THE BLOG
07/26/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Ode to The Catfish (Stuff the Other White People Like, and A Whole Lot of Black People, Too)

It was sad news to read of the decline of Southern catfish farms in today's New York Times. The farmers are going under because the cost of corn and soybean fish food has gone up so much it has sunk them, and the companies are draining their big ponds and shutting down. The loss of these farm-raised Southern catfish farms also means the fadeout of jobs that are desperately needed in the achingly poor Mississippi Delta. I wonder exactly who's losing these jobs. In the Times photos, the workers were all black (while management is white but who's surprised?). Not that there aren't plenty of poor white people along the Delta--poor is poor--and, no doubt, they're losing precious jobs, too. These are the Americans who can least afford this, in one of the poorest regions of the U.S., which is already in bad economic times.

And what will this mean for the lip-smacking all-you-can-eat catfish restaurants that dot the Southern landscape, that feed Southerners' souls as well as their bodies? I'm not talking about the yuppie/snuppie/boho/p.c. crowd who fit the "stuff white people like" mold. No, ma'am.

I'm talking about hard-eating, bargain-hunting, garden-growing white-, blue-, and plaid-collared farmers, working and professional "folks" who like their eating down home and homemade, who like their fish fried and served with hush puppies, pickled green tomatoes and sliced onions, fried or baked potatoes, pinto beans, coleslaw, and iced tea. These people may be white or black, because fried catfish is a delicacy that, for those in the know, defies the racial divide.

Although there are better tasting fish in the South--as my friend Patti recently said in a discussion we were having in Paris about fishy-smelling and -tasting fish, "Give me a pan of fried crappie (that's pronounced croppie to the uninformed)," and I knew what she meant--the catfish has become a Southern icon, a fish symbol if you will. And over the last, say, thirty years (about the same time catfish farms have been big), restaurants have sprung up across the entire region to promote this common-as-pig's-tracks fish.

As I recall my family's catfish lore, the whiskered fish were considered trash and bottom-feeders. We didn't particularly want them nor did my father set trotlines (okay, do you even know what that is?), which some people did. Somehow that seemed a little too easy, unsportsmanlike, and verging on white-trashy. There were always stories of monster catfish that might weigh 1,000 pounds lurking in the deep water by any dam. For us, that would be Greers Ferry Lake in Heber Springs, Arkansas.

Now catfish are definitely loved in the South, and when those restaurants devoted to frying them (which was a hell of a lot easier than messing with it at home) became one of our best dinner choices, then the gods had smiled down on us. If anyone From Off came to visit, we had to either host a fish fry for the out-of-towners or take them to a place called The Catfish Hole, Grampa's Catfish House, or Catfish City. No one could make a visit to, let's say, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, or Alabama and not eat fried catfish. If they didn't partake, they hadn't officially been to The South.

So I called Batesville, Arkansas, to do some catfish research. From my brother's long-time assistant and connoisseur of catfish, Cindy, I found this out: At Catfish Wharf at Moorefield, Arkansas, one can still get a catfish lunch special which includes everything I wrote about above and three pieces of catfish for $4.99. This would imply that the catfish restaurants are filling their menus with foreign catfish--from China and Vietnam--and it's these fish that are going into Southern customers' bellies. I'm worried that as they become imported, they'll become trendy. Next thing you know, they'll be on the list of Stuff White People Like.

Cindy also mentioned that Catfish Wharf had as its "logo" a monster molded catfish--as big as a car--outside the restaurant, and one day someone had the audacity to steal it. After some catfish investigative work, they got it back.

But, see, the rush has already started.

Random catfish facts from Wikipedia:

The rate of description of new catfishes is at an all-time high. Between 2003 and 2005, over 100 species have been named, a rate three times faster than that of the past century.

Panaque and some species of Hypostomus are unique among catfishes in that are the only fishes able to eat and digest wood.[21]

In catfishes, fertilization of eggs can be internal, external, or even include sperm passage through female digestive tracts, the so called sperm drinking type of fertilization.

In general, they are negatively buoyant, which means that they will usually sink rather than float due to a reduced gas bladder and a heavy, bony head.[14]

...catfish generally feed through suction or gulping rather than biting and cutting prey.

Catfish are not Kosher, because the adult fish have no scales.

Beth Arnold lives and writes in Paris. To see more of her work, check out www.betharnold.com.