“At one time this list included crawfish because Cajun people ate it, and catfish because it was favored by African Americans and poor Southern whites. As these cuisines gained popularity, the food itself became culturally upgraded. Crawfish and catfish stopped being “trash food” when the people eating it in restaurants were the same ones who felt superior to the lower classes. Elite white diners had to redefine the food to justify eating it. Otherwise they were voluntarily lowering their own social status—something nobody wants to do.”
– Trash Food, an essay written by Chris Offutt for the Oxford American
When diving into the study of food it is impossible to ignore the relationship between food and class lines, which as Chris Offutt points out, runs parallel to racial lines. His essay touches on what is perceived ignorantly as trash food and historically how this has closely associated the people most commonly known to eat said food in the same manner- unknowingly or often with an air of superiority.
That is until it’s deemed popular by the mainstream.
Once a group of co-workers decided to visit a popular seafood spot here in Atlanta. I’d frequented this place on numerous occasions, favoring their lobster rolls, so it was no hardship for me to say “sure” when asked to tag along. About twenty of us gathered awkwardly around an oblong shaped table, the gentleman sitting several seats down leaned over glanced to his left and asked me “How’s the catfish here?”
I’m an emotional creature who often wears any internal conflicts with intensity on my face. Looking down and mildly shaking my head, I simple answered that I’d never had the catfish, all the while simmering with barely contained rage.
Lunch goes on and discussions about work-that are always unavoidable- dominate the conversations. Heading out, someone calls my name, telling me to hang on a sec. Over my shoulder I see it’s my catfish inquisitive colleague.
“You seemed angry by my question”
“Why did you ask me?“ I ask apprehensively.
He looks at me; eyebrows creased probably trying to assess how to answer that appropriately without sounding like a dick. Patiently I wait, already knowing what he’s response will be.
“I’m sorry, I really wasn’t trying to be offensive” he says looking away, anywhere, everywhere but at me- in the eye. Briefly, he tells me of a black friend of his who fries the best catfish and how he’d always assumed it was a community thing. Community was the word that he used. Tensely I shook my head, turned walking briskly towards my car.
Catfish has long been associated with African Americans-once soured upon for that fact, used increasingly in a stereotypical way, the same with Fried Chicken.
That is until it became popular with the mainstream.
There are older generations in my family that will not- to this day – eat catfish. Become agitated at the idea of its high standing in soul food culture. Constantly reminding me of its history laden in bigotry and sin in the eyes of some religions.
To be compared to fish that wallow in mud or bottom feeders that survive off the debris that covers the bottom of riverbanks and lakes. Trash left behind by those that no longer have use of it.
Trash food…what does that make me if I eat it?
Yet nowadays catfish comes at a high price on the menu. Paying up towards $30 for a fillet that’s been cooked in some heavy sauce, positioned like art on a gleaming white plate, carried by a fancy waiter with wine suggestions that would pair well with it. I can’t help but laugh at that.
Would that be the same as Hot Fish and whiskey?
What is that you ask? It’s the dark and hushed history of the Fish Fry. Down riverside and country roads, red lanterns hung, a sign there was hot fish and whiskey readily available ahead. Whiskey that flowed like muddy river water, bringing about garish activities and the occasional murder.
But, I’ll save that story for another day.
I’ve never shared the same reservations as some relatives in regards to catfish, fully recognizing it’s delicious contribution to what’s often consider soul food. Something once drowning in sin like that hot fish in bubbling oil, is now dressed so pristine in the disguise of fine dining and expensive wine- the catfish has apparently redeemed itself.
Now that it’s acceptable among the mainstream..
*Sunflower Sprouts are baby sunflowers and have a tasty crunch and a slightly nutty flavor. It’s also a great way to sneak in the “greens” to those who don’t like to eat them. I noticed that the slaw became a bit soggy the next day due to the sauce it was tossed in. I would suggest eating the slaw the same day it’s made.*
Blackened Catfish Tacos w/ Sunflower Sprout Slaw
Prep Time- 35mins Cook Time 20 mins Yields- 6 to 8 servings
The slaw was adapted from Smoke and Pickles by Chef Edward Lee
1 cup of fresh sunflower sprouts
1 cup roughly chopped fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon rice vinegar
1 teaspoon fish sauce
4 Catfish fillets
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon Tony’s Cajun seasoning
1 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoon of dried basil
2 tablespoons butter, melted
4 Catfish fillets
Peanut oil for frying
Grated white cheddar for garnish (optional)
6 to 8 soft warm corn Tortillas
To make the slaw- Combine the sprouts, cilantro, ginger, vinegar and fish sauce in a medium bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste if desired. Cover and let slaw rest in the fridge while you make the fish.
Mix the seasoning- In a medium bowl, mix together the salt, Cajun seasoning, garlic powder, black pepper, and basil. Set aside
For the blackened catfish- Pour melted butter in a medium bowl. Dip each catfish fillet into the butter and coat both sides with the spice mixture. Heat large cast iron skillet (or a large stainless steel skillet will work) with about 2-3 tablespoons of the peanut oil over medium high heat. Cook catfish for about 4 minutes on each side. Remove from the heat and transfer to a plate. To construct the taco- break up some of the cooked fish and place on a warm tortilla (or if you’re like my husband you can place half a fillet on your taco). Top it with the slaw and cheese. Serve while hot.