Claiborne, Catfish, and The Cock of the Walk

In 1981 catfish farming was booming, nowhere more so than right around Craig Claiborne’s hometown of Indianola, Mississippi. Claiborne was invited home to take a look at the catfish farms by Turner Arant, who built his first catfish pond in 1962. Arant helped organize Delta Pride Catfish Processors, Delta Western, Farmers Grain Terminal, Community Bank, and served on the board of each of these companies.

“(Claiborne) visited here in my home and I got my wife (Sybil) to prepare catfish for him four different ways,” Arant said. Claiborne returned to his home in East Hampton, where in addition to good ol’ fried catfish and hushpuppies, he and Pierre Franey worked up recipes for catfish meunière, catfish au vin blanc, and catfish Grenobloise.

Before he left Mississippi, Claiborne visited the Cock of the Walk in Ridgeland, Mississippi, which had opened the previous year. Claiborne reviewed the restaurant in a November column, declaring, “During my recent visit to Mississippi, I ate in what might be the best catfish restaurant in the state, and therefore the nation.” The Cock of the Walk holds the distinction of being the only Mississippi restaurant ever reviewed by her native son in The New York Times .

INDIANOLA, Miss.—Like most Southerners, I adore catfish. I remember that half a century and more ago my family would drive to the banks of Four Mile Lake near here and unload a picnic hamper. Gliding about on the water were small pleasure boats, many of whose passengers dangled fishing lines from cane poles, hoping a catfish would nibble. In the crystal-clear water, the lines could be seen all the way to the bottom. Many of the men word white linen suits and black string ties, and some wore white straw hats or boaters with wide brims. Some of the women carried parasols to guard their skin against that burning Mississippi sun.

Over the years catfish has remained a Southern regional specialty. But lately, thanks in large part to the abundant supply produced by catfish farms,” it has become more widely available. (Catfish will be available later this work at Shopwell Food Emporiums at 1331 First Avenue (71st Street), 1458 York Avenue (79th Street) and 1052 First Avenue (57th Street) in New York and 261 Ridge Street in Rye.)

I’m not certain that my mother, who was a marvelous cook, ever prepared catfish at home: she was too aristocratic for that. Red snapper, yes, it was basted for an hour or longer with a Creole tomato sauce made with chopped green peppers, chopped onion and celery (a friend of mine once called the combination of chopped peppers, onion and celery the holy trinity of Creole cocking). But catfish was too common, something to be enjoyed outdoors, as at those Sunday outings.

Eating deep-fried catfish was a ritual. The cooking was done in large metal kettles that were heated with long-burning logs. When the fat in the vats was extremely hot, the pieces of catfish were dredged in a blend of com meal (always white, never yellow). salt and pepper. When they were dropped into the fat, the vessel be. came a bubbling caldron until the fish were ready to be removed with perforated spoons and set to drain A catfish menu was and is today always the same: the com-meal coated catfish with its golden-brown crusty exterior and moist white inner flesh; deep-fried hush puppies, deep-fried potatoes and coleslaw. And tomato ketchup. Deep-fried catfish without ketchup is like a hot dog without mustard.

In the course of a recent visit to my hometown here, deep in the heart of the Mississippi Delta about 100 miles south of Memphis, I discovered that many of the farmers in the region are moving into the field of pisciculture converting their cotton and soybean acres into ponds that produce some of the sweetest-fleshed catfish in America. I would go so far as to say that it is the finest freshwater fish in America, including pike and carp. It is the equal of most saltwater fish, including lemon or gray sole. Fillets of catfish can be used in almost any recipe calling for a white nonoily fish.

In days gone by, the catfish that was eaten in this country was channel catfish that had spawned and thrived in muddy river waters. It was said that the catfish smacked of the waters in which it had swum, and this was true. The catfish that is raised in freshwater ponds is wholly different, remarkable not only for its flavor and texture but also for its non-fishy characteristics. Even after it is frozen and de frosted it remains snow white and as firm as when taken from the water.

During a visit to a fish-raising enterprise known as Delta Catfish, I was taken to numerous ponds for a look at the product known as Delta Pride. The ponds, which measure 20 acres square and are four or five feet deep, are filled with the fresh water for which the Mississippi Delta is famous.

The fish get a commercially prepared feed that is about 35 percent protein and no longer feed on the bottom. They are taken from the ponds directly to a surgically clean processing plant where they are skinned by machine. They are shipped around the country either fresh or frozen-whole, cut into steaks or as fillets. A Delta Catfish spokesman estimated that his company would produce 100 million pounds this year. Though Mississippi is by far the longest producer for the retail market, there are also farms in Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and Texas.

