Nothing says summer in the South like a plateful of golden fried catfish
Story Shannon Bardwell | Photographs Luisa Porter
Mississippi is the largest producer of farm-raised catfish in the U.S., and most of the one hundred or so catfish operations are divided between the Delta and the Black Prairie region. That makes an old-fashioned fish fry about as Southern a gathering as it gets.
The menu is sure to include fried catfish with tartar sauce, hot sauce or ketchup, French fries, coleslaw and crispy brown hush puppies. And no fry is complete without homemade baked goods and sweet tea (or a cold brew).
While Lowndes County resident Benny Kyle tends to the sizzling hot oil, his wife, Linda, is prompted for Benny’s cooking secrets.
“The cooking oil has to stay at a constant 375 degrees,” she says, “so a deep-fry thermometer is a must. In fact, if Benny were to forget that thermometer, I’d be on the way back to the house to get it. It’s that important.
“Benny always uses farm-raised catfish called a 3-5 ounce split filet, because bigger is not better. With a whole catfish there’s a lot of waste. Catfish has a tasty mild flavor and is firm enough to withstand the frying.”
When asked about the breading ingredients Linda says, “Besides yellow cornmeal, the spices are a big secret. He gets those from a private individual.”
Linda suggests, “Use paper plates not plastic because the fish is so hot it’ll melt the plastic. Also bring plenty of paper towels to line aluminum pans and layer the fish, keeping good air circulation so the fish won’t sweat and get soggy.”
THE CALDWELL CLAN
Bob Caldwell also cooks catfish on a grand scale, and he will tell you the family that cooks together not only stays together but has a really good time. While Bob hovers over three cookers simultaneously frying fish, French fries and hushpuppies, his youngest daughter, Aubrey Grace, is busy breading fish. Daughter Mary Beth hustles back and forth between cookers and serving tables.
By the time the cookers get fired up, Bob’s wife, Elizabeth, has coleslaw preparations well underway. When asked if she’d share her recipe Elizabeth laughs, “I would if I could, but I’m kind of a dump cook. I start with the basics, but after that I throw in a little of this and a little of that. Also, you can’t really stir that much coleslaw with a spoon, so I use my hands.”
Bob uses peanut oil for the best flavor. Occasionally a party guest may have peanut allergies. Usually he is told in advance and will accommodate with a separate fryer as well as sliding in a chicken if a guest is not a fish eater.
Like Benny, Bob uses locally grown catfish. Bob calls up Alice down at Superior Catfish Products in Macon about a week ahead of time. Alice makes sure the fish is seined that morning, prepared, put on ice, and waiting for him.
“This fish is never frozen, and that makes for a better tasting fish. It’s caught in the morning, and less than 24 hours later it’s served up hot on the plate.”
When the Caldwell crew is asked if they’ve ever encountered anything unusual they think hard, then Aubrey Grace pipes up, “Oh yes, the ring!”
The family laughs; obviously there’s a family tale.
Aubrey Grace continues, “Once we were cooking for some guys, when one of them bit down on Mom’s ring. It wasn’t her wedding ring but a big ring that got lost in the coleslaw.”
Elizabeth blushes, “I do like to stir the coleslaw with my hands.”
Bob points to a box of disposable gloves. “Now I make sure she wears those.”