By Robert St. John
We are a nation of regional dining concepts and local dishes. Chicago has deep-dish pizza parlors. New Orleans has po-boy shops. Ohio has chili parlors. Maine has lobster shacks. South Florida has crab shacks. Maryland also has crab shacks (there are a lot of shacks in regional dining). Oyster bars are scattered across the Gulf states, and barbeque concepts are spread across the South. You’ll find vinegar-based barbeque in North Carolina, sweet sauce in Georgia, spicy sauce in Tennessee, white sauce in Alabama, and almost all that sauce will be slathered on pork. In Texas beef brisket is king. Most of the best barbeque in those areas is served— again— in shacks.
Mississippi certainly has its share of good barbeque. We also have great po-boy shops in the southern part of the state, and oyster bars dotted all along the Coast. But if I were asked what defines local Mississippi cuisine— hands down— it would be catfish.
The primary and most unique regional dining concept in my home state is the goshalmighty catfish house.
It makes sense. Catfish is a major agricultural crop in Mississippi, and we’ll eat almost anything if you dunk it in enough hot grease.
I love catfish houses. I consider myself a connoisseur of catfish houses and have a 60-year track record of dining in them. For those reading this column outside of the south, it’s hard to drive 20 miles in any direction in this state without passing at least one catfish house (and several dollar stores). All catfish houses are slightly different in their menu offerings, but there are several universal and key components that are shared among all of them. They will all offer fried catfish filets as their primary menu item. The best catfish houses will offer whole catfish as well.
The catfish is not battered like New England-based fish— which probably originates from the British version of fish and chips— but lightly dusted in cornmeal, and sometimes with a touch of corn flour thrown in to make the crust lighter. Catfish will always be served with hushpuppies, French fries, and coleslaw.
The slaw will almost always be on the sweeter side and— many times— served first as an appetizer. I like to eat mine with Captain’s Wafers crackers. Other restaurants will serve hushpuppies first. Again, for those column readers above the Mason-Dixon line, hushpuppies are fried balls of cornmeal (I told you we love to fry) and are basically a cornmeal fritter.
Many catfish houses keep the menu simple and stop there. Most will offer fried shrimp and/or fried chicken. Others have extensive menu offerings, and several give away free ice cream for dessert. One thing is for certain, sweet tea will be the main beverage sold. And I’m talking about tea sweetened with so much sugar that the spoon almost stands on its own at the bottom of the glass. My rule for restaurants that offer sweet tea is that if you are in a state that has a team in the Southeastern Conference, you’ll be able to order sweet tea in a restaurant. If you are in a state that has two teams in the SEC— Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi— you’ll get the sweetest of sweet teas.
I don’t like catfish cooked any other way than fried. If I want grilled or broiled fish, I’ll cook sa species out of the Gulf. Though I never fry Gulf fish. Catfish is the only fish I’ll fry.
My earliest memory of a catfish house was a place called Mixon’s just South of my hometown of Hattiesburg. My grandfather loved to celebrate his birthday there. They offered fried catfish and the usual suspects, coleslaw, French fries, but also made some of the best baked beans I have ever eaten. My grandfather took me on a father-son overnight canoe trip with several other father-son pairings, and the owner of Mixon’s catfish house drove deep into the woods to our campsite and served a catfish dinner. To this day, that is the best— and most memorable— catfish meal I have ever eaten.
I once owned a catfish house. Those days operating the 589 Family Fish House were some of the most fun periods in my restaurant career. In addition to catfish filets and whole catfish, we offered thin filets (a practice first used at Middendorf’s in Manchac, Louisiana). We served everything family style, including the typical supporting cast of characters, and had excellent hushpuppies, coleslaw, pickled onions, and fries, but we also sent servers throughout the dining room with complimentary turnip greens, fried okra, baked beans, and yeast rolls. September 11, 2001, changed the dining dynamic in the area where we were located and I packed everything up, put it in storage, and vowed to re-open one day. Who knows what the future holds?
Most Mississippi catfish houses offer an all-you-can-eat catfish menu option. This is not strange to those of us who grew up down here. Though one time I took a New York photographer who was in town shooting one of my cookbooks to a catfish house and I noticed him staring bug-eyed at the menu murmuring softly to himself, “All you can eat? All you can eat?” He looked up from the menu and asked, “You mean they just keep bringing it to you? How can they do that?”
“Buddy,” I said, “They’re not worried about a little fella like you. They’ve been here for more than 50 years. They know what they’re doing.” In addition to our restaurants, I always take our out-of-town guests to a catfish house. It’s always a true “Mississippi” experience.
A catfish house that doesn’t serve farm-raised Mississippi catfish should be immediately eliminated from consideration. You would be surprised at the number of places selling the imported Vietnamese knockoff species, basa, and calling it catfish. Always ask your favorite fish house what they are buying.
My local go-to catfish house in Hattiesburg is Rayner’s on Highway 49 North. I’ve been eating there for at least half a century. But recently, I have been spending a lot of time just outside of Purvis, Mississippi, and have rediscovered what I believe to be the best catfish house in the state— Cuevas’ Fish House.
To my taste, Cuevas is king of the hill when it comes to Mississippi catfish houses. They are located on the main drag in Purvis and just up the hill from what the locals call “Dollar Holler” a grouping of all three Dollar stores— Dollar General, Family Dollar, and Dollar Tree— next door to each other. Cuevas is big and busy. There’s a reason they’re busy— they’re good, and they’re good on all fronts, food quality and service. I went twice in the same week last week. The fish is fresh farm-raised Simmons catfish and is fried perfectly. The hushpuppies are even better. They also have excellent fried onion rings, and the most efficient service I have ever experienced in a catfish house.
They stay very busy, but our dining experiences— from the greeting we received at the front door, to the extremely friendly, fast, and efficient service at the table, to the quality if the food— have been stellar. Seriously, my visits to Cuevas have been the best overall experiences I’ve ever had at a catfish house, and I’ve been to hundreds (including my own).
Kudos to former elementary-school-principal-turned-restaurateur, Jackie Cuevas. In a state with hundreds of catfish houses, she’s at the top, in my opinion. Jackie Cuevas runs a tight ship, and everyone who works there seems to enjoy the environment. They will see me again, often.
Daddy B’s Hushpuppies
1 cup White Corn Meal
1 ½ Medium white onion, grated
½ Green Bell Pepper, small dice
1 Heaping Tablespoon Salt
2 teaspoons Black Pepper
1 cup All-Purpose Martha White Flour
2 Tablespoons Baking Powder
1/3 cup Warm Water
The night before preparation, in a mixing bowl, add corn meal, onion, bell pepper, salt, and pepper and mix well. Place in the refrigerator overnight.
Heat oil in a cast iron skillet, Dutch oven, or deep fryer to 350 degrees.
Remove the bowl of cornmeal-onion mix from the refrigerator. Allow to sit at room temperature for 15 minutes. Add flour, baking powder, eggs, and water. Stir gently and let sit 3-5 minutes.
Using a spoon or scoop (about the size, or slightly smaller than a golf ball), drop batter into hot oil. Cook, turning once, until golden brown.
Drain on paper towels.
Yield: 30 hushpuppies (recipe can be doubled or tripled for large groups)
(Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and cookbook author who lives in Hattiesburg, Miss.)