The ways of eating catfish

Published 6:01 am Sunday, August 23, 2009

The way to the heart of the Black Belt’s thriving catfish industry leads west from Selma on Highway 80, running by Marion Junction and Browns. Leaving Highway 80 for County Road 21, the road narrows, with the view on either side making a positive comment for Black Belt tourism.

Late one recent afternoon, cumulus clouds billowed above the busy highway, rising high over head in enormous gray and white fluffs, parting occasionally to allow blue and gold rays of the setting sun to gently touch rolling green pastures, verdant with summer growth. Fenced black Angus cattle grazed over the rich grass, occasionally lifting their heads to observe the passing traffic.

Beyond the fields, the landscape is dotted with oval ponds, reflecting mirror-like the sky, the water rippling in the slight breeze. These, the passerby notes, are the homes of the fish that make Alabama No. 2 in the United States in annual catfish sales.

Far back from the road a few houses were noted, set amid the continuing natural beauty of the landscape. Within a few miles, the narrowing road turns into the driveway of the early 1800s Weissinger House, now occupied by the seventh generation of the family, Dean “Butch” and Ginger Weissinger Wilson.

In old-time hospitality, with smiles and hand-shaking welcome, the Wilsons, Bobbie and Jim Whidby and Jimmy Pickens of Auburn rush from the outdoor courtyard to greet arrivals, urging them to “Come on over where the catfish is cooking.”

Fragrance wafted irresistibly from the grill where Butch Wilson was in charge and from the deep-fat fryer, tended by Jim Whidby, his best friend and general manager of Alabama Catfish Feedmill LLC in Uniontown. Standing by, lending a hand lifting and carrying were four young men, Auburn University students, who are engaged in a project directed by Auburn Extension Specialist Jesse Chappell.

“This is an approach to growing fish in an indoor setting to give a year-round growing season,” he explains. “Dean Wilson’s catfish farms are the demonstration project.”

The door from the terrace opened into the bright, informal kitchen, where an oversized oak table was set with colorful rooster mats, coordinating with the brilliant, pottery rooster centerpiece, surrounded by a dozen or so miniature-sized roosters.

Large platters of catfish, some fried and some grilled, were brought in by Wilson and Whidby. “We use so much disposable goods because we don’t have to be fancy. I believe in keeping it simple, the food is the important thing,” Ginger Wilson says.

The table was filled people who soon emptied their plates of the delicious food: grilled catfish filet basted with special pepper sauce; crunchy hush puppies; casino filets, crunchy with a special coating; and freshly-made coleslaw. Soon, the line formed for refills. Eating with a hearty appetite are the Wilson children and grandchildren: Willard and Dea Wilson Powe with Trey and Carrie Lea Powe; Travis and Keisha Wilson with Trevor and Cole. At one end of the table sat special guest Robert Gordon, near the Auburn University crew: Chappell, Matt Godbee, Matt Wilson and Jeremy Pickens, leaving enough room for the chefs and servers.

“We keep our meals simple,” the Wilsons and Whidbys say, “using some favorite recipes and foods we enjoy. We keep our shopping simple, buying fish filets at the supermarket cut in half lengthwise (casino strips), and Winn-Dixie baked beans and coleslaw are delicious.”

Today, they share favorite recipes:

Jim Whidby’s PEPPER SAUCE

Half cup soy sauce

Half cup Worstershire Sauce

One cup vinegar

Quarter cup lemon juice

Two teaspoons black pepper

Two teaspoons cayenne pepper

Two teaspoons white pepper

Two teaspoons garlic powder

Melt butter in a pan and add all seasonings listed. Simmer for five or 10 minutes.

Set aside until fish is grilled. May be refrigerated for long periods of time.

GRILLING FISH

Take three or four catfish fillets and lightly season both sides with lemon pepper and Tony Cachere’s seasoning. Place fillets on a Pam-coated grilling surface and grill catfish on medium to high heat. After turning fish the first time, begin basting them with the pepper sauce (recipe above). Baste at least two times on each side.

“Frying catfish is so simple,” said Joe Whidby. “You have to have a good batter and grease heated to 360 degrees, preferably use peanut oil that has a higher burning point than vegetable oil. Cook for seven or eight minutes to give a crunchy finish.”

BATTER

The Wilsons and Whidbys use Louisiana Seasoned Fish Fry, obtainable at Winn-Dixie, to coat the fish filets for that desired crunchy finish.

GINGER WILSON’S HUSH PUPPIES

1 1/2 cups self-rising cornmeal

Half cup self-rising flour

Half teaspoon salt, or more if desired

Two eggs

One to 1 1/2 cups buttermilk

One large onion, chopped

Mix ingredients and let set for 15 minutes. Heat oil to 350 degrees. Drop by spoonfuls into hot oil until done and golden.

ALABAMA FARM-RAISED CATFISH SALAD SUPREME

Eight catfish fillets

Salt, pepper and garlic powder

One can (16 ounces) chicken broth

One large green pepper finely chopped

One small onion, finely chopped

One cup finely chopped celery

Half cup sliced black olives

One avocado, finely chopped

Two ripe tomatoes, finely chopped

One cup finely chopped carrots (optional)

8-ounce bottle lime juice

8-ounce bottle Heinz zesty cocktail sauce.

Cut fillets into half-inch cubes and season with salt, pepper and garlic powder. Pour chicken broth into sauté pan and bring to simmer. Cook catfish in broth for 3 minutes, or until it flakes easily. Remove from broth and place in glass bowl. Pour lime juice over cooked fish and chill 45 minutes. Drain lime juice from fish. Mix in all vegetables and seafood sauce to combine thoroughly and keep refrigerated.

Serve over lettuce leaves as salad or with crackers as an appetizer.