FOOD

Eat the Fish, Bitch

At the Oscars on Sunday my complicated relationship with catfish will unfold, thanks to the movie <i>August: Osage County</i>. In it, there's a scene reminiscent of my experience with the iconic Southern bottom-feeder, where Meryl Streep refuses to eat...

Ross Kenneth Urken

Catfish and hush puppies. Photo via Flicker user Shannon Patrick

I never quite expected my complicated relationship with catfish—of all things—to get played out at the glitziest awards show in Hollywood. 

Yet this Sunday marks the 86th annual Academy Awards, where Meryl Streep is highlighted with an Oscar nod for her role in the film version of Tracy Letts’s play August: Osage County. In this Oklahoma-set story, the catfish moonlights in a particularly unraveling moment when Violet Weston (played by Streep), the sick matriarch of the dysfunctional family, refuses to eat the dish as her daughter Ivy tries to confess that she’s eloping with a relative. Barbara (played by Julia Roberts), another daughter, wants to interrupt the disclosure.

This is the scene in the movie where Barbara screams at Violet, “Eat the fish, bitch!” Barbara uses the catfish as a decoy, a distraction, repeating to Violet the imperative “eat your fish” until Ivy breaks her plate in frustration. Barbara and Violet also throw their dishes of catfish to the floor. What should be nourishment becomes anathema—and then rubbish.

Of course, this Hollywood iteration has a glaring cinematic blooper: Barbara’s dish remains preserved on the table after the outburst. The sneaky catfish—it manages to survive (or at least endure) even if plated and garnished.

Beyond the silver screen, I have become familiar with the peculiar dynamics surrounding this iconic Southern delicacy in my two extended trips to Oklahoma each year. And through that exploration, I’ve managed to resolve a deep-seated resentment I’ve harbored for the benthic grazing bully.

My wife is a native of Oklahoma, where the landlocked geography means seafood is a risky proposition. That said, the state has a thriving lake culture with innumerable catfish cabins dotting the shores of Ten Killer, Grand, and Thunderbird, the prime areas for summer wake-boarding and body-dumping. It’s cattle country after all, and a nice cut of Angus at Cattlemen’s Steakhouse or an onion burger at Nic’s is a fine meal. By contrast, fish here is typically mediocre. Done wrong, it’s downright offensive. 

Catfish is no exception. Bottom-feeders that they are, the whiskered craniates often taste muddy, even after a toss into the deep fryer. But if there’s one maritime dish that Oklahoma chefs can successfully realize, it’s this fish from these besmirched lake waters—as loath as I am to give the bastard predator positive qualities. It’s sullied but, yes, succulent. 

A New Jerseyan by birth, I truthfully brandish a stigma against the detritivore. It was a polemical species for me even before the F-bomb-laden diatribes of the Letts text were written. My grandfather, who ran a blueberry farm not far from the shore, had irrigation ponds on the property that he stocked with catfish. My Pa, arms over mine, would help me launch a cast out to the middle of one pond with my Snoopy fishing pole, the white and red bobber buoyant with hope. The catfish consistently stole our worms and left me kicking stones into the brown shallows, where more catfish brethren taunted us with their flagellating barbels. My grandfather and I never caught a catfish—not once. They're surreptitious and never snatched up our bait. I viewed this scenario with the crushing disappointment of missed opportunity, underachievement.

So during this last Christmas in Oklahoma, I took it upon myself to suss out the state’s best offering of the dish, both to understand its nuanced significance there and to try to conquer my bad associations with the bottom feeder. To be certain, beyond any didactic experience, my desire to try a catfish in the heartland stemmed from my appetite for aquatic redemption.

My opportunity arrived a few days before Christmas at Boulevard Cafeteria, a 65-year-old staple in Oklahoma City, one of those true Southern tray-filling joints where small plates of fried okra and green beans will surround the main protein choice—typically fried chicken or chicken-fried steak. It was in this restaurant that my father-in-law held a huge reunion for his side of the family. He’s a twin and annually seizes the December birthday celebration with his brother as an excuse to bring the entire family together. At the urging of several spirited family members who wanted the sole Yankee to get an “authentic experience,” I opted for a fillet of catfish with some hush puppies and cheese grits.

I dug into it with abandon, remembering those disappointing angling moments from my youth with each bite. I had not caught this catfish myself, but I was experiencing the sweet taste of revenge. My cousins through marriage, Zach and his rowdy band of freckled brothers, watched with bated breath as I appraised the cuisine of their land. The fish tasted good, a bit like cod, fried and squeezed with a hint of lemon juice. The bites were crisp on the outside and tender on the inside, a nice white fish that steamed with flavor.

Sure, I was content with my experience at Boulevard, but I was far from satisfied with just one attempt. I needed to try a second time. I wanted to absorb an excess of this primordial Americana.

Enter Trey. Boyfriend to my sister-in-law Brittany, Trey always seeks adventure and has a nose for where to find it. He has a hard appearance—neck tattoos with the fiery Roman numeral III and a uniform of paint-splattered shirts—but is a snuggly teddy bear at heart. Trey lives in Edmond, just outside of Oklahoma City, and so a few days after our Boulevard excursion, my wife and I joined Trey and Brittany at Bobo’s, a massive food cart that’s perched in a modest parking lot on Fridays and Saturdays from 5 PM to 3 AM. It’s not the safest neighborhood, which is why there’s an armed guard by the truck at all times. Still, rumor has it that the worthwhile food, which is jammed into Styrofoam containers and drenched in honey poured from industrial-size vats, is worth any risk. It’s known for its soul food like chicken strips, wings, fries, biscuits, and shrimp. But the catfish basket is an order to be coveted.  

I was curious to see what Trey, someone who takes his food very seriously, thought of Bobo’s catfish and how it stacked up.

After we worked our way up in line, Trey placed our order: a 20-piece chicken-wing assortment and a three-piece basket of cornmeal-dredged fried catfish. The clerk loudly called out the order to his galley chef, employing a “swing batta-batta” cadence to “CAat-FISH.”

The catfish would take some 15 minutes extra, so we migrated to the right side of the cart, toward the armed guard, who was macking on two dressed-up gals in front of us.

They too had requested catfish a few orders ahead of us. So imagine our surprise when our order was called before theirs.

When we paid, we realized the clerk had only charged us for the chicken.

“We didn’t pay for the catfish,” I said, not knowing that he hadn’t given us catfish in the Styrofoam containers.

Big mistake. The two women still waiting on their catfish paused their flirtation with the security guy to ask why we had gotten our catfish first. They were none too pleased.

“No,” the clerk said. He hadn’t “recorded catfish” in our order and said we had to get back in line to order it.

Of course, I also knew better than to argue here: The catfish, it always gets away. I had learned, at last, to let it go.

The animal has strange powers to meddle, to disappoint—a fact that hadn’t changed since my youth. The fish had wriggled its way free of my grandfather’s fishing line and tricked its way out of our Bobo’s order, just as it had reappeared neatly on the table before Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep in August: Osage County despite the crashing throw of plates to damn it. The catfish—has an incorrigible resiliency. And I’m fed up. So as I watch whether Streep comes away with the prize, rest assured I’ll be sticking to fried chicken.  

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