I remember my first Lenten season in California. It was 2001 and I was working a job at a video editing facility. “You’re from the South? I hear you guys eat a lot of crazy things down there.” I would hold their attention with the horrors of sucking the heads of countless crawfish, how a softshell crab is great fried but boiled is a different experience, why snapper throats aren’t such a big deal, and that if I order a lobster and all I get is the tail it is most definitely getting sent back.
I was a great distraction from work, and introduced them to boiled peanuts. I had my mother-in-law bring me a bag of raw from the co-op in Elberta on her maiden (and final) voyage to our Orange County chalet, and I did them up right. There were a few partakers who despised the slimy texture of the Southern delicacy, adding to the myth that Andy sure does eat some weird things. To the rest of the bunch it was like I was their drug dealer.
Soon enough I was bringing little Ziploc baggies of boiled peanuts that were divvied out at the beginning of my shift. There were a couple of guys who couldn’t get enough. If I showed up empty handed a barrage of questions was surely coming my way. When can you get some more? Does anyone else here have some you know about? Think they will share? I enjoyed the attention somewhat, but it got a little out of hand.
One guy in particular would talk food to me from the time I walked in until his overlapping shift was over. He failed to shock me with the ingredients of menudo or how chorizo has crazy pig parts ground up in the casing. He was trying to get a rise out of me, and I finally asked, “Have you ever heard of chitterlings? No? Well, do I ever have a story for you!”
This guy was of coastal Mexican descent and was dying to shock me with food tales from his homeland. It was obvious that unless he comes up with a recipe and photographic evidence of chupacabra fricassee I would remain unimpressed. So Lent comes around. He’s planning on shocking me. “You know in Mexico they are all Catholic. During lent they don’t eat meat. The people down in Rosalita get so sick of eating fish that you won’t believe what they eat when they get a craving for meat. Turtles. They really eat turtles, Andy.” I said, “Well, I had a bowl of turtle soup on my way to the New Orleans airport when I was coming out here.”
He’d been trumped again in front of all his coworkers and innocent bystanders by that slow-talking fool of a white boy from Laurel, Miss., as everyone was hooting and hollering in disbelief of the lengths Southerners would go to for a meal. It was then I realized I wasn’t sure if I was their exotic friend from a faraway culture or just their dancing monkey goaded into entertaining them for a baggie of Cajun spiced legumes. I reflect on that every Lent.
For those of you who observe, sacrifice, abstain from valuable proteins during this 40-day period let’s look at some of my favorite fish.
Catfish: Enough with tilapia. I am sick of it. Catfish is kind of the low man on the totem pole, and shamefully we are fresh out of catfish houses around here. In Mississippi you can’t sling a possum without hitting one. The hour-and-a-half drive to Charlie’s Catfish in Ellisville, MS, is worth it if you’ve never been. Or head up 45 to Jordan’s (open only weekends) for a great experience. I only want catfish whole, but the strips at Champy’s in Daphne are still amazing.
Flounder: This odd fish is one of my favorites from the bay. The best way to enjoy flounder is stuffed with crabmeat or one step further with crabmeat au gratin. Mary Mahoney’s in Biloxi is the best I’ve ever had.
Pontchartrain sauce is another topping popular with flounder. Of course there are many variations but it must have white wine, mushrooms, trinity, lemon and crabmeat. Often times shrimp are added to the mixture. But you could put this sauce over just about anything and make me happy. It’s best with grilled or blackened seafood.
King Mackerel: Some will not be a fan of this choice. I like it because if you do it right on a grill or smoker you can almost make it taste like a steak. Some find it unpleasant or fishy, but that problem can be solved with an overnight soak in cold water or milk followed by a marinade. I love Montreal seasoning on this one and am not afraid of Worcestershire sauce in the marinade.
Triggerfish: You don’t see this one in restaurants often, and I will certainly miss the version from the Italian Fisherman. But if you are lucky enough to come across some trigger you can easily garner praise from your family and guests by cooking filets covered with tin foil in an oven or on a grill. All you need is a little butter, a squirt of a lemon wedge, maybe some garlic. It’s one of my favorites.
Grouper: We see a lot of this fish in Mobile restaurants. When it comes to surf and turf this fish makes me not miss the turf. Grouper has some versatility, but I never cook it. My favorite is fried at Queen G’s on Old Shell Road. Of course you should ask for the world’s greatest fried oysters while you’re there. Don’t worry about saving room for ice cream.
I could keep this up all day. Snapper, cobia, tuna, salmon, I have a place for them all. Quit your complaining about meat. There are too many fish in the sea!