Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of occasional articles inspired by readers' curiosity. What do you wonder about the Baltimore area that you'd like us to investigate? Tell us at baltimoresun.com/ask.
Cook John Cheeks plunges the battered fish fillets into bubbling oil; when the tails bob to the surface, they’re ready to be dished out onto slices of bread and sent out to customers.
Here at The Lake in Northwest Baltimore, a few dollars buys a passel of lake trout, fried to crunchy, crispy perfection, and, if you like, doused with hot sauce. Get it with a side of candied sweets and mac and cheese. Locals know it’s not really trout — and it isn’t really from a lake. (There are no natural lakes in Maryland). The real fish is whiting — or more scientifically, merluccius bilinearis — from the cold waters off the northeast coast of the United States.
Standing outside awaiting their order, Della and Lee Mooring of Owings Mills shrug when asked why their dinner is called lake trout.
“I guess we should have asked,” says Lee, 68.
As the next installment in a series of stories inspired by readers’ questions, The Baltimore Sun took a look at lake trout, that beloved Baltimore specialty steeped in heritage and tradition.
Lake trout is a more economical choice than the region’s more famous seafood offering — crabs — and has been a favorite lunch and dinner item for years. Find it on the menu at places like Lake Trout in Edmondson Village, Lake Trout 2 near Towson or even Lake Trout 3 in Windsor Mill. Detectives Bunk and McNulty waxed philosophical about the misnomer in an episode of “The Wire,” saying: “No lake, no trout.” It’s similar, they say, to egg creams, which contain neither egg nor cream.
It’s unclear how the name “lake trout” for whiting came about, but Bill Devine of Faidley’s Seafood at Lexington Market thinks it’s a bastardization of “late trout.” Decades ago, fish that arrived to Lexington Market late in the season were referred to as “late, l-a-t-e,” Devine said.
“Being that the Baltimoreans couldn’t speak the king’s English, it got corrupted to lake, l-a-k-e,” he said.
“It’s a colloquialism, hon,” Devine said.
And the renaming process is not uncommon — fishermen and fishmongers have been known to do so to make a fish more appealing to customers. What Marylanders call “rockfish” might be called “stripers” or “striped bass” elsewhere.
Lake trout seems to have been a Maryland delicacy since the 1920s, according to local food historian Kara Mae Harris. In 1937, ads for “large whitings (lake trout)” appeared in The Baltimore Evening Sun. And fried fish — eaten with head and tail intact, and served between two thin slices of bread atop a wooden plate— was a favorite meal at shore resorts in South Baltimore in the early 1900s, according to a Baltimore Sun article.
Beyond its longevity in the region, lake trout carries a larger cultural significance.
For many African Americans, fried fish is more than a cheap and tasty lunch option, said Adrian Miller, a James Beard award-winning food writer. It’s a staple with a long tradition of self-sufficiency, heritage and solidarity.
Before slavery, many people in West Africa had been eating fish for thousands of years, smoked, salted or dried, and fried on special occasions, Miller said. After being forcibly brought to the New World, enslaved people often began to catch fish to supplement their meager diets.
“It was a way for a seafood-loving people to get something that they truly wanted,” Miller said.
The technique of breading before frying was adopted from European cooking styles. And the concept of a “Saturday night fish fry” in black culture dates back to the days of slavery. “Typically the work schedule slowed midday Saturday,” he said, which meant time for fishing.
“Going to a river and hauling in fish was a prized activity,” Miller said.
Even later, fried fish appeared on the menu at church fundraisers or rent parties, meant to raise money to help people struggling to make ends meet. A red lantern hung outside would indicate that a fish fry was happening.
Today, fried fish remains a centerpiece of soul food across the United States, with the type of fish varying depending on region. Catfish, Miller said, tends to be a more popular choice in the South, while whiting is Baltimore’s fish. And Charm City is the only place where “whiting” is called “lake trout,” Miller said.
“I have no idea why it became ‘lake trout,’ but I just think it’s hilarious,” Miller said.
After all, what’s in a name?
Since it first opened nearly 50 years ago, the carryout on Baltimore’s Reisterstown Road has alternately been called The Roost, or The Red Roost, or simply Lake Trout. Its owners recently renamed it yet again: The Lake is marked in stone in the entrance way.
In the old days, customers would wait in lines that wound outside into the parking lot, where an enormous rooster, weather-worn, marks the spot. More recently, the late Anthony Bourdain visited while filming an episode of “No Reservations.”
Whether the restaurant is called The Lake or The Roost doesn’t matter much to customer Wendell Tobias, 47, who’s been coming here for decades. “I’m just glad to have ’em back,” Tobias said as he waited for his dinner. After a hiatus of several years under different management, he said, “the food is as good as ever.”
For his part, Miguel Gerade, manager of The Lake, said that his great-aunt Doris Williams invented lake trout. Williams opened the Reisterstown Road business as a burger joint in 1974. But burgers weren’t selling, and a customer suggested she sell fish. She had never cooked fish before but soon perfected her recipe and drew those long lines of customers from across the city.
“That was the fish she called lake trout,” Smith said.
The rest, he claims, were just imitators.