Why “Fish Don’t Fry in the Kitchen”

By Paul Thomas Zenki

And who grills beans anyway? …

A rolling stone gathers no moss. A watched pot never boils. Fish don’t fry in the kitchen. And beans don’t burn on the grill.

It is known.

But wait, hold the phone a sec. Of course fish fries in the kitchen. Where else are you gonna fry it, the living room?

And yeah, beans do burn on a grill. Cause they fall through the grate into the fire. Not that I’ve tried, but I’m saying, it just stands to reason.

See, this is why these two lines from The Jeffersons theme song bugged the living hell outta me for four and a half decades. Until finally, about a year ago, I found out what in the world they actually meant.

Turns out, I should have known all along. But if you’ve ever mused about them yourself, here’s the lowdown …

You may or may not recall that Ja’Net Dubois passed away in February of 2020. She wrote the song “Movin’ On Up” back in 1974 — which, if you’re bothering to read this, you probably know by heart already, but while we’re here, might as well have a little reminder…

Well, I got to reading about Ja’Net Dubois when her passing was in the news. And lo and behold, her life held the secret to the mystery of the fish and the beans.

Dubois acted on Broadway in the early 1960s and then moved to television, and she was also a singer and a songwriter. In ’74 she took on the “drop-in neighbor” role of Wilona Woods in Norman Lear’s comedy series Good Times. Which paid well enough, but left Dubois with time on her hands.

So one day she runs into Lear on the set and buttonholes him, asking if there’s anything else he’s working on that she could get involved with creatively. Long story short, he lets on he’s got a new series that needs a theme song, and she promises to have one on his desk by the following week.

Now according to Dubois, Lear didn’t tell her he was spinning off The Jeffersons from All in the Family, just that he had a new series about a guy with a cleaning business. But in 1974 All in the Family was the top rated show on American television, and it’s hard to imagine that any TV actor in the US — especially one working for Lear — didn’t know that George Jefferson owned a dry cleaners. I strongly suspect Ja’Net put two and two together on that one.

Thing was, though, Dubois had gone through her own experience of “movin’ up.” Raised in Brooklyn, she had literally managed to move herself and her mother to the East Side through her success as a singer and actress. So she ended up writing about herself. And of course, the song fit like a glove with Lear’s new series.

What I got wrong about “fish don’t fry in the kitchen, beans don’t burn on the grill” was that I didn’t connect it to the lines that came before. In my defense, it does lead off the bridge, so I’ll count it as an honest mistake. In any case, I heard it as some sort of truism, like “money doesn’t grow on trees” or “you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear”. So it seemed to make no sense.

But Ja’Net’s story revealed that it was about how her own life changed when she moved up. It was about her new home, “a deluxe apartment in the sky” that didn’t smell like fried fish and burnt beans.

But that still leaves the problem of the grill. Who cooks beans on a grill?

As soon as I realized what the first part meant, I knew immediately what the second part meant, because I’d lived it myself. She wasn’t talking about an outdoor grill. No, she meant something like a short order grill with a flat top, the kind I flipped burgers on for years, but made for home — one of these things, commonly called a hotplate:

A hotplate sitting on a kitchen counter
Photo by Jonathan Kovaciny (Wikimedia Commons)

That right there is a classic Presto Cool Touch electric griddle in all its glory. And for a few years back in my twenties I lived in a one room “apartment” in north Florida with a tiny sink, a mini fridge, a hotplate, and a microwave. So I can tell you from experience that burning food on one of these little numbers is easier than falling off a log. Back in the 1960s, of course, Ja’Net wouldn’t have had the microwave, and while cooking beans on the hotplate isn’t exactly haute cuisine, it’s still more appetizing than spooning them up cold out of the can.

You do what you gotta do.

As for me, I still fry fish in the kitchen, now that I have a stove to fry it on. But God only knows where that hotplate is. I can only hope it got melted down in some scrapyard before the turn of the century. But you never know.

Thanks for the song, Ja’Net. And hey, I think I’ll exit with the gospel version you recorded for the closing credits of the show. I always did like that one.

Header image: CBS publicity photos from The Jeffersons (public domain: 1976, 1974, 1976)

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Paul Thomas Zenki is an essayist, ghostwriter, copywriter, marketer, songwriter, and consultant living in Athens, GA.