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 man-made 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.

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. We 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 however rewarding, frying catfish is just 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. Slather sauce on fish and serve.

Jerk Seasoning

Mix 1 tablespoon each of granulated garlic, ground cayenne pepper, onion powder, dried thyme, sugar, and salt with a teaspoon each of paprika, ground allspice, black pepper, red pepper flakes, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Blend thoroughly. Pat dry and brush meats with oil before rubbing on the jerk; this step is essential. It’s a good idea to season the meat and set aside an hour or so before grilling or broiling.

Aunt Jesse’s Easy Icebox Pie

Make this recipe your go-to throw-together for an outdoor summer get-together. Whip a 14 oz. can Eagle brand milk with an 8 oz. bar of softened cream cheese. Add a half cup freshly-squeezed lemon/lime juice with a little grated peel or mashed banana along with a jolt of vanilla. Pour into a cooled 8 in. graham cracker crust (just buy one, for Pete’s sake) and freeze. Remove, cut into 8ths, and serve.

Penny Eggs

Anyone who bellies up to a Bible-Belt bar on a Sunday morning drinks in the certainty that their stool is just as comfortable and congenial as any pew. Bartenders who work Sunday mornings know their customers well, and more often than not the harkening faces at the rail know a thing or so about the bartenders, too. They’re always telling on one another, and if it’s a really friendly bar, they’ll do it aloud, especially when not that many people are in the bar and the music’s low. It’s a special sort of bonding ritual that you just won’t find along an aisle.

Jake and I enjoy basking in these secular exchanges. We manage to steer clear of most petty imbroglios; oh, we’ll put our two cents in on something especially outrageous (or at least I will), but most of the time we just talk to each other. Jake grew up in upstate New York; I grew up in north Mississippi. He was probably pulling my leg when he told me that his parents once sent money to a charitable organization whose mission was to improve the lot of ignorant, parasite-infested Southerners, but I bristled anyway and reminded him that they did that once already (with taxes) and a less than charitable intent towards the majority of my ancestors. He in turn reminded me that his folks came over on the Concorde and that his parents don’t pay taxes. At this point, I should have bolted, but bearing in mind Faulkner’s mandate of love despite faults, we both endured and have come to learn that we have much in common. Take Vienna sausages, for instance, an iconic Southern nosh if there ever was one. Never in a million years would I have thought Jake knew of (much less ate them) as a child. But one Sunday morning at the bar he told me about penny eggs.

“My mother,” he said, “would take Vienna sausages, slice them crossways and put them in our scrambled eggs. She called them penny eggs.”

Suddenly I could hear a woman’s voice from a kitchen down a hall. “Do you want penny eggs for breakfast?” Or: “Hurry up or you’re going to miss your penny eggs.” What child would not be stirred? Pudgy little fists would begin to rub sleepy eyes, and soon the breakfast table would be surrounded by mouths eager for spoonfuls of eggs strewn with penny-like slices of mild sausage. If I live for another 800 years, I don’t think I’ll ever feel anything as warm or hear anything as charming as that childhood memory coming to light in a dingy, musty bar on a rainy Sunday morning. Of course, he found nothing endearing about my Vienna memories, which involved fishing for crappie on Grenada Lake and untangling barbed wire from MDOT bush hogs that had run over an old fence. “You were sweating,” he said. “They were like sodium suppositories.” After reminding him that we ate them, I tried to interject some romance into my remembrances.

“Jake,” I said. “Imagine that you’re in a leaky aluminum boat with a stuttering motor in the backwaters of a north Mississippi reservoir. It’s an early Saturday morning and sunny. You’re eight, fishing with a couple who have been married for forty years. You have your little baseball cap on, but your nose gets burned anyway. You catch one fish, a little one, to their twenty big ones. You get to drink all the Cokes you want, and pee off the side of the skiff. And for lunch, well before noon, you get saltines, a big piece of rat cheese, sardines if you want them, and a can of Vienna sausages.”

“Surrounded by venomous snakes no doubt,” he said. “And please tell me you didn’t eat the fish.” At this, I realized romanticizing barbed wire foul-ups on bush hogs was useless. I keep Viennas on hand, but Jake, despite his admission of a childhood fondness for them, has consigned them to what the calls the redneck corner of the cupboard, where he puts my sardines, salmon and saltines. He lets me keep my red-rind cheddar in the fridge, bless his little heart.

 

Pepper Lime Pork Chops

Trim bone-in center cut chops, brush with a mix of lime juice, corn oil, and fresh-ground black pepper. Broil on a rack until well seared. Serve with black beans and rice.

 

Redneck Hummus

“Yancy, you’re an idiot. This is very simple. If you grind dry roasted peanuts with grease and salt, you get peanut butter; if you puree boiled peanuts with oil, you get redneck hummus. Imagine me, a shit-kicker from Opelousas, having to teach Mississippi’s go-to bubba on white trash food the difference.”

