By Kevin McCaffrey, September/October 2009
Joey Fonseca catches what are perhaps the sweetest, firmest, best-tasting catfish in America, catfish that have a creamy texture and a buttery flavor that begs not to be deep-fried. Known as the “wild catfisherman” of Bayou Des Allemands, Louisiana, Fonseca uses a technique developed by his father and uncles that is a more efficient way of harvesting catfish than traditional “noodling” (reaching underwater among cypress trees to hand-catch fish). He throws out a long line with buckets attached to it. The female fish, which are attracted to small, tight spaces, lay eggs in the buckets and then swim away. The males go in to fertilize and guard the eggs, a natural technique Fonseca characterizes with a sly grin as “using sex for bait.” Then Fonseca hauls in the buckets and catches the males. Recently Fonseca was recognized by the Slow Food Ark of Taste because he’s part of a dying breed—one of the last wild catfishermen in the U.S.
Chances are, if you’re not in New Orleans most of the catfish you’ll find at the supermarket is farmed. New catfish farming techniques have begun to produce milder-tasting catfish that has helped drive demand for the fish. Luckily U.S. farmed catfish is one of the most sustainable fish you can choose, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium (mbayaq.org/cr/seafoodwatch.asp). Typically it’s farmed in closed ponds so there’s little chance the fish will escape and breed with or pass diseases on to native catfish populations. Plus they’re fed a mostly vegetarian diet, which means other fish populations aren’t being decimated in order to grow catfish.
Fonseca’s favorite way to cook catfish? He dusts the fish with a pinch of Cajun spices, no flour. Then he heats a bit of olive oil in a skillet until it’s good and hot and he sizzles the fish until it’s golden-brown. We took inspiration from his simple preparation for our Cajun spiced catfish with roasted okra and corn. Once you try that you can move on to catfish étouffée, sautéed catfish with a black bean-garlic and scallion sauce or a quick catfish hash with grainy mustard and red peppers. Whether you head to the local supermarket for farmed catfish or maybe even catch one yourself, we can hook you up with great recipes. Just turn the page.
Documentary filmmaker and James Beard Award finalist Kevin McCaffrey is working on a trilogy of films on Louisiana culinary culture.