Thursday, August 8, 2013

Catfish Tastes

I grew up on catfish... Wait, no, that makes it sound like it was the only thing I ever ate. Let me try that again:

When I was a kid, to say that we were having fish meant that we were having catfish. It was the only kind of fish we ever had (other than the rare trip to Long John Silver's). But we didn't buy it (and, now, I'm wondering why anyone would ever buy catfish), because to say that we were having fish meant that we were going fishing. And I don't mean a few of us, either.

No, when we went fishing, it was everyone. Everyone includes my parents and brother, my grandparents, several uncles and aunts of various sorts, and at least a cousin or two. It was a family event. And, really, you had to have a lot of people, because all of those people were going to be there to eat the fish no matter how many people went fishing, so the only way to make sure there was enough fish was for everyone to go fishing. However, in actuality, the women mostly didn't fish. I suppose they went along because it was an event. That and they made sandwiches and stuff for everyone.

Often, these trips were "caused" by me and, possibly, a cousin or two asking my grandfather to take us fishing. We loved it when he took us fishing, because, no matter how many people were along on the trip, it was my grandfather taking us fishing. The rest of the people were... superfluous. (Except for that time I caught this huge fish and one of my uncles knocked it back into the water. You can't be merely superfluous when you cause someone to lose such a big fish.)

After the fishing trips, we'd bring the fish back to the farm and the men would sit around and clean the fish. It was always catfish except for the very occasional perch, which we called sunfish, because no one liked cleaning them except my Uncle Fred (scaling a fish is much different than skinning a fish), so those got thrown back unless he was with us.

It was my grandfather that taught me how to fish. How to bait a hook (and where to find said bait). How to hook a fish (turn a nibble into a caught fish). How to take the fish off of the hook (which is not an easy task with a catfish (for those of you who have never done it)). How to clean a fish, both catfish and scaled fish (but, yeah, I know why no one liked doing it, because you get scales all over you). He taught me how to do all of it up to the cooking part. I had the eating part all worked out on my own, and I figured out the cooking part later.

When I got to be a teenager and we no longer did those huge fishing trips and it was just my nuclear family that would go fishing (basically, whenever my mom would decide that she felt like having fish), I was the one that had to do all the maintenance stuff, meaning that I was the hook baiter and fish remover. Yeah, I hated those trips, because I never actually got to do any fishing. I got plenty of bites, but they were all from mosquitoes, and, when all you get from a fishing trip is mosquito bites, it's just not any fun. Why was I the hook baiter and fish remover? Because no one in my family would do those things. I mean, one time when I was doing something else and my dad caught a fish, I turned around to find him stepping on the fish (so that he wouldn't have to touch it) while trying to get the hook out of its mouth with a pair of pliers. I started finding other things to do rather than go fishing, so the catfish eating dwindled away.

But, see, I grew up liking, even loving, catfish. And I didn't have to give you all of that background, but I wanted you to have the context of my relationship with catfish. In my mind, it's associated, mostly, with these great family fishing trips with my grandfather and him teaching me how to do all the stuff. He gave me my first fillet knife and skinners one year when I was probably around 9 or 10, and I thought that was one of the greatest presents ever.

But we don't do the whole catfish thing out here in CA. It's just not a thing here the way it is in the south. Out here it's salmon and, well, I don't really know, because I lost any inclination I had for fishing when my grandfather died, so it's not a thing we do. I mean, not a thing my family does. I know plenty of people that take off to fish for salmon or do ocean fishing. I don't know anyone that does catfishing.

On Friday nights, we do special family dinner night. Special dinners are things that take more time or are more elaborate than we can do on a night when people have to get up early the following morning. Every so often, I'll do a fried fish night, but those are more rare than even the normal special dinner nights, because it takes a lot of time to prep and fry everything. Like the onion rings. Because, according to everyone that's had them, I make the best onion rings ever. And fried mushrooms, too. But I digress. So... fried fish, which is generally cod.

Last week I was out buying fish because were going to have our first fried fish night in... I don't know, months, at least. So I was picking up the cod, and there in the display case with the fish was catfish. Catfish. Oh, man, I hadn't had catfish in so long. I mean, I've lived in California for a long time, and I think I'd only had it once before since I moved out here. I love catfish. My kids should try it, right? My kids that don't actually like fish that much to begin with, and I was thinking they should try catfish of all things, but I'm not really to that part yet. I bought some of the catfish. I love catfish.

Friday night came. I mixed up the batter. I sliced up a couple of onions. I chopped the mushrooms down to appropriate sizes (because they hadn't had anything of an appropriate size at the store). I started frying those up. Everyone was eating onions rings voraciously. My wife and I were eating the mushrooms. I got out the fish, the cod, and sliced it up and started frying that up. People started eating the cod. I pulled out the catfish...

