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There seems to be a requirement for comfort food that it is simple, unpretentious and modest. There is a natural humbleness to home-cooked foods from the wild. Sure, chefs all over are foraging and turning bits of moss into foams and gelees, but long before the old became new again, people were gathering food from the wild and harvesting from the seas, lakes and rivers.
Fried fish and hushpuppies are quintessential examples of such simple country cooking. If you had a hook and a line and a little cornmeal, you might have dinner. (Well, then there’s the whole idea of noodling — catching catfish with your bare hands — but that’s just crazy.) A fish fry would not be complete without a hushpuppy. Hushpuppies are traditionally made from the seasoned cornmeal used to coat the fish (often mixed with beer) and fried in the oil used to cook the fish. Nothing is wasted — another hallmark of down-home comfort.
Wild catfish that live in rivers, lakes and ponds are bottom-dwellers, and the flesh picks up a distinctively earthy flavor. I grew up eating catfish and don’t mind the characteristic taste. American farm-raised catfish are fed a diet of high-protein pellets made from soybean meal, corn and rice that give the flesh a consistent, sweet, mild flavor. They are environmentally sustainable, inexpensive and the meat is very versatile; pretty much any recipe calling for tilapia can be made with catfish. Make a point to buy American catfish; you just don’t know what you are getting if you buy imported fish.
Bon Appétit, Y’all!
Georgia-born, French-trained Chef Virginia Willis has cooked lapin Normandie with Julia Child in France, prepared lunch for President Clinton and harvested capers in the shadow of a smoldering volcano in Sicily, but it all started in her grandmother’s country kitchen. A Southern food authority, she is the author of Bon Appétit, Y’all and Basic to Brilliant, Y’all, among others. Follow her continuing exploits at VirginiaWillis.com.