Beyond the whiskers: Consumers catch a taste for catfish
By Amanda Barnett
July 30, 1999
(CNN) -- Fish lovers are finding ways to fancy up an old Southern favorite: catfish.
Farm-raised catfish is now ranked the fifth most popular fish consumed in the United States, according to The Catfish Institute. Only tuna, pollock, salmon and cod are more popular.
Per capita consumption more than doubled to 1 pound between 1985 and 1997. The catfish industry produced 6 million pounds of fish in 1970. That grew to 525 million pounds in 1997.About 70 percent of the farm-raised catfish in the United States is produced in Mississippi. The rest comes from Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana, according to The National Fisheries Institute.
Catfish producers describe the flavor as slightly sweet with a firm yet slightly flaky texture."Mild, sweet taste like a good pecan; a good, juicy sweet taste," said catfish farmer Harry Simmons, owner of Simmons Farm Raised Catfish, in Yazoo City, Mississippi.
While frying is popular, Simmons said he likes his catfish baked with a little parmesan.
Health-conscious consumers can smoke, grill, broil or saute the fish. In fact, the only "wrong way" to cook catfish is roasting, according to the National Fisheries Institute.
Catfish can be seasoned in many ways. Herbs can be used to boost the flavor without adding fat. Or for a smoky taste, chips of hickory, mesquite or other woods can be sprinkled over the coals on the grill.Catfish can be purchased whole, but boneless fillets are readily available and are great for grilling. Catfish also is sold as individually quick-frozen fillets.
Catfish have long been popular in the South.
"People around here have always liked it," said Simmons. "And with me growing up and eating it, I never thought it tasted bad."
Still, catfish farmers concede that despite its growing popularity, catfish faces an image problem.
"Some people think it's a bottom fish," Simmons said. "They think catfish has a muddy flavor or eats trash."
But today's catfish are more upscale. Most are raised in clay-based commercial ponds with fresh water pumped in from underground wells, according to The Catfish Institute.
"We grow catfish in ponds and feed them corn and soybean meal," Simmons said. "It floats, so they come up to eat it."
He also said catfish are tested for flavor to make sure they don't taste like algae.
How would Simmons get catfish skeptics to try it?
"If I can ever get it in their mouth," said Simmons, "they will like it."
Americans eat nearly 15 pounds of seafood a year
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