MIKE WAGONER

MIKE WAGONER

Fried catfish is more than just another Southern food – it pairs with fried chicken to form a delicious blend of “creek and coop” (a good-eatin’ alternative to “surf and turf.”)

Give credit to Hannah Hayes, a former editor at Southern Living magazine, for making the connection.

She said frying catfish is trickier than frying chicken. If it’s prepared poorly, catfish “can taste swampy and greasy, but cooked well, it can make the difference in turning a catfish loather into a lover.”

The late Craig Claiborne, who was a revered food editor and restaurant critic for The New York Times, was born in Sunflower, Miss. He once wrote:

“Like most Southerners, I adore catfish. Eating deep-fried catfish was a ritual (for Sunday outings) and the menu was always the same: cornmeal-coated catfish with its golden-brown crusty exterior and moist white inner flesh; deep-fried hushpuppies; deep-fried potatoes; and coleslaw.”

Willard Scott, the retired weatherman from NBC’s “The Today Show,” said: “If I go down for anything in history, I would like to be known as the person who convinced the American people that catfish is one of the finest eating fishes in the world.”

Mary Syrett of Raleigh, a freelance outdoor writer, says catfish are as much fun to catch as they are to eat...if you know the right “fishing holes,” and “North Carolina is a catfish paradise.”

“Channel catfish are found in most North Carolina rivers and lakes. While not much to look at, they always put up a good fight and make for delicious eating,” she said.

Carolina Classics Original Catfish is a brand of farm-raised catfish. The aquaculture company, which originated in 1985, is based in Aden . It owns and manages 1,200 acres of fish farm ponds in eastern North Carolina, harvesting some 5 million of pounds of catfish a year.

Joanie Stiers, an agricultural journalist, reports that Carolina Classics is North Carolina’s largest catfish producer, selling primarily fresh to retailers, restaurants and upscale grocers, including Whole Foods Market.

Rob Mayo, owner of Carolina Classics, said: “We sell our fish to people who want a higher value, consistently good-tasting fish that has a clear traceability in terms of where it’s come from, what it’s been fed and how it’s been raised.”

Catfish production and processing contribute more than $12 million per year to North Carolina’s aquaculture industry, representing about one-fourth of the total annual volume for all aquacultural products, according to the N.C. Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services (NCDACS).

Gary Dillon, the fish farms manager at Carolina Classics, said catfish are a favorite meal of bald eagles that have nested near the fish farm ponds. He said that the catfish were first discovered by ospreys, but the eagles swooped in to steal the fish that the ospreys had snatched with their talons.

“The ospreys moved on; they just got tired of doing all the work and having the eagles claim the spoils,” Dillon said.

The eagles now are on their own to fish for their dinner. Dillon said: “A two-pound catfish each day is more than enough for a meal for an eagle, and what he doesn’t consume, the vultures and other birds and animals around here will finish,” Dillon said.

Eagles and vultures are not the only birds that have been drawn to the “catfish cornucopia.” Blue and gray herons, snowy egrets, kingfishers, wood storks and several species of shore birds and ducks – some quite rare — also stake claims to the waters, Dillon said.

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