American Plate - Bite #43: Fried Catfish

Monday, November 2, 2015
When we learn about the Civil War in school, it's pretty much just a recounting of the battles and the key figures of the time. Schoolkids aren't really asked to imagine what life must have been like for an everyday citizen at the time, so let's do that thought experiment now. You live in the South, but aren't in the army. All the foodstuffs you'd usually purchase from Northern suppliers are gone, plus the Union has set up a salt blockade, so you can't preserve meat. And the problems don't stop there.

There's nobody around to harvest crops, because most of the able-bodied white men are off fighting, and most of the able-bodied blacks (aka slaves) are fleeing to freedom. Your state has limited interest in centralized government, so no system of food distribution has been set up. And to top everything off, the weather has lately been especially punishing in your region. What do you do?

If you're a Southern citizen, you start to rely on the few remaining sources of protein: Game and fish. Squirrels, rabbits, trout, and catfish became the backbone of the Southern diet during this period. Though depending on these foods certainly wasn't a choice that people willingly made, they quickly learned to adapt. A single large catfish could feed an entire family, and could be prepared with a minimum of ingredients. Once the Civil War was over, proteins like squirrel receded back into obscurity, only eaten in a few mostly poverty-stricken regions. Catfish remained popular though, and continues to be so to this day.

Fried catfish remains a dish-of-the-people, readily available in casual settings like inexpensive restaurants, bars, and any community fish fry during Lent. The picture above is a composite of fried catfish I got at a variety of places, but it should come as no surprise that none of these places had a dress code. Happily, there was variety to the serving methods. Sometimes, the fish was just served by itself, alongside a side of fries or green beans. Some places made an effort to dress it up a bit, though, incorporating it into a po boy sandwich with greens and sauce.

The quality of the fried catfish I ate depended on the restaurant. The po boy was extremely tasty, while some of the others tasted of nothing but frying liquid. I decided that this is one of those Bites that shouldn't just be left to the service industry, and that I should make my first attempt at making some myself. As befits its history, catfish is far more affordable than other fish, and the only other ingredients you need to whip it up is some oil, some eggs and milk, something to dredge the fish in (cornmeal, preferably, though flour also works), and some spices. The verdict on my first batch? Not bad. I'd use cornmeal next time, and bump up the spices; these filets wound up needing some Sriracha to give them a kick.

That said, once they were combined with some rice and a roasted green vegetable on the side, they made a mighty fine dinner, and I'm looking forward to making this again. It seem so strange that something we enjoy as a casual dish today was once consumed almost entirely out of necessity, but hey, forging a connection with the citizens of our nation's past is part of what this project is all about. Maybe high school history teachers can learn something from this, themselves. Kids likely don't have much interest in dry recitations of names and dates, but they just might pay attention if they were asked to imagine having 90% of their food supply cut off.