I had to make Pan Fried Catfish with Buttered Rice. Partly because Pan Fried Catfish has become a springtime tradition in my house. But mostly because earlier this week I made Macaroni Pie and recounted the story of Great Aunt Delores (who wasn’t really my Aunt) and her role in my early culinary days.
Naturally that post got me thinking about those times, my then girlfriend Pam, and Aunt Delores– who also taught me to pan fry catfish like nobody’s business.
Which means I have another Aunt Delores story. Or rather I should say I have another story of Aunt Delores’. The one that begins with why she didn’t cook during the holidays, and ends with Pan Fried Catfish with Buttered Rice.
The first time I heard this story was just before spring break 1983ish. My girlfriend Pam loved food. She came from a very culinary family. A strictly Southern culinary family. Her food traditions included cornbread at most meals. Well, I mean meals that didn’t include biscuits. You get the idea.
College kids today would be shocked, but when I was in college most 17, 18 or 19 year old kids passed spring break in the homes of their parents. Pam and I both had parents who demanded this of us, so we did as we were told (another thing that would shock kids today). Despite exams and all the busy work of a semester’s end Pam insisted we have one more meal up north in Cairo, GA with the previously mentioned Great Aunt Delores. As I’ve said Aunt Delores was a great cook and I rarely passed up an opportunity to eat with her. Even if it meant driving one hour north just to eat, turn around and drive 6 hours south to my parent’s house. Even if it also meant cooking the meal myself under Aunt Delores’ tutelage.
It was a typically hot springtime afternoon in Georgia when we pulled up in Aunt Delores’ driveway in my little Toyota. Aunt Delores hated that car. She always made me park it “round back”. I guess so that the neighbors wouldn’t think she knew any “people like us”. I could never figure out if it was the fact that my license plate identified us as “people” from Florida, or that we were the kind of “people” who would drive a foreign car. But the car always set Aunt Delores off on the wrong foot.
The funny thing about Aunt Delores was this: as much as she loved cooking for other people, she loved complaining about it even more. She always had an excuse or a story as to why she wasn’t doing the cooking that day. Which often meant the chore would fall to me– under her watchful gaze and determined words.
On this particular trip we were barely out of the car when she opened with the phrase: “Now I don’t expect you to know this, a fancy young man like yourself” (she used to call me “fancy young man” to my face not quite realizing that it was an insult) “but cooking during the holidays is a lot of work. When I was younger my mother refused to cook during the holidays, so the ham and all the fixins fell on my young shoulders. I don’t believe I was but 8 years old.”
Spring break wasn’t exactly a holiday to a 75 year old woman and I saw Pam roll her eyes, but I was starting to like the direction this seemingly tall tale was taking.
“Let me tell you, it takes a week– full on, for a child that small to get a meal like that on the table. Especially knowing how particular my daddy was about candied yams”.
“You, fancy man, open up that freezer and pull out 6 or 8 catfish fillets, and Pamela you get down that box of spices and dust it off. We got royalty in the house and he’ll be wantin’ the good stuff.”
Before you know it Aunt Delores had flipped on the kitchen TV and lit another one of her skinny cigarettes, echoing forth the very phrase that was running through my mind, “Pop me a beer hon, it’s hot as all get out in this kitchen”.
Pan Fried Catfish
Well 2 or 3 beers later Aunt Delores had directed me through several simple pan fried catfish steps. She started me out by melting a little butter mixed with oil in a skillet. She told me which spices and which kind of flour to shake onto each side of those catfish fillets. Her choices were Wondra flour, onion powder, celery salt and paprika. She taught me how to boil rice so that it wouldn’t stick together. Then instructed me to put butter into the rice, more butter and even more butter. “What do you think I am a poor woman? No sir, there’s plenty of butter in this house”.
I then plated that rice and topped it with a couple of the golden pan-fried catfish fillets, and piled on a whole heap of pickled peppers. I brought a plate over to Aunt Delores, finding myself hoping for some sort of approval. But no, Tom Brokaw was on so there was no talking allowed– save for “pop me one of them beers”.
Once dinner and Tom Brokaw were finished Aunt Delores stood up and began to clear the table. I jumped to my feet, as any fancy young man might do and I tried to help with the dishes.
“Nope” she snapped at me. I said I don’t cook during the holidays, but I never said a word about cleaning up. Don’t they teach English at that college of yours?”
Unrelated to this story, Pam and I broke up soon after. It was never meant to be as I was beginning to discover. I left Tallahassee and moved to California just a few months later. I may have broken Pam’s heart just a little bit, but I needed to find my true self. I knew I could never do that under the watchful gaze and determined words of Aunt Delores.
In truth, I think Pam dodged a bullet (well, we both did).
I did hear through the grapevine that Aunt Delores was a bit furious about my leave-taking. She took to telling perfect strangers that she had never really liked me and just knew there was something wrong with “a fancy young man like that letting an old lady boss him around the kitchen”. Yet, I continued to get Christmas cards from her for many years to come. I heard she passed away in a nursing home well into her 90s.
The irony is, whether Great Aunt Delores actually cooked during the holidays or not I’ll never know. But she taught me something about cooking during the holidays. Be it candied yams, king cake, Yorkshire pudding or pan fried catfish, you never know when or where a cooking tradition may begin. GREG