My Soul Looks Back
By: Cortni Spearman
Paw Paw with one of his infamous catches.
I’m a Taurus. One of our many superior traits is our need for stability. To feel grounded. For me, food has always had an interesting way of keeping me grounded. Bringing me back to my center. Wrapping me up like a warm hug on a chilly day. I have a slew of dishes that give me this feeling. A feeling of nostalgia. Meals that allow my soul to look back. Fried catfish happens to be one of them.
As a child my grandfather took me fishing. I remember the day like it was yesterday. We got up early, really early. I had to be no more than 10 or 11 years old and even at that tender age I wasn’t fully alert when he came in to wake me up for the trip. I remember packing up the truck with our rods, hooks, fishing line, bait and two coolers. One cooler full of water, beer (for my grandpa who we call Paw Paw) and bologna sandwiches my grandma made for us for that morning. And another empty cooler for the potential fish we were going to catch. To this day my grandma never lets me or any one else for that matter go hungry. When I was up brushing my teeth at what felt like the crack of dawn, she was already in the kitchen frying eggs and making grits for us to eat before we hit the road to the lake. Grits were an everyday breakfast staple in her house.
I really didn’t want to go fishing. I didn’t want to have anything to do with fish besides eat them. I thought fishing was for boys. But I went. Mainly because my grandma promised that if I caught one, we would fry it up and have it for dinner. I was really excited about that part. I was spending time with my grandparents in Evansville, Indiana for the summer which was very different from the beachy town of San Diego, California that I was used to in many ways. But, I enjoyed the country. I liked the smell of the air, the food, the country accents. Something about being in Evansville made me feel safe, like it was home.
We arrived at the lake just as the sun was fully rising. “Woooooah Mammy!” Paw Paw exclaimed as we unloaded the truck, “It’s hot out here.” Paw Paw had a ton of euphemisms that he would constantly pull from up his sleeve. He was originally from Louisiana and thought his expressions were hilarious.
It was scorching outside. ‘This air feels different from the air at home,’ I thought to myself. I couldn’t breathe. We set up our fishing gear and stood at the edge of the lake and waited. “This is it?” I asked Paw Paw. “You want to eat don’t you?” He snapped back. After a few hours of standing and waiting and waiting and standing and sitting and drinking beer and water, Paw Paw had caught a ton of fish while I, on the other hand, had hooked only a few, which was exciting, but I could seem to reel them in. (Story of my life)
We packed up the truck and headed back to my grandparents house. My grandma greeted us outside, waving to us from the porch with her hand on her hip and immediately got to work cleaning the fish. We dumped the entire cooler full of fish on the grass, set up a chair and my grandma began slicing the fish and peeling the skin off. I had never seen anything like it. The guts from the fresh catfish were spilling all over the muddy green grass and my grandma wasn’t even batting an eyelash about it. And I, surprisingly was not grossed out, but instead, fascinated.
After the fish was gutted, cut, de-scaled and cleaned. We took it into the kitchen and started dinner. “What are we going to have with the fish Ganny?” I asked. “Potatoes of course,” she responded with a smile. We always had catfish with either fried potatoes or spaghetti and tonight was a potatoes night. I can recall not even being tall enough to reach the counters but still trying my best to watch every step my grandmother was taking. Seasoning the flour, dredging of the corn meal, the popping of the grease. She always used a cast iron skillet.
As the pan was heating up with oil, I was tasked with cutting the potatoes. She always knew when the oil was hot enough by testing it with just a drop of water.
The fish went in the pan and when I heard the instantaneous sizzle from the flour I knew it was going to be on and poppin’. Literally lol. While the fish was frying, I finished cutting the potatoes and Ganny began seasoning them with Lawrys, pepper, garlic powder and a little bit of chili powder.
I remember the smell. Fried food has a smell that I find particularly hard to describe, but we all know what it smells like. It filled my nose and the entire house smelled like hot grease and seasonings. I particularly love this smell. This was the kind of fish fry smell that lingered in the house for a few days after and everyone who came over knew you just fried something up.
As soon as the fish was done, in went the potatoes, no need to change the oil as the leftover seasoning bits were a good base for the potatoes. Those cooked up pretty fast and before I knew it we were ready to eat. Fresh fried catfish, fried potatoes, and a side of sliced white bread. Paw Paw made a fish sandwich with his but I always enjoyed eating the bread as a side for some reason.
Even at the young age of 11 years old I knew that was some good fish. Perfectly seasoned, crispy, and it didn’t have that slimy inside like catfish can sometimes have. A lot of people stray from catfish for that reason, but it’s all about how you prepare the fish. “Drying it really well before frying is the key,” my grandma told me while catching up over the phone and trying to re-create this epic catfish recipe 15 years later. “And don’t be afraid to get your oil really hot, let it heat up nice and good,” she said.
This process is one I seem to know like the back of my hand without looking at a recipe now. It’s something that kind of comes naturally. This is what keeps me coming back to the kitchen. What keeps me centered, grounded and wanting more out of cooking.
I don’t always eat catfish, but I do love a good piece of crispy catfish every now and then. Sometimes you just crave those meals that remind you of a place or a time in your life that brings you back home, that keeps you grounded. And when I make my grandma’s catfish, I can’t help but think of how my love of catfish all started from a fishing trip I didn’t even want to go on.
Cortni is a lychee martini and sushi loving food enthusiast eating and exploring her way through Bed-Stuy. Follow her adventures on IG @heycortnay.