by Kat Robinson | Photography by Jamison Mosley
Arkansas, like much of the south, loves a mess of catfish. Native Americans caught, smoked and consumed the whisker-clad catch, and immigrants quickly adopted it into their menus, particularly those of Catholic descent who incorporated it as the main dish on Fridays when meat was not consumed. In fact, the Friday night catfish feed has become ingrained into our Natural State menu.
Whether it’s Friday or any other day, the side dishes are almost universal — hush puppies made from cornmeal, often with bits of onion or corn within; slices of onion; fries and green tomato relish. Some restaurants add in a bowl of beans or coleslaw, or both.
This month, we have cast our nets and hope to have you hooked on all of the things catfish we have concocted, featuring some mouth-watering recipes and AY About You’s latest bucket list: the Arkansas Catfish Bucket List.
You Catch It, They Cook It
Want to enjoy all the outdoors has to offer, but aren’t keen on preparing your own meal? Here are four places around Arkansas where you can have your catch prepared for you.
Catch your own trout with provided equipment at Bear Creek Springs, then sit down to dinner at the restaurant right across the street and enjoy your catch. The DeVito family’s long-running trout farm provides excellent fish that can be prepared a number of ways.
Want to enjoy an old-fashioned shore lunch? Trout guide David Capps and his crew will take your party out on the White River to fish, then serve up your catch, pan-fried, along with all the fixings, right alongside the river.
Whether you’ve scored a mess of trout along the White River, caught walleye or bass or even catfish on Bull Shoals Lake, you can bring in your catch at Gaston’s White River Resort and have it cooked up and served broiled, pan-seared or fried, with your choice of sauces.
Three Ouachita Fishing Guides are available to show you the best places to find catfish, crappie, walleye, bass and striper on Lake Ouachita — and they’ll even cook your catch for you.
– Hushpuppies – The Grady Fish Fry
When speaking of hushpuppies, it’s important for one to be aware of a grand gathering each August in the little burg of Grady, just off of US Highway 65. There, at E.C. “Ned” Hardin’s farmstead on the third Thursday in August, hundreds consume catfish, fries, slaw and melon together while reconnecting with Grady-ites and politicians and listening to the sound of the Cummins Prison Band.
This is the Grady Fish Fry — a 60 plus-year tradition that funds scholarships for area students and draws attendees from all over the state. A longstanding wood beamed pavilion stands over dozens of men who in turn hover over deep fryers with slotted metal spatulas and spider baskets, pulling round after round of cornmeal-coated catfish out onto trays. Those are then placed on tables with tongs for attendees to pick up and put on plates given them by the same ladies, every year, ladies who grant each person that plate with a napkin, utensils and a smile. It may be 90 or 100 degrees or more, but the smiles never wane.
At the end of the pavilion stands a marvelous contraption constructed by the late M.E. Argo, a machinist and Grady Lions Club member. He created the hushpuppy machine back in the 1950s in his welding shop. Batter is fed into one end of the machine, which dribbles precise amounts into hot grease at the other. White-clad men in aprons with paddles in hand shepherd the pups down a trench, turning them, ensuring all achieve the perfect deep orangish-brown before they’re swept up in a basket and deposited in a metal bowl to be taken to stations out on the lawn. The hush puppies are sweet, savory and addictive.
The men who watch over the hush puppies, and many of those who pass through the crowds serving more fish, are actually prisoners from the Arkansas Department of Corrections, men who have received a day furlough and the promise of good eatin’ in exchange for good behavior. The situation is beneficial to both the prisoners and to the Grady Lions Club, the membership of which has dwindled over the years. Free labor in exchange for one of the most iconic feasts in the Arkansas Delta seems a fair trade.
The Grady Fish Fry is a must-stop for politicians running for state office, a yang to the yin of January’s famed Gillett Coon Supper, and in an election year, many will greet you as you enter and come sit with you to chat while you dine.
Recipes for the Catfish Lover
Recipes from Arkansas Food: The A to Z of Eating in The Natural State by Kat Robinson
Green Tomato Relish
Part condiment, part pickle, this canned fruit becomes the perfect accompaniment to fried catfish. You can purchase the condiment or make your own. My aunt Wava Gail would use this recipe:
• Wava’s Green Tomato Pickles
• Half a peck of green tomatoes, quartered
• 12 medium onions, chopped
• 1 cup salt
• 3 bell peppers, chopped
• 4 cups sugar
• 1 (16 ounce) bottle white vinegar
• 1 tablespoon peppercorns
• 4 tablespoons mustard seed
• 4 tablespoons celery seed
• 2 tablespoons whole cloves
• 3 cinnamon sticks
Combine tomatoes, onions and salt in a large container; let stand overnight. Rinse tomatoes and onions in cold water; drain. Place in a large stockpot, then add peppers, sugar and vinegar. Place remaining ingredients in a spice bag or tied cheesecloth and drop into the liquid. Stir over medium heat until all of the sugar dissolves. Boil rapidly for 12 minutes. Remove spice bag. Pack in hot jars. Makes four quarts or eight pints.
The default side dish for catfish, often created from leftover catfish batter and egg, hushpuppies received their name from cooks who would throw those bits of fried batter to the dogs to keep them quiet while everyone else enjoyed their catfish.
From Dondie’s White River Princess in Des Arc, this recipe was originally featured on the Arkansas Tourism website.
Dondie’s Hush Puppies
• 2 cups self-rising cornmeal
• 2 cups self-rising flour
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 3 tablespoons sugar
• 3 large eggs, slightly beaten
• 1/2 cup milk
• 1 large onion, chopped
• 2 jalapeño peppers, seeded and chopped
Combine the first four ingredients in a large bowl. Combine the eggs and milk, then add to dry ingredients. Stir until moistened, then add the onions and peppers and mix again. Drop by tablespoon into hot oil. Cook for three minutes or until golden brown.