Catfish has a bad reputation that goes back millennia.
In the Jewish tradition, catfish is considered traif, non-kosher, because it lacks scales. Catfish is also considered unworthy of consumption by some in the Islamic tradition.
Catfish may be avoided by even the non-religious because it’s can sometimes be a bottom-feeder, which may suggest it’s vile, nasty and unclean. Some people say catfish tastes like dirt, and some wild can have a certain, um, funk. Such potentially off-putting flavors are not present in catfish that’s farm raised, and most of the catfish we eat is raised on a farm.
The reputation of catfish was further tarnished during the colonial period in the United States when slave labor was deployed to harvest the fish. Like so many foods associated with this tragic period of American history, catfish eventually found a place on soul food platters, alongside greens and chitterlings, usually breaded and fried.
In the online age, negative connotations continue, as “catfish” is a term applied to someone who creates a fake online identity intended to deceive and defraud unsuspecting strangers.
Catfish seems not to ever catch a break.
Still, I like catfish and much prefer it to the more commonly available and largely tasteless whitefish and tilapia. Not slamming these other two fish, which provide a largely inoffensive and blank canvas for whatever sauce or spice you add, but neither brings a heckuva lot to the table. Catfish, on the other hand, does bring a lot to the table, with enough meatiness and taste to stand up to a splash or two of hot sauce and other aggressive condiments.
In Oak Park, you can scarf blackened catfish at Poor Phil’s, and I like the version they do there.
The best catfish I’ve had recently, however, was further south, in Tupelo, Mississippi. I was in town for the Tupelo Elvis Festival and sought in vain for some of Elvis’ favorite foods, like Fool’s Gold Sandwiches (French bread hollowed t and filled with bacon, peanut butter and of jelly) or perhaps Coca-Cola Jello. Alas, in this health-conscious age of ours, such regal delicacies are no longer available even in the King’s ancestral homeland.
On our last night in Tupelo, however, we stopped in at The Stables, one of many fine little restaurants in a town once considered a culinary backwater. Friendly fellow diners at adjoining tables strongly suggested we get the Catfish Nachos, so we did. This version of what is probably the most common and popular fish in the American South featured chunks of catfish spread over the fried corn chips, with melted cheese, sour cream, parsley flakes and Sriracha. Less full-bodied fish would crumble and disintegrate; less tasty fish would be lost among the other flavorful ingredients, but the catfish held its own. This might have been my favorite catfish presentation, and super-easy to make at home on National Catfish Day, June 25.