“Billy Dale, I have never as long as I’ve drawn breath ever claimed to be an authority in Southern foodways of any stripe, I’m just trying to find out as much as I can by cautious questioning.”

“You’re a pompous asshole, too,” Dale said. “My wife said you remind her of an alcoholic Sunday school teacher she had in Iuka.”

“B.D., let me off the hook, okay? My sins and errors have never been a good party topic for me.”

“Fine,” Dale said. “Go turn the chicken and get me another beer.”

“What chicken?”

Creole Pecan Catfish

This dish was one of our more popular choices at the Downtown Grill in Oxford. Though a Creole mustard is used here, the recipe works well with any full-flavored mustard, a brown, stone-ground, or even a Dijon.

Oil and line a skillet or sheet pan with parchment paper. Preheat oven to 400. Mix 1 cup finely chopped pecans with about a quarter cup finely-crushed saltines. You can use Panko instead, but for some reason I never seem to have any Panko, but always have saltines. Mix ¼ cup mustard with 1 large egg and ¼ cup water. Beat very well. Dredge the fish through the mustard mixture and coat the tops of the filets in pecans. Bake for about 10-15 minutes, depending upon the size of the filet. These are served with a rice vinaigrette, but a creamy potato salad would be wonderful, too.

Summer Galette

Toss fresh berries, drupes or pomes (in this case, peaches and cherries) with granulated sugar and macerate overnight in the refrigerator. Make a crust by mixing one and a quarter cup of plain flour, two tablespoons of sugar, a teaspoon of salt, cutting in a stick of butter very finely and adding enough very cold water and additional flour to make a stiff dough. Form into a ball and refrigerate for perhaps an hour, then roll out to form a 12” circle. (It doesn’t have to be perfect.) Drain syrup from fruit and mound in the center of the dough, leaving a 2” edge. Fold the crust over the fruit, brush the dough with a mixture of melted butter mixed with a little dark brown sugar or molasses and place in an oven at 375 until crust is browned and fruit is bubbling. Cool, slice and serve with thick sweetened cream. Serves 4-6.

Cherry Coke

Unless you have a home bar and know people who drink Manhattans, Old Fashioneds or Tom Collins(es), it’s unlikely that you’re going to have any maraschino cherries on hand. Oh, you’ll buy a jar during the holidays or if you’re having a kid’s birthday party, but otherwise maraschinos aren’t a standard kitchen item at all. On the other hand, bartenders have been stocking maraschino cherries next to the stuffed olives since before Prohibition, and in their heyday soda jerks routinely placed them atop sundaes and in sodas, most notably Coca-Cola. In 1985 they came out with a Cherry Coca-Cola, but it’s rather wretched, if you ask me (and I know you didn’t).

Don’t just throw a cherry in a can of Coke; that’s trashy. First and foremost, you should use Coke from a glass bottle. You should also use a red maraschino with a stem. Use crushed ice, the compelling reason for this being that you’re going to mix the ice with chopped (de-stemmed) cherries to eat with a spoon after you’ve finished the soda. Dribble some of the cherry syrup over the ice before you pour in the Coca-Cola, and if you don’t serve it with a soda straw you’re going to hell sure as Sunday.

Bluebill’s Barbecue

This delightfully warm and rambunctious account of a political barbecue in Mississippi was submitted to the Federal Writer’s Project in the early 1940s. It’s not such a stretch to imagine that the excoriating political jargon may well have been patterned after one of T.G. Bilbo’s more vituperative speeches. Finding that the cook and I share a surname was a pleasant surprise, but entirely coincidental.

Just as sure as taxes come due before the year is out, politics comes of age in Mississippi ere fall settles down. Our crop has been made and, plow-weary as the soil itself, we take to politics like some folks take to drink. It’s the only sure-fire emotional outlet we know.

An office seeker with his nose to the wind senses that this is the time to ply his trade. Being one of us he knows that the voting fruit is now growing in bunches and ready for the plucking. ware, too, that the common run of old-time picnics is as dead as last year’s boll weevil, he gathers his, cohorts about the conference table, calls for a pooling of resources, and schemes up a barbecue. For, voting year or not, Mississippi politics takes on the nature of an epidemic and we rely on the mass eating of barbecued meat as a counter-irritant.

Even the novice candidates are invited to show what they can do, but the cook and the principal speaker should be old hands, famous for miles around, for we have a long way to come and the fare must be to our liking. Certainly, if the candidate for high office is one of our most famous and able villifiers, and if the pit artist is Bluebill Yancy, we’ll be there.

