by Keetha DePriest Reed
[Note from Ye Editor: Keetha Reed has recently published a wonderful cookbook titled "Culinary Kudzu." I've read the stories and perused the recipes, and I highly recommend this collection of Deep South treasures. Want to get a copy of this cookbook? Write Keetha at firstname.lastname@example.org or click here to order at Amazon. Another great cookbook, "More Culinary Kudzu," is now OUT! [Read about it!] Write Keetha to order. Now, here's the catfish chapter!]
Where I grew up, in Humphreys County, Mississippi, catfish is a big deal and has been for almost as long as I can remember. Belzoni, the county seat, was once known as “Greasy Row” because of the row of saloons [serving fried catfish] lining the banks of the Yazoo River. Catfish had long been considered a “trash fish,” one many a fisherman would toss back in the river rather than take home to dress, prepare, and eat.
Then in the mid 1960s, several farmers decided to try their hand at raising catfish in freshwater ponds. They hoped for, at best, modest profits on this new venture.
I wonder now what the talk around town was then. Did the cotton farmers laugh at them? Did our local paper run cartoons picturing puzzled farmers planting catfish in dirt fields? Surely people thought they were crazy, or just not particularly bright.
Call it vision or perseverance or desperation, but they stuck it out and began farming catfish. The Mississippi Cooperative Extension Service offered guidance to the leaders of this new industry of farm-raised catfish. The former trash fish is now served as haute cuisine at many trendy restaurants across the country.
In 1976, the first Catfish Festival was held on the grounds of the county courthouse. This same year Humphreys County had more acres of catfish ponds – 6,000 -- than any other county in the country, leading the state’s governor to declare Humphreys County the ‘Catfish Capital of the World.’ I was at that festival, but remember very little about it. Mom says it was on a weekday afternoon and had a few booths with artisans selling simple wares. It was part of Belzoni’s Bicentennial Celebration and about 3,000 people attended. In recent years, the annual attraction has drawn over 20,000 attendants.
Artisans and craftspeople sold all manners of things at the festival. As a child, I remember the wooden ‘guns’ that had rubber bands for ammunition. All the boys loved them. Small jars and corked vials filled with sand pictures fascinated me and were usually a big seller. Some booths displayed elaborate hair bows and barrettes. Others sold girlish painted T-shirts, often with balloons or other whimsical drawings. Of course, no open-air event is complete without airbrushed T-shirts, as well. I still have one I got when I was in about the 5th grade. It is a red and white baseball jersey and has “Class of 1990” airbrushed in red bubble letters on the front with my name on the back. I can remember thinking how far away that was.
The morning used to kick off with a 6K run through the small town that concluded at the festival grounds. Performances by Miss Minnie Simpson’s dance students would usually be next. The first year I took dancing, when I was about four or five, we all wore pastel pink costumes with white sequins and a thin headband with a white feather in our hair. Each of Miss Minnie’s classes performed on the wooden stage temporarily constructed at the foot of the courthouse steps, where later the catfish queen would be crowned. Tap dances drew a crowd, as the tap shoes banged satisfyingly on the plywood stage.
Pots of brightly colored mums lined the courthouse steps. Red, white, and blue bunting decorated the face of the old building.
Some festivals would be quite cool, especially in the mornings. Others were decidedly hot. Sometimes rain and thunderstorms would drive hordes of attendees under the few tents. Just a few years ago, an early-morning tornado wreaked havoc on attendance numbers.
In addition to the catfish-eating contest, the catfish queen contest, another treasured tradition is the children’s play performed by the talented women of the Belzoni Garden Club. My mother and I almost always attend the play together. These talented women choose a different children’s story each year which they perform at the Depot Theater. Admission is usually one dollar per person. They have done Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Peter Pan, with tall, dark-haired, striking Kathy Allen playing a wonderful Captain Hook.
When I was in Mrs. Kathy Gilmer’s second grade class, the play was Little Red Riding Hood. I remember it well because I won first place in the poster contest the garden club hosted. I still have that cardboard catfish covered with silver glitter, blue ribbon attached.