I pulled out the catfish and fried up a few pieces, nuggets, because I was eager to pop one into my mouth. Long time since catfish. I love catfish. I was... actually excited, I think. I toss the first couple of pieces onto the plate to cool. Before it was quite cool enough, I popped one into my mouth...

And, man, it was like eating a mud ball. And, yeah, I know what dirt tastes like. I was a kid that played in a lot of dirt. Not that I ever actually on purpose ate any, but, you know, it gets in your mouth. And that piece of catfish was the equivalent of a handful of dirt down at the farm when I was a kid.

It must have been a mistake. Just a bad piece, right? Right...
So I got another piece and... dirt! OH MY GOSH! Catfish tastes like dirt! Then I thought back to the previous time I'd had catfish, the last time, years before, when I thought "I love catfish; I should get some for everyone to try," and it had tasted like dirt, too, and no one else liked it or would eat any of it. Just like this time. And I realized: I had grown up liking the taste of... dirt. [And, see, when I was growing up, I'd heard people say they didn't like catfish for that very reason, but I'd always dismissed them as not knowing what they were talking about.]

But that's what growing up is for. I also grew up drinking only soda, but I can't stand the stuff, now, after being off of it for the last five years or so. The sweet of it is just too much for me. And I grew up liking some shows (mostly cartoons) that I look back now and wonder what I was thinking when I was 15 and watching G. I. Joe every day after school. And there have been books and/or authors that have been that way for me, too. All of it dirt.

There are a few things, I suppose, that you could come away with from this, some of which I've talked about before (like, just, outgrowing things), but it would take too much time, at this point, to talk about all of those things. Instead, I will just mention this one thing:

Sometimes, you have to get away from something long enough to realize that it was dirt all along. Some things that we think are good are only good because we've never experienced anything else. But, when we go on to new things, hopefully better things, we can later recognize that that thing we used to love was really just dirt and we'd only loved that thing because it was the only thing we'd ever had. Which is why we need to always be broadening our experiences. Trying new things. Reading new books.

And, on the book note, I suppose that's why it bothers me when I see people saying things like, "I only read YA" like it's a good thing and, worse, like that makes them better than people who read a variety of types of books. What I want to say to that is that you're eating catfish. [Which is not to say that all YA is dirt.] Or, maybe, baby food. I get that you grew up reading YA and you love YA, but, really, you're 30 now; branch out a little bit. Seriously. You might discover that some of that YA you always thought was so yummy is really just a mud pie.


  1. Whenever my kids (okay they're men now), finish watching a DVD, or something they've recorded, they usually pass it on to me. I almost always watch it regardless of whether I think I will like it. When my elder son said, "Dad, why are you watching so and so" (something my younger son had given me), I told him it was because I could. Not because I liked it, just because I could. And sometimes I read blogs and books for the same reason. But there are some things I simply cannot stand to watch (sorry, "Game of Thrones" fans).

    Children and teenagers are naturally inquisitive. The older people get, the more comfortable people get with what they know and the less interested they are in discovery. Sadly, many people will have about the same amount of knowledge and believe the same things when they are 60 as they did when they were 30.

  2. The only way I like catfish is deep-fried Cajun style. Which I almost never have because I don't eat deep-fried foods. (Yes, I live in the wrong part of the country because here I swear they deep-fry the salads as well.)
    It's like people who only listen to music from a certain time period, like classic rock. I'm always on the lookout for new bands and new sounds. Guess that's why I like progressive rock - it's always changing and evolving.

  3. I don't mind Catfish, but I never loved it either. I never thought they tasted like dirt, but they were also never the sort of thing anyone in the family ever got excited about eating either. It just... was.

    You're right about sometimes having to be away for a thing for a bit before you realize how well you can gauge it objectively. Well, you might not have said that, but in my head, that's what you said. And with that, I couldn't agree more. Like, one time, I came into the house and my wife was watching some TV show about these truck drivers in India driving up into the Himalayas. It was, hypnotic. it was a marathon and we ended up watching it for something like 6 hours... episode after episode, during the show I was thinking, greatest show EVER! But once it was over and I saw it was dark outside and I had a whole afternoon lost. I started to think about what I saw, and realized it was the horrible show. It's like crack, or heroin, or whatever. While you're in the middle of it you have no sense of it's quality, it's just awesome. Then you step away and realize it's this horrible thing that is ruining your life.

    I might have taken that comparison a bit too far.

  4. I have eaten catfish a few times mostly in NC but I enjoyed it, didn't think it tasted like mud. The problem for me is that Ontario is an awfully long way from the sea, so we don't buy much fish here, its been on ice too long.

    During my life, I have read all kinds of genres but these days, I pick my books from 2 or 3 categories and the rest I forget about.

