Of Fish and Fists

Grabbling is the most unsophisticated form of angling. Fly fishing seems downright effete in comparison; forget fussing with those artsy little hand-tied flies, forget about the L.L. Bean creel, forget about the custom-made rod, just stick your hand down in a hole under the water and pull out a fish. No other form of fishing is so breathtakingly fundamental.

When grabbling, it goes unsaid that you’re fishing for catfish, which tend to hole up in hollow logs or under stumps in the spring. Unlike suicidal salmon that exhaust themselves in long-distance spawning, the sensible Southern catfish conducts a more sedate courtship by finding a steady bed and putting out a red light, so to speak. In the old days, grabblers used to sink hollow logs in selected places before the fish begin spawning in April in order to lure the catfish into them, but nowadays most folks use manmade beds. I talked to one guy who said you can use big tires, too, but the disadvantage to that is that the fish can scoot around inside the tire, making them devilishly hard to catch. The location of these beds is a guarded secret among serious grabblers who sink them in the fall and come back when the water has warmed up in the spring to collect the booty.

Bruce Green
Bruce Green of Big Creek, Mississippi with a yellow cat caught in Grenada Lake.

Grabbling might well be the ultimate expression of angler machismo. It takes a man of true grit—I’ve never heard of a woman who grabbles, though I’m sure some do—who is willing to stick his bare hand and arm into a hole under water. After all, there’s no guarantee that what you’re going to grab is a catfish. We grow some mighty big snapping turtles in Mississippi that can easily nip off a finger or two if tempted to do so, and it takes little to tempt a snapper, especially when he’s holed up in a sunken hollow log or a catfish box with minnows on his mind. We also have a nasty variety of pit viper here called a cottonmouth moccasin. I’ve heard it rumored all my life that grabblers aren’t afraid of cottonmouths because these snakes aren’t supposed to be able to open their mouths under water, but that never has made any sense to me because their scientific name, piscivorus, means “fish-eating.” Fortunately for those of us who simply lack the opportunities to haul protesting fish out of the water with our bare hands, there are easier ways to get catfish. Mississippi is, after all, the buckle of the Catfish Belt. The state produces well over half of the farm-raised catfish in the country, so you can get fresh or “fresh frozen” (love that term) catfish in your local grocery any time.

Elitists deride catfish but, to quote Twain, “The catfish is a good enough fish for anybody,” and I fall back on that high word. In the South, catfish, like almost any other sort of meat, is most often fried, and there’s nothing better than a platter of fried catfish and a litter of hush puppies. But let’s face it; frying catfish is almost as messy and time-consuming as frying chicken. And while simply baking or broiling fish is easy and healthy, it’s also boring. So what I’m going to give you here is a simple sauce recipe for baked or broiled catfish that takes it to another level. Beurre blanc is a classic emulsion, as are mayonnaise and Hollandaise, but “white butter” is far less tricky and far more stable. It’s a cold emulsion, like mayo, but it doesn’t involve an agglutination of proteins. Buerre blanc is simply butter whipped with wine, shallots and herbs.

Catfish with beurre blanc

One 8-oz. fillet of catfish per person. Score the fillets lightly, brush with a bit of (unsalted) butter; bake in a hot oven until done through. Beforehand, reduce 1/2 cup good white wine and two tablespoons lemon juice by about half. Add three tablespoons of very,very finely minced shallots, a dash of white pepper and a pinch of salt. Then gradually whip in 1/4 pound of unsalted butter over very low heat until thoroughly incorporated. Tarragon and dill (though I don’t recommend using them together) are most often used for flavor, and parsley is always appropriate. Serve the hot fillets with the beurre blanc on them.

The Ground and the Fury

Dinners on the grounds were once held on rickety tables between the church and cemetery where words of loss and remonstrance faded and food offered redemption and reward.

Though ostensibly polite pastoral get-togethers, dinners on the grounds were more often platforms for social clambering of the pettiest and most vicious sort. Despite the communal reason for the food, there was always an underlying competitive element to the affair. Food Network competitions pale in comparison to those rural stages of venomous culinary put-downs; knocking a recent wok wonder off prime time seems trivial when you’re dealing with decades of spite. Every square foot of splintered table space was contested and every element of a good “spread” subjected to off-stage critique. Transgressors were damned for such cardinal sins as using Jell-O pudding mix instead of homemade custard, and if you brought fried chicken in that red-and-white cardboard bucket, you would not get any sympathy when your high heels got stuck in an ant bed.

The queens of these community catfights took inordinate pride in lording over the lesser. My distant Cousin Dora’s angel food cake was a marvel to see. She displayed it on her grandmother’s cut-glass (not crystal; her crystal did not travel) cake stand beside a bowl of macerated strawberries and sweetened cream that she had her husband Harvey whip on site after he had driven 50 miles wearing a tie the whole way. The cake, flanked by a vase with a fistful of her show-quality roses and fortified by something along the lines of a fudge divinity she just “threw together at the last minute”, was displayed on a creaseless, delicately-patterned white cloth. Dora sliced it with a wooden-handled sponge cake cutter and served it on Classic White Chinet. Everyone hated her airs, but took malicious comfort in knowing that Harvey had been slipping around with the choir director for at least fifteen years. Rumor had it that her sister-in-law, tired of her high-and-mightiness, snuck into her house one day while the cake was in the oven and slammed the door so it would fall. That, they said with a knowing look, was the year Dora broke a toe before the church homecoming.

Adversity is a dynamic portal for new ideas, especially when it comes to recipes, and if it were a big occasion, the range of variations in a single dish was astounding. Staples such as fried chicken, baked beans and potato salad always proliferated, and those cooks who specialized in these dishes had their adherents and detractors, usually in equal numbers. You had those who preferred double-dipped or battered fried chicken and those who liked a much lighter crust. The dividing line with baked beans involved the use of brown sugar or molasses and with potato salad, creamed or chunky.

I attended these gatherings with my grandmother Monette, who was not a cook herself (history and genealogy were her interests: according to her I was related to everyone between New Albany and Grenada). Monette stayed out of the fray, but she was a discriminating eater who from past experience knew the tables well.  “Be sure and get one of Alice Edmond’s fried pies,” she’d say, or, “Jane Early has that 8-layer caramel cake recipe from her mother Eugenia, a Hardin, my first cousin Dudley’s second cousin on his mother’s side, before she married Jane’s father, who gambled away the family farm in a lop-sided mule race. He had a glass eye that he used to take out and put in his iced tea when their preacher came over.”

Nowadays, store-bought collapsible tables have replaced the long lines of sagging and splintered pine boards beneath the blackjack oaks and sweet gums, but anyone who brings Stouffer’s to a church social in Mississippi is going to get talked about. And not in a good way.

A church dinner on the grounds, Calhoun County c. 1965
A church dinner on the grounds, Calhoun County c. 1965