In Praise of Catfish
It’s a bottom feeder and pig-ugly and much maligned. But it’s a delicious fish!
Bottom-feeder. Alien pest. Mudcat. Southern treasure.
Catfish are downright creepy to look at and not very good specimens for aquariums. “Gather ‘round, kids! It oinks like a pig!”
Who first thought to eat these damn things?
If you want to catch one in the wild they prefer live bait, but throw a handful of dog food in in the Tennessee River and it’s like sharks on chum. Ask Bruce and Mackey Sayre, who caught a 139 pounder in 1982 using “other methods.” The Sayres may have engaged in some catfish wrasslin’ (“noodling”), which is when the wrassler/resident dumbass (“noodler”) sticks his or her hand down a catfish hole and plays a game of risk. Catfish sting, and some folks have lost fingers due to an unexpected encounter with an alligator, beaver or muskrat — all frequent inhabitants of catfish holes.
Since noodling is illegal in some states (let’s be honest, “Hold my beer and watch this, y’all!” is not the rallying cry of the brightest bulbs on the line), other safe and reasonable methods of harvesting catfish have been created, such as catfish farms. According to The Catfish Institute (TCI), ninety-four percent of all U.S. farm-raised catfish comes from Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. It’s big business for the South, employing over 10,000 people and contributing $4 billion yearly to each state’s economy. That’s billions of dollars, just from raising the world’s ugliest fish. When the catfish reach a weight of one pound, which takes almost two years, they are sent to processing facilities — magic happy places we don’t want to think about.
There are all different types of cooking methods for catfish, and they are harvested and eaten all over the world in a rainbow of different ways. Vietnamese catfish is sold in the U.S. under a different name (swai) and in the U.K., it is marketed as “Vietnamese river cobbler” (whatever fresh hell that is, “cobbler” is for apples and shoes, surely). The wild-caught catfish our old friends Bruce and Mackey Sayre like to cook, taste like what you’d expect from a bottom-feeder who’d eat dog food, old boots and tin cans. Farm-raised catfish are given a diet of soybean meal, corn and rice, which affords a cleaner taste, less like fishy dirt. (So, more respect for farm raising fish, y’all!)
In the 1980s, farm-raised catfish gained popularity as the industry became more regulated, birthing one of the most treasured memories of Reagan-era Southern childhoods: the Friday night catfish fry. Fish fries on Fridays have been a long-standing practice in Catholic communities, as most Catholics used to abstain from meat on Fridays, although that is no longer a thing. There isn’t a large population of Catholics in the South, but Southerners can get behind anything involving deep-frying stuff that’s been dipped in cornmeal batter. (Don’t you dare serve frozen hushpuppies though. That’s why someone gave you a melon baller as a wedding gift.)
Each small Southern town has a catfish joint, and you’ll slap your own mama for a table at a good one. Don’t worry, she’d slap you right back and steal your seat. One of the most famous is Taylor Grocery, which is a short 15-minute drive from Oxford, Mississippi. Doors open at 5PM and it fills up fast, but you’re allowed to bring your hooch of choice and tailgate in the parking lot with a pack of sweet muttly dogs as you wait for a table. In Shiloh, Tennessee is one of the country’s oldest family-owned restaurants, Hagy’s Catfish Hotel, which has served hungry boaters, politicians and traumatized Civil War battlefield tourists since the 1930s.
There are two schools of fried catfish eaters: Filleters and Wholers. These are subdivided into the “all-you-can-eaters” and the “I’m not going to admit out loud that I can eat these until it ouches me, so Imma order two fish”-ers. Wholers prefer to eat the entire fish, which requires a lot of effort for a little meat. Some Wholers also eat the tail, which is very impolite in mixed company and frowned upon in public. Whole fish are mostly served “all-you-can-eat” because after you take out three or four, it’s such a pain in the ass that you give up, and restaurants make a bloody fortune. Filleters pay a small premium so they don’t have to see what they’re eating. The stark visual of a crispy dorsal fin can quickly suck the fun out of Grandma’s 90th birthday party at the Catfish Shack.
Catfish doesn’t have to be fried to be fit for human consumption. It can be smoked, grilled or blackened beyond recognition. It’s still good. The only time it isn’t, it’s ‘cause one of you done picked a fight and said you don’t eat bottom-feeders.