Catfish tales

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

A long-time aficionada of the succulent white meat of Ictalurus Punctatus, I was delighted several years ago to be invited to join the Loyal Order of Catfish Lovers. For $5 I’d get a badge, bumper sticker, newsletter, membership card, and instructions for the secret LOCL handshake from The Catfish Institute (a marketing association, not a school of fish).

What a deal! The packet came promptly as promised.

All right, so I had to write my own name on the blank membership card; that doesn’t mean I carry it less proudly. Belonging to this fraternity (the local unit is called a pond) also qualified me for the annual drawing for “a trip for two to beautiful Belzoni, Mississippi, for the World Catfish Festival.”

I skipped the T-shirt proclaiming me “a person with discernment, taste, and a healthy appetite,” but I wear my LOCL badge, with the Order’s motto, Sic Semper Whiskers. And on my bumper next to “Give Blood”: “Honk if you love catfish!”

My first Prime Times newsletter arrived (Belzoni’s tasty export is called Mississippi Prime), featuring Willard Scott, the world’s first celebrity catfish lover, and an interview with Miss Rhonda McFarland, 21, the 1989 World Catfish Queen.

No, really. She was an attractive young lady with absolutely no whiskers, but an awful poem: “If you don’t eat catfish, then please don’t brag/Because we will wonder if you even salute the flag...”

There was also a puzzle, several recipes, and a nutrition profile showing that a 3.5 oz. catfish fillet has only 128 calories, 33 mg. of cholesterol, 1.5 mg. of saturated fat, and 100 mg. of Omega-3.

I loved it.

Wait. There’s a postscript to the story.

On a trip West, approaching Old Man River, I spotted Belzoni on the map and begged Dave to take a short detour. No lover of catfish, he was less than ecstatic, but he does love me, and turned north at Jackson. The “short detour” was about 75 miles.

The scenery was bleak, the landscape flat. I should have sensed something was fishy when I noticed that the source of 75 percent of all the catfish sold in the United States was not even mentioned in the AAA tour guide.

Nonetheless, I visualized catfish billboards, catfish restaurants on every corner, catfish souvenir shops, and a prosperous town where the celebration of catfish goes on night and day. And I wanted to see the “royal pond in front of classic Humphreys County Courthouse, (where) King Cat plays host every April to the ANNUAL WORLD CATFISH FESTIVAL.”

My heart leaped like a fish for a fly when I saw the sign: “Welcome to Humphreys County, Catfish Capital of the World.” I had reached Mecca.

Wrong. Bad wrong. Belzoni, Miss. is the epitome of dreary, just a shabby little industrial town, with three dingy downtown streets. The royal pond was a dried-up puddle in front of a large yellow-brick courthouse. Empty bottles and junk lined windows with their blinds askew.

Only two restaurants in sight. One was The Varsity. The other, Sunny’s Drive-in, its huge sign proclaiming, “Our burgers contain 100% beef.”

I found City Hall and asked about The Catfish Institute. They suggested I try the development authority and told me where it was. Found only an old depot and a boxcar next to it being remodeled, but no sign to identify it.

I finally went into the library — librarians are always helpful — and Shirley certainly tried. She called the development authority: no answer. She called somebody she said is known locally as Mr. Catfish, but he’s in Texas this week. On catfish business.

Cathy Allison’s restaurant serves catfish; Shirley called her, but she closes at 2 p.m. and doesn’t reopen until 5:30 local time, and it was then about 3 o’clock our time.

“There is a lot going on here,” Shirley insisted apologetically, “just not right now.” She finally told me where The Catfish Institute is and I found a handsome white-haired lady in a neat office who was also apologetic for Belzoni’s lack of — anything.

She said she didn’t know why I’m no longer getting Prime Times, except that the P.R. firm they use in New York must not be sending it out anymore.

I told her, as I did Shirley, that I had expected more of Belzoni, at least postcards to send home. She gave me a new cookbook and directions toward Indianola and assurances that there were catfish farms and restaurants up that way.

What a missed opportunity for Belzoni, Miss.

Celebrate National Catfish Month anyway. Poach it in white wine, grill with cajun seasoning, stir-fry, or coat in crushed pecans and baked. Cook and chill it, then marinate in vinegar and herbs for a summer salad, or toss with artichokes and tomatoes over steaming pasta. Fix Catfish Caribbean or Catfish en Papillote.

I like broiled best, although microwaved with lemon juice and fresh herbs is delicious. If you must fry it, flour or cornmeal the fish very lightly and brown it in the least amount of olive oil you can get away with.

Just don’t plan on celebrating in The Catfish Capital of the World.

[Sallie Satterthwaite has been a columnist for The Citizen since its first issue in February 1993. Reach her at sallies@juno.com.]