Fried crispy golden brown, the taste and texture of eating catfish close to the bone is a rare treat these days. But with this recipe, I’m out to bring back an almost forgotten dish.
There was a time in my youth that dining out for dinner usually meant a road trip. Small-town life in the 50s meant that restaurant options were limited, and my father’s café was one of the better options in town. So, for a dining adventure, we usually drove to Covington, Louisiana, or even further to New Orleans. But every once in a while, my father would fire up the Buick Roadmaster, and we would head out of state.
I grew up in Washington Parish along the Mississippi state line, and one of my dad’s favorite spots was Mack’s Fish Camp, a restaurant an hour away from Bogalusa in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. It was a treat to explore unfamiliar territory, and what lay ahead at this roadhouse restaurant was worth the drive.
Mack’s was famous for one thing—whole fried catfish. Back then, along with hushpuppies, coleslaw, and sliced white bread, whole fried catfish was all they served. But what they did with catfish was nothing short of magical. I still remember watching wide-eyed as the waitress set down a huge platter of steaming hot fried catfish in the middle of the table.
In my recipe, I’m using wild-caught catfish, a cleaner tasting fish. Trapped in hoop nets in the Atchafalaya Basin’s inland waterways, these catfish are skinned and gutted to order.
I like the smaller size that cooks evenly and quickly in a few short minutes. And the secret to my batter is the addition of pickle juice for tartness and Creole mustard for spice. The dry ingredients are traditional, and if you have a favorite packaged fish fry, then use that.
As kids, we had to learn how to eat fish on the bone, and it only took one pin bone stuck in your throat to understand the importance of the slice of white bread on the table. Those are great memories, and although there are still plenty of catfish houses throughout the South, fried filleted catfish is usually the restaurant option.
Mack’s is still in operation today, so give it a try when you’re near Hattiesburg. And try my recipe and find out how good eating catfish on the bone can be.
- 1 cup whole milk
- 2 large eggs
- ¼ cup pickle juice
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons Creole mustard or whole-grain mustard
- 1 teaspoon Acadiana Table Cajun Seasoning Blend, see recipe here
- 1 teaspoon hot sauce
- 1 cup yellow cornmeal
- ½ cup all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon lemon pepper
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 gallon peanut oil or vegetable oil
- 4 (8 to 12 ounce) whole wild-caught catfish, cleaned
- 3 tablespoons chopped parsley
- Lemon wedges, for serving
- Cocktail sauce, for serving
- In a large bowl, add the milk, eggs, pickle juice, lemon juice, mustard, Cajun seasoning, and hot sauce. Whisk until blended.
- In a large bowl, add the cornmeal, flour, lemon pepper, and salt. Stir the dry mixture together.
- In a deep fryer or Dutch oven over medium-high heat, add the oil and bring to a temperature of 350ºF.
- Add the catfish to the liquid mixture and coat on all sides.
- Transfer the catfish to the dry mixture and coat on all sides.
- Place the battered catfish on a tray and chill in the refrigerator for 10 minutes to let the batter set.
- In batches, add the catfish to the hot grease (do not crowd the pot). Let cook on all sides until golden brown and fully cooked, about 5 to 8 minutes . Remove to a wire rack lined with paper towels to drain.
- Serve family-style with a sprinkle of fresh parsley, lemon wedges, and your favorite cocktail sauce on the side.
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