A Fresh Look: On Flavor

Seeing as I only occasionally pass for a true southerner, I predict this blog series will be full of embarrassing admissions of ignorance on my part. For example: the first time André 3000 urged me to vocalize my love of “fish and grits and all that (delicious Southern food),” I had no clue what he was talking about.

Fish? Check. Grits? Like Quaker Instant Grits? The kind you eat for breakfast with your scrambled eggs?

Dunbar's catfish at the Treme Gumbo Festival

I didn’t really begin to comprehend the significance of fish and grits until my husband and I honeymooned in Charleston, and for the first time I tasted (okay, devoured at every meal) real, creamy, stone-ground grits. And the catfish? I’ll just say this: in every place we have lived since then, I’ve have made a point of scoping out the best places to get two things: pulled pork barbecue (that’s a story for another day) and fried catfish.

But the culture surrounding the eating of catfish is only half the story. In his 1992 book Catfish and the Delta: Confederate Fish Farming in the Mississippi Delta, Richard Schweid explains the role of the catfish pond in the region: “Many people in the Delta found close parallels between farming cotton and farming catfish, not the least of which was that they both create a local economy made up exclusively of the well-to-do and the poor, where the rule is excessive wealth or bare survival.” It’s in that context that Ed Scott managed to establish the nation’s first minority-owned and operated catfish farm and processing plant in the early 1980’s.

In this week’s film, On Flavor: Delta Catfish, Ed Scott, along with Schweid and Steve Yarbrough, narrates his venture into an industry that, like the cotton it eventually overtook as the primary Mississippi crop, had every intention of keeping African American entrepreneurs in their place.

Warning: when you’re done watching, you may feel the urge to brush up on some Marx (means of production, anyone?). While you’re at it, grab yourself a copy of Schweid’s book. Turns out, the story of catfish farming makes for a phenomenal introduction to both the physical and cultural landscape of the Mississippi Delta.