(Once again, I am back to the blog in anticipation of the 21st Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium, coming in just a couple of weeks. Over those weeks I’ll be re-living the meals and mood of last year’s Symposium, El Sur Latino, by way of these written reflections.)
From toddler days through college years, much of the time I spent at my maternal grandparents’ house was on the golf course at the Redmont Country Club (in Red Bay, Alabama). My grandfather, Pappy, was a pretty decent golfer; when it came to long drives, however, I was more interested in the cart than the club. But my golf course memories actually have very little to do with golf, because most of that time we were fishing. There’s no telling how many hours my brother and I spent out there with Pappy and Ma-Manie, our great-grandmother, who absolutely loved to fish. In the early days we fished on the lakes for bream, maybe some bass. Later, they built another lake, and it was there that I first came across the catfish.
Generally, Pappy did all the hands-on work once Younger Brother and I reeled them in – he didn’t want us to get cut by the fins, and that was perfectly fine by us. Once they were cleaned (again, Pappy), Granny took over and handled the frying: usually whole fish coated in cornmeal and scored into finger-sized segments. Oh, and she cooked it in the same oil every time. (Fun fact: Granny passed away in 2013, and she had probably not fried fish since sometime shortly after Y2K. Not long ago, after much wondering aloud about where it may have ended up, we found her cast iron pot in a corner of her outside kitchen…still full of grease. We opted not to fry in it.)
Of course this was long before aquaculture (a fancy word for catfish farming) became one of Mississippi’s top five agricultural products (netstate.com). And long before I was introduced to Taylor Grocery and some of the fine folks from Simmons Catfish. Over the past few years, thanks to the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium, those introductions have turned into friendships.
Okay, I don’t know if you can have a friendship with a catfish joint, but I do like spending time with it. Or in it, as the case may be. Son even had some of his senior pictures made there. In all the years I’ve gone to the SFA Symposium, we’ve been bussed out to Taylor for the Friday evening meal. At first it was just a big plate of fresh-fried catfish with all the trimmings, and that was enough. For folks like me who attended the Ole Alma Mater, it is a nostalgic trip (made even more so by the school bus style of carpooling.) For those coming from out of town, out of state, and outside of the South, it provides a true taste of an Oxford institution. In the past few years, however, the organizers have upped the ante, adding a couple of appetizer stations outside the restaurant.
I’m not talking about fried cheese and wings here, people. Not that kind of appetizer. These are special. The chefs who are invited to make these have essentially one guideline: they have to use the Simmons Catfish Delacata cut. I’ve talked about this cut before, but let’s review. The Delacata is a deep-skinned filet cut from the center, thickest part of the fish. It’s skinless, boneless, hand-trimmed, and mild in flavor – sort of the filet mignon of the catfish.
Lis Hernandez, Chef-Owner of Arepa Mia in Atlanta, was manning the first station we came to. Again, a quick review. An arepa is a sandwich made from a corn cake that is split and stuffed with all kinds of deliciousness. Chef Lis is originally from Venezuela, where she learned to make arepas from her mom. A few years ago she served us breakfast arepas at the symposium, and I fell in love. Just this year I was able to make it to one of her two Arepa Mia restaurants in Atlanta. I’m a big fan. On this night she made Delacata arepas, with a piece of the fried fish, jalapeno pico, cilantro sauce, lettuce and tomato. Ours came right off the grill, piping hot and could have almost served as a small meal of its own. That didn’t stop me, of course, and I didn’t leave a single crumb.
Up on the porch, Chef Jesus Carmona from Tacos Mariachi in Dallas, was dishing out Delacata tostadas. I haven’t been to Dallas in a few years, but after taking a look at his menu, I think a trip may be in order. He offers all the normal fillings like chicken, pork, steak, and tongue. For the more daring, there are also tacos with grilled marinated octopus and huitlacoche (Mexican corn truffle, aka corn smut). I also noted mole fries and pork chicharron-crusted cod. I already know my order. For Symposium attendees he grilled the Delacata and dressed it with avocado crema, a dab of pico-like relish, and a generous portion of cilantro. It was crunchy, creamy, and salty all in one great bite.
For those who travel, particularly those who eat while you travel – or like me, those who travel to eat – consider this column a travel guide. East to Atlanta for arepas, West to Dallas for all manner of tacos, north to Oxford for catfish and the trimmings, and south of the border to see where El Sur Latino was born. And please save a seat for me.