When I returned from Mississippi, I brought with me about 30 pounds of frozen catfish filets.  After they were defrosted overnight, Pierre Franey and I experimented over the next few days. converting them into many appetizing creations, from deep-fried catfish with hush puppies to catfish meunière and Grenobloise, and catfish in a white wine sauce. We also duplicated a dish I had dined on in a country home near Sunflower: catfish baked with cheese, the recipe of Sybil Arant.

Catfish Meunière

4 catfish fillets, about 2 pounds
¼ cup milk 4 cup flour
Salt to taste, If desired
Freshly ground pepper to taste y cup peanut, vegetable or com oll
tablespoons butter
Juice of ½ lemon
4 seeded lemon slices
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley.

  1. Dredge the fillets in milk. Lift the fillets one at a time from the milk and immediately dredge on all sides in flour seasoned with salt and pepper to taste.
  2. Heat the oil in a skillet until quite hot. Add the fillets in one layer and cook about three minutes on one side or until golden brown. Turn and cook, basting often and liberally with oil, about six minutes.
  3. Transfer the fillets to a warm serving dish. Pour off the oil from the skillet. Wipe out the pan.
  4. Add the butter to the skillet and when it is foaming and starting to brown, swirl it around and pour it over the fish. Sprinkle with the lemon juice. Garnish the fish with lemon slices and sprinkle with parsley. Yield: 4 servings.

Catfish Grenobloise

Follow the recipe for catfish meunière, but add one quarter cup drained capers to the butter as it is being heated to pour over the fish.

Catfish Filets in White Wine Sauce

6 catfish fillets, about 2 pounds
5 tablespoons butter
½ cup dry white wine
½ pound mushrooms, thinly sliced, about 2 cups
Salt to taste, If desired
Freshly ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons flour cup milk
Juice of a lemon
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Pat the catfish pieces dry. Rub a baking dish (a dish measuring about 2 by 13 by 8 inches is ideal) with one tablespoon of the butter. Arrange the fillets over the buttered dish in one layer.
  3. Add the wine. Scatter the mushrooms over all and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Place in the oven and bake 10 minutes.
  4. Meanwhile, melt the remaining butter in a saucepan and add the flour, stirring with a wire whisk. Add the milk, stirring with the whisk. When blended and smooth, remove from the heat.
  5. Pour the liquid from the baked fish into the sauce, stirring. Bring to the boil and cook, stirring often, about five minutes. Stir in the lemon juice. Pour the sauce over the fish and bake 10 minutes longer. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and parsley. Serve hot. Yield: 6 servings.

Deep-Fried Catfish

3 catfish fillets, about 1 pound
Fresh corn oil to cover cup white cornmeal
Salt to taste, if desired
Freshly ground pepper to taste
Lemon halves
Tomato ketchup
Hush Puppies (see recipe).

  1. Heat the oil for deep frying. 2. Cut each fillet in half crosswise.
  2. Combine the cornmeal, salt and pepper.
  3. Dredge the fillets in the cornmeal. Pat to make the cornmeal adhere. Drop the fillets in the oil and cook five to 10 minutes or until crisp and brown. Serve with lemon halves, ketchup and hush puppies. Yield: 2 to 4 servings.

Mustard-Fried Catfish

Follow the recipe for deep-fried catfish, but brush the pieces on all sides with mustard before dredging in cornmeal.

Hush Puppies

1½ cups white cornmeal 4 teaspoons flour 2 teaspoons baking powder
Salt to taste, if desired 1 tablespoon sugar ½ cup grated onion
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 cup rapidly boiling water
Fresh corn oil to cover.

  1. Combine the cornmeal, flour. baking powder, salt, sugar, grated onion and egg and blend well. Add the water rapidly while stirring. The water must be boiling when added.
  2. Heat the oil to 370 degrees. Drop the mixture by rounded spoonfuls into the oil. Cook until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Yield: About 36.

Sybil Arant’s Catfish Baked with Cheese

6 to 8 cattish fillets, about 2 pounds
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
½ cup flour
Salt to taste, if desired
Freshly ground pepper to taste
1 teaspoon paprika
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon milk
½ cup melted butter, sliced almonds.

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Wipe the catfish dry.
  3. Blend together the cheese, flour, salt, pepper and paprika.
  4. Combine the egg and milk in a flat dish.
  5. Dip the fillets in the egg mixture and then coat with the cheese mixture. Arrange the fillets in one layer in a biking dish and pour the butter over al. Sprinkle with the almonds. Place in the oven and bake 20 minutes. Yield: 6 to 8 servings