It couldn’t have happened on a better day. From time to time I’m afforded the luxury of my retired father making his way from the Big Easy to the streets of Mobile. Usually when he’s flying solo to our town it’s to catch a gig or two, along with the hope of some quality time with the grandkids.
So when I got the call he was en route, I knew luck was on our side. Here is what clued me in.
It began as a beautiful Monday morning. Around 9:15 a.m. I received a text from my friend and student Nick Holmes asking me if I would like a few fresh trout fillets. Why even ask? Fresh fish is the way to get on my good side, especially if they are already cleaned. So I had that going for me.
Things got better. At 10:30 a.m. another character I know by the name of Bradford Ladd asked if I’d like some catfish filets. Are these guys putting me on? I was instructed to leave an ice chest on the porch, say a few Hail Marys and wait for the drop-off.
By the late afternoon my kids were finishing their bike ride and bursting with excitement that Pappaw was coming. They were also ravenous for fish. It was the perfect storm of a boys’ day in the back yard.
I keep everything on the ready for occasions such as this. You never know when the opportunity for an impromptu fish fry will present itself, so the only thing I needed from the grocery was a quart of buttermilk. As soon as I got the call saying the old man was crossing the Mississippi-Alabama line, I pressed the secret button, slid down the pole into the bat cave and grabbed the necessary implements, all dressed and ready to go.
It was a diet breaker of an evening, enjoying homemade hushpuppies, French fries and fried fish with a dessert of freshly cut watermelon as we shared stories of current events and secrets we will never tell, and heard some pretty goofy jokes from a 6- and a 10-year-old.
There was even a post-dinner, post-shower surprise attack on the eldest MacDonald that involved a stealthy move by the youngest MacDonald and a Star Wars bathrobe, a realistic Chewbacca mask and the Nerf version of Han Solo’s blaster. It was a successful evening to say the least.
Time is running out to stand over hot oil on a propane burner in decent weather. I am a little particular about doing the fish fry, so here are my tips for those who’d like to fire up the grease the way we do it.
Tip #1: Hushpuppies
Hushpuppies are nearly as important as the fish for me. In many of my favorite catfish joints the hushpuppies are served with Rotel cheese dip. I am still pretending to be on a diet, so I focused on making the best hushpuppies so we wouldn’t miss the dip.
I start with white cornmeal. Skip the yellow. White cornmeal seems to work well with savory items like dressing and hushpuppies. Yellow cornmeal is associated with sweeter flavors. Here in Alabama and the rest of the Deep South you will find many turn their backs on the yellow cornmeal. Even the Martha White website says in its FAQs that white cornmeal is for the South. Yellow is for Texas and the rest of the United States. Not my words, but theirs.
For my mixture I use a 3:1 ratio of cornmeal to flour, self-rising to all-purpose. You must add a little salt. If you put sugar in this dry mix I will unfriend you on social media and talk about your poor raising. For the amount of volume for dry mix, I use half as much buttermilk and one egg for every two cups. For example, 3 cups cornmeal, 1 cup of flour, 2 cups buttermilk and two eggs. That would be enough pups for 10 people or so.
Tip #2: French fries
I don’t grab spuds and slice my own unless they are handy and I have nothing better to do. For fries, I buy off the rack. What I look for is the flat, wide style of fries that make great leftover hash browns. This style of fry can be a little less than crispy and still be amazing. They are also incredible smothered with good coleslaw.
Tip #3: Oil and batter
Different fish require different batter. With catfish (especially whole) I want a lot of cornmeal in the mix. Smaller, thinner pieces may not be sturdy enough and would warrant a lighter dusting of flour.
I prefer to use buttermilk in this batter as I did with the hushpuppies, but I can make do with regular whole milk and a whisked egg. I don’t like to pre-batter a lot of fish. Once the batter is on I would like to see the fish hit the 350-degree oil within minutes. Anything hotter will be darker than golden brown when done, especially on the larger pieces.
After a very conservative one beer for each of us and an earful of catching up on new adventures, the best part was seeing the old man snoring on my new couch as he slept, strangely, sitting up.
My two boys fought the sandman hard enough to outlast their grandpa, giving in 30 minutes later. I was up for a few more hours wishing the day didn’t have to end. Things could be worse. Maybe the fish fry isn’t always about the fish.
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