Catfish have been caught, farmed, and used as food in Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America for centuries. Except in parts of Central Europe where they were considered a delicacy to be served on feast days and holidays, they generally were a basic food source. Possibly because of the African American influences in the foodways of the American South, catfish became a popular and important part of southern cuisine.
The fish fry became an southern institution, and while catfish were not the only species in the pot, they were often the dominate one. In Texas, where blue cats and channel cats could be found in abundance in the region’s lakes and rivers, catfish fries and catfish restaurants became very popular, and as the market grew so did the need for more and more fish.
Catfish are easy to farm in warm climates, and soon fish farms were expanding rapidly, particularly in Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas. Today, more than 60 percent of the farm grown catfish are raised within 65-miles of Belzoni, Mississippi and the business has grown to a $450 million industry. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan proclaimed a National Catfish Day to celebrate the growth of the industry.
The catfish farming industry was the key to the expansion of what had been a home-caught, home-cooked product to the restaurant business. Fish taken in the wild from lakes, rivers, and ponds, tended to be muddy tasting due to the species habitats and feeding habits. Fish farm operations could control those external variables with clean water, and scientifically designed feeding regiments, which produced more fish and milder tasting fish of dependable quality. That is what consumers want, and so that is what they got.
Texoma abounds with catfish restaurants, usually offering all you can eat at a fixed price. The fish are almost always farm-raised catfish fillets, sometimes soaked in buttermilk, dredged in flour, coated with a cornmeal based batter, and deep fried. The usual accompaniments are hush puppies, French fries, and tartar sauce, and as our tastes for spicier things has grown, so have recipes adding more than a shot of Tabasco, Sriracha, or jalapeños. Add some lemon wedges and a cold beer, and and you’re in Southern seafood heaven. But it was not always that way.
Twenty-five years ago, when John Payne started Huck’s Catfish in Pottsboro, most of the catfish places in the area were on the Oklahoma side of the lake. Payne had an early career working for Luby’s cafeterias, and then as a salesman for a concern that sold groceries to restaurants.
“I saw what the places around here were doing — and they were doing well — and decided I could do just as well or better,” he said.
Despite predictions that the local market was full and that he would flop, Payne forged ahead, and today, Huck’s — which relocated to Denison about 15 years ago — is a top catfish restaurant in the area and has earned national recognition for its fish.
Payne’s recipe for success is simple: keep it simple.
“The biggest change in the catfish industry in the past 25 years is the availability of good fish,” said Payne. “We only use farm-raised fish. It’s a better product. The water and feeding programs the growers have make the difference — that and availability. I couldn’t catch enough fish to handle the volume of business we have.”
At 11 a.m. on a rainy Tuesday, there were already people waiting outside when Huck’s opens for business, and by 11:30 a.m., the main dining room was filling up for lunch. So, the availability of good fish is essential to the restaurant’s operation.
“We use several varieties of fish,” Payne said. “It’s mostly channel cat or Swai, which is from Vietnam. Swai is the best fish I’ve ever tasted in 25 years.”
Swai (Pangasius hypophthalmus) is a type of South Asian catfish native to Indochina. In recent years, the number of catfish farms in the United States has declined as small growers have left the business and returned to more traditional farm crops. The Vietnamese operations have grown in importance and popularity.
In Payne’s opinion, the imported fish is often better than it’s American cousins.
“I’ve always tried to sell the best tasting fish I can — the best tasting, the cleanest, free of hormones, free of preservative, a natural, chemical-free fish,” he said. “That’s what I sell. Taste is the big thing with me. I’m always tasting fish.”
Huck’s fish is prepared to highlight and enhance that taste. The fillets get a light coating of cornmeal infused with a few spices and are deep fried in vegetable oil — which is filtered and changed daily — at the proper temperature to produce a light, crisp crust than does not mask the sweet, flaky fish underneath.
The restaurant is not just catfish. They offer a full menu of typical southern dishs and side dishes for those patrons wanting something different, but catfish is still the star of the show. The favorite order, a half order of catfish, two large fillets and a baked potato served with a salad and hush puppies. Definitely good eats.
Edward Southerland is a feature writer for Best of Texoma. For more information, visit BestofTexoma.com or www.facebook.com/BestOfTexoma