When I get in my truck and drive to some place watery, whether salty or fresh, McClane's "New Standard Fishing Encyclopedia and International Angling Guide " goes with me. Mine is the second edition, published in 1974. McClane's is five pounds worth of advice and information about all things fishy. Here I quote some of their reporting on the catfish-
"There are 15 or more families of catfish in the world.... Many of these families are highly specialized; There are walking catfish,talking catfish,blind catfish, tootheless catfish,armored catfish,electric catfish,climbing catfish,and parasitic catfish".
I,who live in the Mid-South,have never caught a walking,talking catfish,but I have caught the common catfish found in Reelfoot and Kentucky Lakes, and all of those I caught went right back into the water,since I lacked a board,a nail,or pliers to skin them. I have also caught the worthless salt water catfish that swim close to the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico. I throw them back,but most fisherman,annoyed by wasted bait and wasted time,do not. They toss the catfish carcasses onto the upper beach or into the dunes where they mummify,since neither gull nor ghost crab will eat them.
Only twice have I ever eaten wild caught catfish. Once,on the last night of a three day weekend spent at Kentucky Lake Cabins near Springville,Tennessee,I gave my left over red wriggler worms to a father and son just out for the evening. They thanked me by bringing me a foot long catfish
which I took home and baked- bones,skin and all. It had an earthy taste.
My other free fish was a Gafftopsail catfish, a salt water variety. I was staying at the Bon Secour Lodge cabins on Oyster Bay in Gulf Shores,Alabama, and my benefactor was a retired dentist. He and his wife sat on the stoop of their cabin dawn to dark smoking and drinking Coors, and making sure their little dachshund "Hildee" did not run off toward the sloughs and get eaten by an alligator. When the dentist's son arrived with a boat, a fishing party went out for the day. They came back with a boatload of beer cans and only one fish-the Gafftopsail that they gave to me. It was good, and easy to cook,since one of the party dressed it.
I did pan fry a catfish fillet this week. It was farmed catfish,possibly from Tennessee,but most likely from the Mississippi Delta where catfish aquaculture is big business. According to Richard Schweid,author of "Catfish and the Delta", "The low-cholesterol meat of the farm-raised fish is firm,white,and neutral in taste,completely lacking the strong,fishy,bottom-feeder flavor of a river catfish".
I did not look at catfish recipes before I pan-fried this fillet. I cooked it my own way. I soaked it in buttermilk for a few hours, then dipped it into a Remoulade-ish concoction of Duke's mayonnaise and Creole mustard. Then I put it in a plastic bag that had flour spiked with a teaspoon or two of Tony Chachere's Creole Seasoning, and I shook it. I fried the flour dusted fillet in corn oil with a little lard added. It was very tasty. And worth doing again.
After the fact, I went looking through my sixty odd books on Southern cooking to see what novel things could be done to catfish.
There were not many. Buttermilk. Flour. Corn meal. Salt. Pepper. Egg batter. Oil or lard to fry.
That was the repertoire, for when it came to catfish,the Southern imagination failed to catch fire. The Uptown cookbooks, the cooking bibles of Our Ladies of the Junior League rarely mentioned catfish. Perhaps like Craig Claiborne's mother,their contributors were "too aristocratic" to cook a fish that evolution consigned to muddy lake bottoms and the fry pans of their housemen and maids.
Then,on a hunch,I looked up catfish in Mark Bittman's "The Best Recipes in the World". There in the Index I saw Catfish bouillabaisse. Catfish in caramel. Catfish with miso. Catfish in saffron sauce.
Yet, when I turned to the recipes I could not find a mention of catfish until I looked closer and saw it listed as just one of many fish that could be substituted in the dishes.Back we were at Richard Schweid's neutral,non-oily white fleshed Catfish Nouveau. A taste that would offend no one. The catfish as generic fish protein product.
I had one last hope for finding a novel recipe that celebrated the cat fishy-ness of catfish. So I asked myself this-What would the Cajuns and Creoles do?
To be continued on February 15th-