A big festival draw is the dinner of farm-raised fried catfish, hushpuppies, french fries, and cole slaw, which is served most of the day during the festival.
While catfish fried with the trimmings is traditional, it’s certainly not the last word in catfish.
Thumb through Tony and Evelyn Roughton’s Classic Catfish ( www.virtualcities.com/crown.htm) or check out The Catfish Institute’s web site (www.catfishinstitute.com) for free recipes. You’ll see catfish prepared in numerous ways: on sandwiches, in salads and stews, as well as grilled, roasted, broiled, and smoked.
In addition to its slightly sweet taste, catfish is a healthy option, containing 17 grams of protein and only 6 grams of fat.
Here are a few recipes, generously loaned by The Catfish Institute, featuring catfish:
Greek Catfish Salad
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 pound U.S. farm-raised catfish fillets
1 pound fresh spinach, torn
1 cup Calamata or ripe olives, pitted and halved
1/4 cup sliced green onions
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
8 ounces feta cheese, cubed
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano (or 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano)
Bring water and lemon juice to a boil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add catfish fillets and return to a boil; reduce heat to medium-low. Cover and simmer gently for 5 to 7 minutes or until fish flakes easily when tested with a fork. Using a slotted spatula, remove fillets from water and place on a platter to cool slightly. Cut into bite-size pieces. Cover and chill.
Toss spinach, olives, green onions and tomatoes in a large bowl. Add feta cheese and catfish pieces. Mix olive oil, lemon juice, vinegar, garlic and oregano in a small bowl using a wire whisk until well combined. Pour dressing over salad and toss until well coated.
This quick and easy dish is a big hit at The Crown in Town restaurant in Indianola, Mississippi.
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup butter or margarine, softened
6 tablespoons mayonnaise
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
generous dash of Tabasco sauce
6 to 8 U.S. farm-raised catfish fillets
Place cheese, butter, mayonnaise, green onions, Worcestershire sauce, and Tabasco sauce in a bowl and mix thoroughly. The cheese mixture can be made 24 hours in advance and refrigerated; soften at room temperature before using.
Preheat the broiler. Poach catfish fillets, 2 or 3 at a time, in a skillet of lightly simmering water for 4 to 5 minutes. Gently lift fillets from water with a slotted spatula and set aside on a plate to drain.
Place the fillets in individual au gratin dishes or in a baking pan large enough to hold them in a single layer. Spread 2 tablespoons of the cheese mixture over each fillet. Broil from 2 or 3 minutes or until the cheese mixture browns and fish flakes easily when tested with a fork. If using a baking pan, carefully lift fillets from the pan and place on serving plates; spoon some of the pan juices over each serving.
1 yellow or red bell pepper
2 U.S. farm-raised catfish fillets, cut into 1-inch cubes
Water for poaching catfish
1 small red onion, sliced
1 tablespoon hopped fresh dill or 1 1/2 teaspoons dried dill
1 /4 cup olive oil
1/ 4 cup balsamic or red wine vinegar
1 head Boston lettuce, torn
2 cups torn arugula or romaine leaves
4 strips lean bacon, cooked and crumbled
3 ounces blue cheese, crumbled
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 350°.
Prick bell pepper in several places with a fork and place on a baking sheet. Roast the pepper in the oven for 20 minutes or until the skin puckers, turning occasionally to cook evenly without burning. Place pepper in a paper bag and seal the bag. Set aside for 10 minutes to steam. Remove pepper from bag and peel off the skin. Core, seed and cut pepper strips. Set aside.
Place catfish fillet cubes in large skillet and add water to cover. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and gently simmer for 5 to 7 minutes or until fish flakes easily when tested with a fork. Using a slotted spoon, remove catfish from water, shaking off excess. Place catfish in a large serving bowl.
Add roasted pepper strips, onion, dill, olive oil and vinegar and mix well. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour to marinate.
Add Boston lettuce, arugula or romaine, bacon, and blue cheese to bowl with catfish and toss well. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve.
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