Bluebill is a black man with a head like a cypress knee. They call him blood brother to the Ugly Man, but if he’s short on looks, he’s long on cooking, and barbecue meat is his specialty. Bluebill and his henchmen are hard at work when we arrive on the grounds so we know that the weather, at least, is favoring the candidates. For Blue bill works according to the stages of the moon and has been known to call the whole thing off at the slightest show of thunder on cooking night. We pass the time of day with Dicey, Bluebill’s wife, who isn’t allowed within smelling distance of the pit until she sees Bluebill sharpen up his knives for the carving; the meat can’t “breathe freely” with a woman cook around.

We pay our respects to Uncle Si Curtis who has already nailed a plank between two trees for his lemonade stand. Uncle Si is one of the best singing school leaders in the county, and when he swings into “Mercy’s Free,” where it says “Swell, oh, swell, the heavenly chorus,” he can be heard as far away as the old burnt schoolhouse. Using the same technique to drum up trade for his spring-water lemonade, he leans against a tree and opens up:

“Ice cold lemonade!
Made in the shade,
Stirred with a spade,
Good enough for any old maid!”

Uncle Si’s crowd thins out as the preliminary speaking begins. We listen to the soaring oratory with one ear and the sizzling of Bluebill’s meat The beef has been cooking all night over the embers of green hickory wood and its peppery odor has had our nose twitching since we first drove up. Bluebill’s pit is a ten-footer with wire mesh stretched over a fire coaxed down to smokeless coals. We pace the pit with him on one of his endless rounds — up one side to turn the meat, down the other to baste it with his mopping sauce. As the moist, brown hunks of beef approach perfection, Bluebill continues his rounds, proud as a monkey with a tin tail.

While the main speaker is warming up, we move from one group of friends to another. The sonorous voice damns the tariff and the Republican party. We nod our head. He touches on the sacredness of the ballot, the virtues of Southern womanhood, and we are in accord. He promised to fight, bleed and die to keep the ship of state a float and we say “amen.”

He pauses for dramatic effect, and after mopping his perspiring brow, starts in to rant, abuse, belittle and attack the opposition. We edge closer because this is what we came to hear. The speaker describes his opponent as a “shallow-brained, slack-jawed liar; a bull ape of Mississippi politics; a grave baboon cavorting like a fat pony in high oats.” We push a bit nearer the speaker’s stand, anxious to hear every word, hoping he’ll let the hide go with the horns and the tallow.

“Like a parasite of the highest rank,” the candidate roars, “he has been feeding from the public trough for twenty years, fattening the bosom of his trousers. It is time that the voters of this commonwealth rise up in indignation and turn him out to pasture and elevate to office men who won’t jump down their throats and gallop their insides out.”

Whether we agree with the speaker or not, we admit it’s pretty pert language, We figure maybe he is right, but for the moment the mention of feeding has suggested something and soon we take ourselves over to the pits to see how Bluebill is getting along with the beef, which has been roasting over the hickory fire for fourteen hours. Taking his cue from the orator, Bluebill dabs on more hot stuff, dressing it down with the same vigor the candidate uses on his opponent.

There is always an outsider who doesn’t know any better than to ask Blue bill for his mopping sauce recipe. His answer is as evasive as it is voluble. He recites it like a grocery list: vinegar, bay leaves, lemon, paprika, pickling spice, onions and garlic. To make it “good and delicious” Bluebill says go heavy on the garlic and paprika. If he is really annoyed by the questioning, he will recommend the generous use of a butter substitute as the base for his concoction. If only mildly so he will suggest cow butter. Catch him off guard when things are going well in the pits, and Bluebill will admit that he, himself, uses nothing but chicken fat.

Bluebill, having made what he calls his “politeness” turns to mopping his beef, and the bewildered recipe-seeker has to listen once more to the politician who, at this time, is working up to the climax punch. In a moment he will let us have it with both fists and leave us groggy and hanging on the ropes. Recoiling from the political punches, a neighbor asks us to have a drink of his best corn liquor, and we don’t care if we do. The candidates, wilted and weary from their efforts on the speakers’ stand, likewise have a good stiff one back in the bushes.

Meanwhile there is a mass movement toward the long table. Dicey paddles over from the edge of the clearing and gets there just as Bluebill draws a blade across the first outside piece. Some of our own women lay off cooing at the babies and line up behind the table to make the same woman-noise over the cakes and potato salad. For our part, we pass up all such trimmings. Armed with a slice of bread and a hand quicker than Bluebill’s knife, we aim for the outside piece, and make it.

The crowd gives way a little for the speakers to be served. After having bethumped each other with hard words, the candidates chat over their food as though it had miraculously brought them to terms. We ourselves share a dipper of spring water with a man we never liked and politics for the moment is forgotten. Even a Mississippi man just can’t keep on devouring barbecued beat and political speeches without gradually losing appetite. But we sorta have to stick around in the afternoon to hear our neighbors who are running for local office. We sit back to watch their antics and stay ready to have a good time if they work up a spat about something. Actually, what’s on our minds is the need for getting along home to see about the stock. It’s a far piece and we want to be there before first dark.