Fish muddle a family tradition

Published 10:33 am Saturday, August 4, 2012


My father has returned from Rescue with a washtub half filled with fish.

Rescue is a village close to Battery Park on an inlet of the James River in Isle of Wight County, not far from Smithfield. It has a fishing boat marina and a fish market. He’s going to cook a fish muddle.

A fire is built under our wash pot; it’s been cleaned for cooking. I think the wash pot is always clean, but my mother gives it a good scrubbing anyway.

First some fatback is cooked in the pot for a bit and then water added. Some more water will be added if required to cover the fish.

The fish are scaled, gutted, beheaded and cut into chunks. I don’t know what kind of fish they are; I just know they’re big.

While the water is heating, the chunks are thrown into the pot to cook. My father has cut a forked-stick from a tree or shrub and has woven pea twine (a thick strong cotton string used to sew up sacks of peanuts at harvest) across the fork and tied it off.

He uses the stick to stir the boiling fish and to remove bones as they become loosened. These fish have fairly large bones.

The fish cook until most large bones have been removed. Small bones will cook in the muddle and will become soft and non hazardous.

My mother and sister have also been working to prepare vegetables for the muddle. Fresh vegetables from our garden are used if available; if not, canned vegetables, that we’ve preserved, are used to augment the mix. One of the vegetables used that we do not grow is celery.

Into the vegetable batch go potatoes, peeled and cut up, diced tomatoes, baby lima beans, corn (cut from the cob), peeled and chopped onions, celery (from the store), some bell peppers, and some seasonings.

I don’t think anyone has a recipe; they just put in a lot of whatever we have. Salt and a lot of pepper are used. Some Worcestershire sauce is dumped in also. I don’t see anyone measuring.

The vegetables are added to the cooked fish and the mixture is stirred and cooked for an hour or so, until someone declares that it’s finished. There’s been a lot of tasting going on during the cooking process; so I guess it’s a consensus.

The finished product is a thick, spicy, tomato-rich fish stew, in sufficient quantity to feed ours, my brother’s and the hired hand’s family a few meals.

I really like it.

The stew is divided up for distribution in jars. We serve it with fried cornbread made from stone-ground cornmeal from Johnson’s Mill. Yummy.

Sometimes this basic recipe is used with squirrel or chicken; then it becomes Brunswick stew. Some add, or subtract, ingredients for game meats to distinguish its flavors, but the basic recipe is put in a lot of what you have available. It’s always a winner.

Churches in our area, including ours, sometimes cook up a large batch and serve it as a meal or sell it by the quart as a fundraiser. Everyone has a different take on what goes into the mix, and every batch is a little different.

The common ingredient is love, no matter who cooks it, cans it, or sells it. Every batch is full of love for the process, the camaraderie and common purpose. It’s a part of who we are; it’s a part of who I will become.

Today, canned fish stew is available from several sources, but if I want the genuine article, I have to return to a backyard, an iron wash pot filled with fish and fixings.

I have to listen to the idle chat, tasting and opinions; I have to feel the fire and smell the smells. If I want the genuine article, I have to go home.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at