Pride of the Delta

In Mississippi the catfish is king, and farmers are determined to keep it that way.

André Baranowski

It was nearing six o'clock on a Saturday night when I walked into Taylor Grocery, and that meant I was going to have to wait. After putting in my name for a table, I took a seat amid the crowd on the edge of the ramshackle wood porch, where people were lazing away the evening and looking out onto the main road of the tiny town of Taylor, Mississippi. The scene in the parking lot in front of this former country store looked like an Ole Miss tailgate party. Men sipped beers and Tennessee whiskey from Styrofoam cups. Dogs loped among rows of gleaming pickup trucks, more than a few of which had out-of-state plates.

I'd come, like everyone else, for the catfish. After an hour's wait, I sat down, and soon my prize emerged from the fryer piled on a plate with a lemon wedge, some tartar sauce, and a mound of hush puppies. I took a bite, and then another. Dusted in cornmeal flecked with black pepper, the golden filets had a satisfying crunch that gave way to delicate, sweet white flesh. I waited outside for the dinner rush to die down and, later, introduced myself to the cook, Brandon Hughes, a bearded man in his early 30s who was sporting a Social Distortion T-shirt. His right forearm bore a tattooed outline of Mississippi. "Catfish is to Mississippi what crawfish is to Louisiana," Hughes said as he lowered a fry basket full of cornmeal-dredged catfish into burbling peanut oil. "Everyone eats catfish here."

There are 28 species of catfish (so named because of its whiskers, or barbels, which the animal uses to search for food) indigenous to North America, and many others native to parts of Asia, where catfish is also prized, but it is Ictalurus punctatus, commonly called channel catfish, that is Hughes's medium and the catfish favored across the American South. The spiny-finned, fat-lipped omnivore may never win a beauty pageant, but no other American fish can lay claim to such an enduring mythology as that of the channel catfish. In Life on the Mississippi, for example, Mark Twain wrote of seeing the river's "roaring demon", a catfish more than six feet long and weighing 250 pounds. And in his song "Rollin' Stone", Muddy Waters cast himself as a free-swimming catfish, an object of desire.

The fish Hughes was frying up at Taylor Grocery that day had never been swimming free along a river bottom, though. It came frozen in a box bearing the imprint of Heartland Catfish, a purveyor of farmed fish located in the Mississippi Delta. Indeed, a great majority of the channel catfish eaten these days in the United States is farm raised, and it may be the world's only widely consumed fish that tastes better from an industrial farm than when caught in the wild. Given the depletion of the ocean's fish stocks, this kind of sustainable aquaculture—the U.S. Catfish Industry has won accolades from organizations like the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program for safe farming practices—is no small thing. For cooks, the delicate, mild flavor of farm-raised channel catfish makes it a perfect canvas for a whole palette of flavors and a wide range of preparations, from remoulade-smothered po'boys to fiery curries.

The fish I had in Taylor was a far cry from the catfish I grew up eating in my home state of North Carolina. I fished from the banks of a friend's pond and would fry the filets in a skillet, but no matter how much buttermilk and Tabasco I used, those catfish came out tasting, more often than not, like their muddy home. It's the muddy flavor of the wild-caught fish, coupled with the animal's homely appearance, that long ago gave catfish a reputation in many parts of the country as a trash fish. It's a misconception that a single bite of perfectly fried farmed channel catfish will instantly erase.

What makes farmed catfish taste better? Looking for answers, I drove from Taylor southwest into the vast floodplain of the Mississippi Delta, the heart of the U.S. catfish industry. After entering Leflore County, in the center of the state, I passed mile after mile of five-foot-deep catfish ponds separated by levees wide enough to accommodate a pickup truck or a tractor.

Forty years ago along this flat stretch of highway, cotton was king. Cheaper cotton could be grown elsewhere, however, and the price of the other local cash crops, corn and soy, dropped, so Delta farmers dug ponds, flooding them with well water. In 1968 this fledgling venture yielded 12 million pounds of catfish. By 2003 as much as 650 million pounds was being harvested.

Heartland Catfish comprises two large processing facilities situated just off U.S. Highway 82 in the town of Itta Bena. In a small laboratory kitchen next to Heartland's loading zone, Stanley Marshall, Heartland's "flavor taster", greets me just as a farmer walks in with a two-pound live catfish in a plastic bag. Marshall, 52, clad in work boots, jeans, and a T-shirt, has what Richard Schweid, author of the excellent history Catfish and the Delta (Ten Speed Press, 1992), calls "a million-dollar tongue". Marshall has sampled more catfish than anyone else in the Delta and arguably more than anyone on Earth: some 250 fish a day, five days a week, for the past 26 years.

Marshall sliced off the tail section from the farmer's fish, placed it in a Styrofoam hot dog container, and microwaved it for two minutes. As the farmer looked on with apprehension, Marshall raised a steaming forkful of the fish to his nose and inhaled, nodded with approval, and then took a bite. "It's on flavor," Marshall said, telling me that he had tasted fish from this particular farm three times already. He handed me a piece. "We're always looking for that mild, nutty, buttery-type flavor." The unseasoned fish had a mild, neutral flavor and aroma. If he'd detected the faintest smell of wet dirt, algae, or decaying leaves, the fish from this batch would not have been deemed ready for harvest. Relieved, the farmer unloaded his truck, some 2,850 pounds of sleek channel cats, and drove home with a payday of $2,565.

Later that day I was seated in the cab of Bubba Cobb's pickup, watching from a levee as four workers in a small aluminum boat corralled nets to harvest catfish from a pond. A buyer for America's Catch, a Heartland competitor, Cobb drove us along muddy roads atop the levees, touring a handful of the company's approximately 490 ponds. The first step in keeping the fish's flavor pure is to train the bottom-feeding scavengers to feed not on the muddy pond bed but on the surface of the water. Dinner arrives with the sound of a mechanized blower, which tosses floating pellets of finely ground corn or soy into the pond. "When the fish hear that blower, it's like ringing the dinner bell," Cobb told me. The other crucial step is to maintain clean ponds. Like other freshwater fish, catfish hydrate themselves by absorbing water through their skin. If the pond contains muddy runoff or too much blue-green algae, the fish will take on that telltale muddy aroma and flavor.

As if the uphill battle against Mother Nature and snooty eaters weren't enough, the high cost of grain and fuel last summer, on top of foreign competition, forced many farmers to abandon fish altogether and return to growing soybeans. During my time in the Delta, the catfish farmers I talked with grumbled about the less regulated farmed catfish imported from Asia. They also talked a lot about something called delacata. Just as the Patagonian toothfish became Chilean sea bass, catfish too may be destined for an upgraded nomenclature. Later this year a small percentage of U.S. farm-raised catfish will be sold as filets labeled delacata. Processed from larger fish, the custom-cut filets will be more than twice the size of regular catfish filets and sold at a higher price. "Let's face it, 'catfish' is not the best name, especially for people outside of the South," says Jeremy Robbins, a marketer for the Catfish Institute, the industry group in charge of the makeover, which farmers hope will propel a fish with an inferiority complex beyond the deep-fried South and onto a bistro menu near you.

I tried delacata at Giardina's, a white-tablecloth restaurant in Greenwood, Mississippi. The thick, 11-ounce pan-roasted filet was as buttery, mild, and delicious as a red snapper. If a change of name is what it takes to burnish this mighty fish's reputation, I said to myself as I swallowed another bite, more power to PR. Personally, I believe that Mark Twain uttered the best, or at least the most succinct, marketing tagline I can think of: "The catfish," he wrote in Life on the Mississippi, "is a plenty good enough fish for anybody."