The dinner last month at the Historic Arkansas Museum in downtown Little Rock had sold out quickly. It was billed as "Catfish Tales in Four Courses" and featured food prepared by Scott Rains of Table 28 in Little Rock. Ben "Swamp Donkey" Brenner provided the music, and Rock Town Distillery provided the drinks. The event was part of HAM's Arkansas Foodways Dinner Series.
My task was to provide a toast to the catfish, which long has been a part of our Arkansas culture. My toast went like this: "Here's to the noble catfish, the king of the Arkansas waterways. Thanks for providing us sustenance and good times. Long live King Cat."
Earlier this year, the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame proclaimed catfish as the 2019 Arkansas Food of the Year. During the Food Hall of Fame's induction banquet, Arkansas writer and historian Cindy Grisham noted: "A true food of the people, catfish is consumed with relish by everyone regardless of race or class. It can be found on the finest menus in the most exclusive restaurants as well as in just about every small-town diner and roadside convenience store. ... Crispy, onion-tinged hushpuppies are a staple across the state, although many folks prefer a simple slab of crusty cornbread. But the rest of the plate is a bit more of a problem. Coleslaw is a popular side item whether its dressing is creamy or the more tangy vinegar-based kind. Beans are always a hit with soupy pintos fighting for the right to sit on the plate with sweet, sticky baked beans. A relish of some sort is needed, and that can range from cabbage-based chow-chow to sweet-and-spicy green tomato relish."
I was fortunate to have four grandparents who all lived into their 90s and all lived in Arkansas. They understood the importance of catfish.
My grandparents on my father's side had a small cabin on Lake Norrell, the water-supply lake for the city of Benton. It's where I learned to put stink bait (Catfish Charlie was our brand of choice) on a hook. It's where I learned to bait a trotline with chicken livers or the meat from the mussels we had gathered at Peeler Bend on the Saline River. It's where I learned to bait Clorox jugs with the tiny bream my grandmother had caught off the dock with a cane pole. We would check those jugs late at night after gigging frogs around the lake. Finding a catfish on one was among my great thrills as a boy. Lake Norrell is also where I learned to tie a catfish to a tree and then pull down its skin with pair of pliers.
My grandparents on my mother's side lived at Des Arc on the lower White River. This is a state where most of the best restaurants once advertised "White River catfish" in the era before fish farms. I would walk a block from my grandparents' house on Erwin Street to the fish market on Main Street and watch the commercial fishermen bring in the catfish and buffalo fish they had pulled in that day from the White and Cache rivers. My grandfather often would send me on my way with the admonition to "have them put me back a few of those fiddlers." That was his term for the small catfish that my grandmother would fry whole.
My father loved all kinds of fishing--catfish, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, bream, crappie. Whatever he caught, he cooked outside in a fish cooker connected to a propane tank. He would line up three brown paper grocery sacks next to the cooker--one for the fish, one for the fried potatoes and one for the hushpuppies. When he died in 2011, we held an all-you-can-eat catfish fry in the fellowship hall of the First Baptist Church of Arkadelphia. Dorey Catering of Leola fixed the food, and we put a floral arrangement into the large iron pot in which he had cooked fish through the decades.
As you can see, the catfish culture runs deep in my family. My newspaper work and my work in politics have allowed me to travel the state on a regular basis and experience catfish in restaurants. I miss the places that are gone, such as Kreg's at Arkadelphia, Spruell's Cafe at Doddridge in far southwest Arkansas and the Georgetown One Stop on the banks of the White River.
Meanwhile, I treasure the classics that are still with us such as Murry's near Hazen, the Lassis Inn at Little Rock, the Whippet at Prattsville, the Fish Net at Caddo Valley, Leon's at Pine Bluff, Mack's at Heber Springs, Fred's at Mammoth Spring, Catfish Island at Colt, Catfish N on the banks of the Arkansas River at Dardanelle, Dondie's on the banks of the White River at Des Arc, Gene's at Brinkley and both Westshore and Doc's at Garland where U.S. 82 crosses the Red River. There also are the countless meat-and-three plate-lunch spots across the state that serve fried catfish each Friday.
Don't forget the dozens of local festivals and political events that feature fried catfish. In 1998, I managed the campaign of Gov. Mike Huckabee. I had traveled with him to events on three consecutive nights, and we had eaten catfish each time. On the fourth night, I stayed behind at the campaign headquarters in Little Rock. When I saw his cell phone number pop up that evening, I feared an emergency. I answered immediately, and the governor simply said: "Well, we broke the streak tonight. We had barbecue for supper."
You won't last long in Arkansas politics if you don't like catfish. I once heard former Sen. David Pryor, the consummate Arkansas politician, say: "When I'm gone, if they cut me open, they won't find anything but a bunch of old catfish bones."
Hail to King Cat. Long may he reign over the Arkansas culinary scene.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 05/01/2019