Published

Fish Fries Serve As Mutual Aid For Charleston, W.Va.’s Black Community

Two people sit on a bench. A man and a woman. The man wears a green apron. The woman wears a pink shirt. She holds a microphone up to the man.
Folkways Fellow Leeshia Lee interviews Andre Nazario outside of the First Baptist Church in downtown Charleston, West Virginia. Nazario cooks at the fish fry that is hosted by the church. The fish fry is one way they raise money for Creating the Advantage, a nonprofit that works with under-resourced youth around Charleston.
Leeshia Lee/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

This story originally aired in the Oct. 22, 2023 episode of Inside Appalachia.

Drive through Charleston, West Virginia any day of the week, and you’re bound to come across a sign advertising a local fish fry. Within Charleston’s Black community, fish fries have been a time-honored tradition for generations. 

Our Folkways Fellow Leeshia Lee grew up in Charleston. She says that it was common to see friends and neighbors hosting fish fries — they’d sell fish dinners as a way to raise money for different needs.

In this special report, Lee shares her experiences with fish fries, and visits with one of Charleston’s best fish fryers.

History Of Fish Fries

Some people would have fish fries for rent parties — they would have a fish fry if they were short on their rent. Or if there was a trip that somebody needed to go on and they didn’t have all the funds, they would whip up some fish and sell it outside. Growing up, it was nothing to go to someone’s house to purchase food for whatever reason they needed it for. 

In our community, I think historically the reason why fish fries are the thing is because it comes from the slave era. And it was what they were allowed to do on Sundays. They were allowed to go fishing. And because it was free — they didn’t have to purchase it — they would catch fish.

That’s how enslaved communities would fraternize with each other, was through cooking and preparing fish, and eating it later on in the day. So I think that the tradition of having the fish fry has been embedded in our community. It is something that we were taught to do, and we do it so well that we use it as a financial means when we don’t have resources to do anything else.

What Makes A Good Fish Fry

I think the most important part of a fish fry is the meaning or the purpose for having the fish fry. Don’t get me wrong, people care about the food, the taste of it. But if it’s for a good cause, people will come out and support your fish fry.  

People use different fish for their fish fries. And a lot of times people use whiting. You usually get the fish, you let it thaw out. And you season it. The main part is how you season your fish. We use cornmeal, and then we use seasoning salt. And you have to get the grease just right. It has to be sizzling and popping. And then you dip the fish and you fry it. And you can’t make it too hard. Some people serve it on croissant bread, and some people serve it on regular white bread. You add hot sauce, tartar sauce, and then it’s good to go.

Texas Pete is the community favorite hot sauce. But sometimes you go to a fish fry and you get the off-brand hot sauce. So I think whatever is there, you just make it work. But I’ve seen some people reach in their purse and pull out some hot sauce. I think that was in one of Beyonce’s songs, where she says she has some hot sauce in her bag.

The sides are very important at a fish fry. Some people like coleslaw, but usually you get the same soul food sides that you would have at a Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner: macaroni and cheese, and greens. And then sometimes people have fish fries with french fries. 

Fish Fries At Charleston’s First Baptist Church

A man in a black jacket stands over a fryer frying fish.
Andre Nazario

Credit: Leeshia Lee/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Andre Nazario is known as one of Charleston’s best fish fryers. He hosts a weekly fish fry at the First Baptist Church in downtown Charleston. Nazario said their recipe at the church is top secret.

“I can’t really divulge those secrets because then I’d have to take you hostage,” Nazario said. “But yes, there is a certain way that we prepare our fish. There’s a certain way that we season our fish. There’s a certain way that we fry our fish. There’s a certain temperature that we fry it at. And there’s a certain crisp that we want, a certain texture that we want to our fish.” 

The fish fries are held at First Baptist Church in the gymnasium. When you walk in, you might see people you know who are waiting for their food. 

“It’s like mini family reunions,” Nazario said. “So we’re bringing people together. You get to talk about it, you strike up some conversation. You hadn’t seen somebody in a while, you hadn’t talked to them, but then they came out to the fish fry. So it’s a way of touching base and staying connected with our community.”

Nazario is the co-founder of Creating the Advantage, known as CTA. CTA is a nonprofit that works with under-resourced youth around Charleston. They support young people to excel in sports and in school. The money from these fish fries helps fund CTA’s activities.

“We set a price for our fish fry, but most of the time people give a little bit more,” Nazario said. “Because when you offer food, that entices them or encourages them to give a little bit more.”

One of the main components of CTA is their basketball program. They train participants in the physical aspect of the sport. And they teach them to cope with the mental challenges of the game. The fish fries play a key role in supporting this program.

A fryer is shown. Fish simmer in the hot oil.
A fryer full of fish.

Credit: Leeshia Lee/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“With the fish fries that we do, the proceeds go directly to the kids,” Nazario said. “It helps fund training. It helps fund trips, it helps pay for uniforms, it helps pay for hotels for the kids, it helps feed our kids. It’s an assortment of things that we do with the funding from fish fries. And again, the best way to someone’s heart sometimes is through their stomach.”

Fish fries are very important to the Black community in Charleston because they allow us to become our own resource. Fish fries are a source of mutual aid when the funds are limited. It allows the community to come together to show that what you’re doing is important to them.


This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council.

The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts and culture.