Having a fishing rod in your hand is merely an excuse to explore out-of-sight depths and reveal mysteries that previously only existed in dreams. –Fennel Hudson, A Meaningful Life
The southern United States is well known throughout the world for its colorful cuisine dating back for hundreds of years. The list of influences from ages past is vast, with some of the most notable contributions being the Native American foods of the earth, European delectable delicacies, and rustic African spices.
But there is one dish that is king of the southern table and an art form all of its own. Southern-fried catfish offers crispy-crusted white meat along with many tales, some true, of the journey from pond to table. Though this mysterious creature has historically been scorned by many as nothing but a lowly bottom-feeder, it is vehemently hailed by most southerners as the equivalent of manna from Heaven.
The art of southern-fried catfish often begins with a day at the lake, along with a bologna sandwich and ice-chest filled with choice beverages to be enjoyed while relaxing and shooting the breeze with a close friend commonly known as a fishing buddy. Please note that fishing buddies are peculiarly selected based upon similar value systems, not mere availability, since there are a lot of the world’s problems that can be discussed while waiting on the first bite.
Meanwhile, those non-buoyant little catfish monsters will fall for some of the oddest bait choices on the planet, with a strong favorite being sliced wieners soaked in red Kool-Aid.
Reeling in a big cat feels like a Mack truck pulling on the line, and if the rod is not allowed to do the work, the line will sometimes snap, rendering the fish lost until he decides to take another chance on the bait at some undetermined time in the future. But with a successful snag, the rod seems like it is actually going to break just before pulling that sucker up out of the water.
Creating the balance between reeling the fish in quickly and exhausting its energy prior to meeting it face to face takes years of experience. Once the fish has been extracted from the waters, the risk of slicing open a hand with one of the gnarly
“whiskers” can take someone by surprise. While the catfish grunts and stares down the fisherman eyeball to eyeball, it also wags its unique catfish tongue back and forth; it should be man handled with a death grip behind the whiskers until the hook is removed and it has been subdued.
There are conflicting stories that have become local folklore as to whether a catfish actually has a tongue. This writer has seen it and will unabashedly testify that it is next to evil. That is no fish story.
One of the major differences between cleaning a catfish versus other freshwater catches is that, apart from avoiding a puncture wound from the whiskers, the critter must also be skinned. Is it worth the work? Traditions don’t come easy!
Once the fish has been filleted with an electric knife, there is a magical southern secret that is the impetus of many a soul food recipe. Soak in buttermilk. There is no hard and fast rule that requires this special step, since one of the most admirable feats in southern culture is producing a meal on the quick from farm to table, but if time permits a buttermilk bath there certainly will be no regrets!
Secondly, the next best southern secret of buttermilk-soaked catfish is then coating it with Zatarain’s Fish-Fri just prior to deep frying in peanut oil. Though the entire process of catching, cleaning, soaking, and coating the catfish is completely and utterly inconvenient, it is a mainstay pertaining to the southern family affair, friends, the back yard, and a lazy afternoon with ginger bourbon or sweet tea and lemon.
While some of the most popular sides traditionally include coleslaw, potato salad, and hush puppies, the sky is the limit once a juicy piece of catfish is plated just out of the fryer. Catfish becomes a delicacy when smothered in crawfish étoufée or a hearty man’s meal when stuffed into a loaf of authentic French bread that has been slathered with homemade tartar sauce.
The comfort of a dish like this one or any other that mimics “Mama’s cooking” is what makes southern cuisine what it is today. The art of discovering the ways of the old homestead is not only about what is on the plate, but also about the people with whom we break the bread and the stories told while doing it.
For the record, the best storyteller always wins! Until the next fish fry, there will always be meals of garden vegetables like beans and greens coupled with buttermilk cornbread as a means to just get by. But when Sunday afternoon rolls around, heat up the grease and here we go again!
Read Brandi’s column each month in The Cross Timbers Gazette newspaper.