  5. Nuthin' beats some fried catfish. It's also good in fish tacos believe it or not.

  6. I don't remember ever having catfish, it's not very popular up here. We're a big salmon community, and I love salmon. More to the point though, I love what catfish represents here, and I think we all have our own 'catfish'.
    I love that Alex mentioned the 'classic rock' people. I hate it when people say 'I ONLY listen to classic rock.' Every classic rock station I've ever heard has been playing the same 18 songs for the last 30 years!
    I so agree, it's important to expand your horizons and not be stuck with catfish just cause you believe that it's wonderful.

  7. That's what you get when you eat bottom feeders. :P

    I've never tried catfish. I did try the (cod) fish and chips in Wales, but all that grease doesn't work for me. I wouldn't last long in the south I don't think.

    And, yes, I do believe in being an omnivore when it comes to books. The wider your reading base, the better informed your writing will be. :)

  8. David: It doesn't even take that long. When I was entering college, we had to take a dogma test. They were doing this ongoing study to try to figure out how to get students to become more opened minded through study rather than closed minded. Basically, all the studies were showing that students graduated with the idea in their heads that they had "learned it all" and were no longer open to new information. I don't know whatever became of that study, but, I guess, at least they were trying.

    Alex: Well, let's see, in the south you get the regular fried onion rings, but you also get fried okra, fried tomatoes, and I've even heard of fried spinach, so, yeah, I guess fried salad is almost a thing.

    Rusty: Your head was correct in telling you what I was saying.

    I'm not sure I can believe you watched that. At least, you could have watched Ewan McGregor's thing, Long Way Round. That was good.

    Jo: Oh, a friend of mine had some Cajun blackened salmon somewhere up in Canada (I don't remember where we were); it was awful.

    JKIR,F!: Oh, I like fish tacos, but I think I prefer them with fish that isn't batter fried.

    PT: Well, I used to think that.

    Eve: I'm pretty picky about music, and a lot of modern stuff just doesn't fit my tastes, but I do try things out from time to time just to see what's going on. So, yes, there even some Lady Gaga songs I like, much to my boys' dismay.

    L.G.: Most fish places don't do anything to drain the grease and, also, use a very thick batter that retains a lot of it. I use a batter that's a bit thinner and I let the grease drain before I serve it. I'm not big on huge amounts of grease either, which, actually, is part of why fried food night doesn't come around that often.

    And, yes, It's good to read a lot of different things but, especially, more classical writing if you want to improve your style.

  9. Nice story about your family fishing together. I've long believed that fishing, along with golf, is one of those hobbies you either inherit from family or you never do it. I've been fishing, I think, three times in my life and not at all since I was 13.

    Much of what we loved as kids tastes like dirt later on. Definitely true.

  10. TAS: I don't think golf comes from your family. I think it's semi-vocational in origin. If you have certain jobs, you kind of have to golf, because, if you don't, it negatively affects your career. Experienced that first hand.

    And I knew a lot of guys in college that picked golf up for the first time and became obsessed with it; it was all related to their future careers.

    That all was a total aside.
    I hate golf.

  11. I never liked fish, period. I've eaten some of different kinds; probably the best I ever had was a swordfish steak up in Maine. But I never liked the taste of it. I also can't imagine eating a fish I caught, in a river. I like my food heavily processed to remove any of the nature.

    As for your larger point, I was about to say "Maybe it's the time away from something that makes you not like it" -- you might have always liked catfish, but you took time away from it, and that cost you your love of catfish, but then I read the remainder of your article, and I think you hit it right on the head, but not WHY that is.

    When you stepped away from catfish for a while, you got to eat something that WASN'T dirt, and then, unsurprisingly, you tried dirt again and realized that it tasted like dirt. If dirt is all you've ever eaten, then you don't know if you like or hate the taste. Obviously, you didn't like the taste, and your taste buds just had nothing to compare it to.

    The same thing would go with movies, tv, books: if you never try a genre or whatever, you won't know if you like it, and you won't know whether your own loves are garbage. So I agree with you.

    Then again, maybe your adult aversion to the things you loved as a child are more psychologically rooted: maybe you are rejecting those things because of...? I don't know you well enough to speculate. But it could be like reverse nostalgia: you like your life so much now that your childhood, happy as it was, tastes like dirt in comparison.

  12. Briane: I'm pretty sure I don't have an aversion to things I liked in my childhood as I still love many of the things from my childhood, like Star Wars and comic books. Also, I've gone back and re-looked at other things from my childhood:
    G I Joe (the cartoon): Why did I ever like that? One of the worst cartoons ever.

    Battle of the Planets: Still really cool stuff in concept, and I see what I was so enamored of as a child and almost still am now, but, well, dumb stories. Not exactly dumb but, basically, the same story over and over again.

    Starblazers: Still one of the best animes I've ever seen. Overall, a solid story, good characters, cool ships and stuff.

    So, no, it's not a rejection of childhood stuff.