London (Laurel County), Kentucky
Year of Award
Grant or Fellowship
Folk & Traditional Arts Master Artist Fellowship
Wayne Riley of London, Kentucky, is a keeper of family and community foodways traditions, particularly the renowned Fish & Fixin's with a menu that always includes deep-fried fish, chicken, and hush puppies.
As a child, his family would gather multiple times each year for family reunions and July 4th celebrations, always hosted by his Aunt Lou. These gatherings were also a time for the family to raise funds to care for the family cemetery in Pittsburgh, Kentucky, just a few miles from London. When Riley’s mother passed, he lived with his older sister, but would spend summers with Aunt Lou where they always cooked outdoors – barbecue or a hog roast. Riley’s favorite were fish fries, not because he enjoyed fishing, but because it brought together the most people. Being surrounded by family, especially with Aunt Lou and other females in the kitchen, brought Riley comfort after losing his mother as a young child.
Riley left Eastern Kentucky for over 20 years to work and see the world. When he returned in the 1990s, he was saddened to learn that folks no longer gathered much for reunions or celebrations. To convene family and friends, Riley built a trailer that held two deep fryers, a griddle, a small cook stove, and two stainless steel tables. People were intrigued by the mobile cooking trailer, which was a draw for a while. With the establishment of the Laurel County African American Heritage Center (LCAAHC), Riley began providing fish and chicken dinners from the trailer for the community.
“My love for cooking grew into a passion of feeding people and teaching them how to feed themselves,” explained Riley. Riley’s concern for the environment and community foodways traditions have guided his lifelong learning plans. Riley will collect fish fry memories from family and friends. He hopes that each family member will remember the traditions and have the same desire to remember and instill them in the future generations of their family. He hopes that this will encourage more active participation in these local gatherings. Riley will also engage local young people to plant and maintain a vegetable garden, teaching them to harvest and preserve what has grown. He hopes these new skills will help local families feed themselves and save on grocery bills. “People have become accustomed to fast food and five-minute meals that are more unhealthy…than [what] I learned to cook and eat as I was growing up.”
“People have moved to a fast-paced world and forgotten the time, love, and togetherness of working together, eating together, and communicating with one another. I believe that this is a lost art that we need to get back to as families and communities.”