My first memory of a family fish fry happened when I was in the second grade so it would have been in the spring of 1962. We were over at my grandfathers and my dad has helping him finish up capping a batch of homemade beer. They decided to go to Bayport (about 25 miles away) and buy some fresh perch at the Englehart Fishery. When we got there they were unloading a boat of freshly netted fish, and the place was busy sorting and weighing and packing the fish in crushed ice in wooden crates. My older brother and I were mesmerized by all of the different kinds of fish and their sizes. We also saw a large stock tank that they kept large live catfish in. My dad bought a crate with 50 pounds of Yellow Lake Perch and put in the trunk of the car and we headed back to Grandpa’s. On the way we stopped at a Bar in Kilmanagh for a beer for Grandpa and Dad, and a pop for John and I. The Bar was actually a house with large living room that was converted for business. A small bar in the back with a few small tables scattered around the rest of the room. When we got to Grandpa’s, John and I were put to work scaling fish. My Grandpa made some fish scalers by nailing 3 beer bottle caps on a scrap of wood. I think this type of scaler works best even today, they don’t cut the flesh of the fish or your hands easily. Grandpa and Dad cut the heads off and gutted and de-finned the fish. Grandma and Mom made coleslaw, homemade French fries and breaded and fried the fish. The fish was served with fresh squeezed lemon juice and there was always bread close at hand just in case anyone swallowed a bone. The fish was eaten by breaking it open along the backbone and the spine and ribs were separated from the meat.
And this is the way it was done at home until Mom was taught how to fillet fish. Then things really improved the eating but made more work for everyone. We still purchased most of our fish at Bayport in 50 pound boxes, but once home everyone was put to work. Luckily our family included 2 younger sisters to help spread the workload. So everyone helped in one way or another. Mom and I were the most adept at filleting, John and Dad did the scaling and the girls helped were they could. When it got close to dinner time, Mom and Dad would start preparations for breading the fish, Dad would start rolling crackers between two linen towels with a rolling pin to make the cracker crumbs and Mom would get everything else together. The coleslaw would usually be made the night before or the moning of buying the fish. The girls would be busy peeling potatoes for French fries. And my brother and I would continue to clean fish if there was any left to be done, if not we cut up the potatoes into fries.
Once things were all set for cooking, one person minded the stove and started cooking fries first in 2 large deep cast iron frying pans. The first pan done was then used to fry fish, and when all of the fries were done both pans were used for fish.. One person breaded the fish. This was the only meal that everyone did not sit down to eat at the same time. As soon as a pan of fish was done, the feasting commenced for those not cooking or breading. The cook and breader snatched bites here and there until someone relieved them to eat.
After all of that work those fresh fish sure tasted good, and no store bought brand can compete with homemade fries or coleslaw. The bread was always kept on the table just in case a fish bone slipped through, and of course it wouldn’t be a fish dinner without the fresh lemon juice for Dad and anyone else that wanted it.
After dinner, the rest of the un-breaded fish was packed for the freezer and then Mom would take the leftover breading materials and mix them up into a stiff batter, to this she would sometimes add the fish eggs that we saved from cleaning the perch if they were caught during spawning season, and fry up these dough balls, they weren’t too bad either. Once she had tried breading the egg sacs and frying them just like the fish, but she was the only one who liked them as they were quite fishy tasting. (But the dogs LOVE them!)
Once I was old enough to drive, I usually provided all the perch we needed by fishing for them around Bayport and Caseville in the spring. Until I was married, that is. After I started working at the Saginaw Grain Terminal I rarely had the time to go fishing. And by the time I did, the average size of perch had dropped from 10 inches to 4-5 inches because of the use of smaller weave nets by the commercial fisherman and the plantings of walleye and the drop of the water levels in the Great Lakes.
For my family, I mix up the breading ingredients ( I don’t use the fish eggs) into a stiff batter, add some sugar, roll them into balls and then fry them up. They are crunchy and sweet and make a perfect desert that the kids just love. Now when I fix fish for just me and the wife, I omit the sugar and just fry up forkfuls of batter to share them with the dogs who love them as much as the kids do.
The old family recipe is more of a guide and list than an actual recipe because it all depends on the amount of fish that you are going to fry.
You will need:
FISH – The fresher the better. Any pan fish will work but Yellow Lake Perch are the #1 family choice.
SHORTENING: To fry the fish. Back in the day it was easy to find shortening with a blend of animal and vegetable fats. Now it’s a lot harder to find, look for the cheapest brand you can find and it may have both (Wal-Mart is where I get mine). Any oil or shortening will work, but pure vegetable oils tend to make the end product less crisp and retain more oil.
MILK: Whole milk is best. To soak the fish in if they are an oily variety or strong smelling soak them for an hour or more. The lactose acid in the milk will help break down the oils and odor. Pond caught fish or any fish caught in warm water or weather and not cleaned immediately and kept cold are a good candidate for soaking. Fresh fish caught in cold water require only a dip in milk.
FLOUR: We use white all purpose, but any fine ground wheat flour will work.
EGGS: Any variety. Egg whites will also work but whole eggs work best.
SALTINE CRACKERS: Any brand. Crushing them into a fine meal between 2 linen towels gives a proper blend of crumbs not larger than ¼ inch. An easier acceptable method is to remove the lower chopping blade in your food processor and set the upper blade to grate, then to force the crackers through the feed tube as fast as possible. The whole idea is to NOT turn the crackers into flour but rather into small crumbs.
4 BOWLS: Large enough to hold the ingredients and the largest of your fillets.
The bowls were lined up in the order of use in breading the fish;
# 1. Milk
# 2. Flour
# 3. Egg and milk mixture, about a 60/40 blend of more egg than milk, whipped well.
# 4. Cracker crumbs
Dip the fillet into the milk using a fork, then into the flour, make sure all surface is coated, shake off excess flour. Then dip into the egg and milk, (if the surface does not coat well add a little more milk to mixture), put into the cracker crumbs and cover well and press into crumbs, shake off excess and place on a cookie sheet. The sooner from breading to fry pan the better.
Place fillets into hot oil (350 degrees) at least ½ inch deep and cook on both sides until golden brown and the bubbling subsides, remove from oil and drain in a wire mesh colander. Enjoy!