Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Dig In - Catfish

I like to eat fish, but I don't do it very often.  First, I live in a small rural Midwestern town and we have limited access to fresh fish and seafood.  We have excellent trout in local streams and some pan fish in the town pond, but I am not a fisherperson.  Plus the season is limited and there are a lot of rules about what you can keep and what you have to release.

And then there is the real problem, which is that I am a confused and worried fish consumer.  I have read too many articles about the dire state of the world's oceans and unsustainable fishing practices.  I don't want to support irresponsible fishing, and I have not been sure what fish is okay to eat, so I usually take a pass on fish altogether.  This is not a good state of affairs - since fish is a great source of protein and nutrients.  Now I can offer hope for my fellow reluctant fish eaters - Seafood Watch.  This worthy project of the Monterey Bay Aquarium is designed to make it easy for all of us to support ocean-friendly seafood. Check out their handy pocket guides here.  You can even get current guidelines sent to your mobile phone.  http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/cr_seafoodwatch/download.aspx

One thing my pocket guide told me is that catfish (U.S. farmed) is a "best choice".  Wild caught Mississippi channel or flathead catfish was not even mentioned as an option -- probably because it is rarely commercially available.  (Only about 2,500 pounds were harvested commercially in Minnesota in 2005.) But I knew that it would also be a good choice.

That is why I was looking forward to eating some catfish during our recent visit to Prairie du Chien Wisconsin and McGregor, Iowa.  Both towns are right on the Mississippi River - surrounded by wildlife refuges, state parks, marinas and a thriving sport fishing industry.  We did eat some good catfish and even brought home some smoked catfish.  But mostly what I have learned is that wild Mississippi River channel catfish - like lots of traditional local foods all over the country -- has practically disappeared as a commercially available food.  

There was a time when you could get catfish at restaurants and supper clubs and diners up and down the river.  Like at the White Springs Supper Club just south of McGregor.  White Springs closed about five years ago.  It is for sale.   The only reason a traveler even knows that catfish was ever served there is that the old sign remains, somewhat the worse for wear.   Looking at the old run down sign and road house made me feel kind of sad. 

Once we found out that the White Springs was closed, we decided we were going to have to ask around to find a restaurant that served catfish.   We had not seen any signs advertising catfish for sale on the Iowa side of the river.

But we knew that just over the Highway 18 bridge in Prairie du Chein there was a unique store that sold catfish and other wild "river food".  So we headed over to Valley Fish and Cheese, which is a pretty amazing place.  http://msippivalleyfishmarket.com/default.aspx

If something is edible and comes from the Mississippi River, chances are that Valley Fish and Cheese can sell some to you.  Frog legs, white perch, channel or flathead catfish, bullheads, snapping turtle meat, bluegill filets - it's all there in various forms.  You can even get catfish bologna, which did not end up in our cooler.  A couple of pounds of smoked catfish did, though.

So we had found some local catfish for sale, but we still were looking for a restaurant that served catfish.  Agnes, who is the mother of the owner of Valley Fish, was very helpful and directed us to the Hungry House Cafe - on Hwy 35 in Prairie du Chien.  She told us that there was one local fisherman who she thought still provided local catfish to commercial accounts in the area.  And sure enough - we found a catfish dinner at the Hungry House.  The generous serving of fried catfish was excellent.  (One word of advice - order baked potatoes - not mashed.)  Yes there are bones, but they are easy to deal with.  The fish was very meaty, with good texture and mild flavor.

If you decide to try catfish, I encourage you to seek out the real thing -- local, wild caught Mississippi channel or flathead catfish.  If you can't find that, then look for U.S. farmed catfish.  Big catfish "wars" have been raging for about 8 years now between the U.S. catfish industry (located mostly in the South) and aquaculture operations in both China and Vietnam.  All I will say is this -- as is the case with many other food items, Asian imports are threatening U.S. producers.  This is largely because they have much lower labor costs and often do not observe the same production practices as U.S. producers.  U.S. farmed catfish is the most commercially successful farmed fish in the country - but the industry still faces major challenges from foreign competitors.  Here is a link to the U.S.Catfish Institute, which includes lots of recipes and other info.  http://www.uscatfish.com/recipes.html

The U.S. catfish industry successfully lobbied for protections which mostly has kept Vietnamese "catfish"  - known as "tra" or "panga" out of American markets.  That is because only channel catfish can be called "catfish" - so "tra" can't be marketed as catfish.  But now the Chinese are starting to raise North American channel catfish in ponds in China - circumventing the existing rules.  For more details on the catfish wars, see this excellent New York Times article from 2008.  http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/12/magazine/12catfish-t.html

Bottom line is this -- if you are purchasing farmed catfish, ask where and how it was raised so you can make an informed choice.  And if you want to try some good old Mississippi River catfish, best to head on down to Prairie du Chien some time soon with your cooler.  It would be a shame if the Mississippi catfish business totally went the way of the dodo bird.  It just doesn't seem right that we should be buying North American channel catfish from Chinese aquaculture ponds when we could be getting it from commercial fishermen right here in the good old U.S.A.

One more thing -- if this topic intrigues you -- here is one more link I just had to add.  An interesting article about Minnesota catfish fishing from a 2007 edition of Minnesota Volunteer - the DNR magazine.  Makes me think I might just have to take up fishing for catfish - especially flatheads.

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