But, I spent a few years in the south. Southerners have wacky food traditions (and I mean that with the greatest respect!) It seems these traditions always get started by someone’s Great Aunt Delores and then somehow get incorporated into the culinary lives of all kinds of folks. I mean think about that cake with the plastic baby baked inside. And speaking of cake have you ever tried Coca-Cola cake? Now who do you think thought up those recipes? Why it was somebody’s Great Aunt Delores of course!
Which leads me to catfish. Because I had this girlfriend in college. She was a local Tallahassee girl. She was always dragging me by her relatives' houses for meals. Her particularly favorite dining destination was her Great Aunt Delores’ house.
Now Aunt Delores was a character, and I sometimes had trouble abiding her; but man could she cook! She lived just over the border in Georgia. She had lived there her whole life and never once ventured an hour south to visit her mostly relocated family in Florida. She “didn’t see the point of that entire state.” I swear those were her words.
Well one time during the holidays, Pam dragged me up there to have a meal. As was Pam’s way, we never called ahead. We always assumed Aunt Delores would be home watching her programs. Just waiting for people to show up so she could cook for them.
One afternoon we pulled up in my little Toyota, sure enough, there was Aunt Delores sitting on her porch watching her programs. She kept a TV on her front porch, never worrying that it might get stolen.
When she saw us coming she said, “Stop right there you kids. If I told you once I told you a million times, I don’t cook during the holidays.” Well she certainly never told me once let alone a million times! So I tried to make an excuse to leave. But Pam was undaunted and plopped herself down on the sofa. Yes, there was a sofa on the porch too.
Eventually I joined them and we watched her program. It was General Hospital during the peak of the Luke and Laura craze, so there was no talking allowed.
Once Luke and Laura had finished their cooing for the day, Aunt Delores stood up and said, “Grab that skillet” – which even I knew was kept under the sofa.
That’s when Aunt Delores started her story. The one that begins with I don’t cook during the holidays and ends with catfish.
She opened the tale with the phrase: "Now I don’t expect you to know this, a fancy young man like yourself.” She used to call me "fancy young man” to my face not quite realizing that it was an insult. "But cooking during the holidays is a lot of work. When I was younger my mother refused to cook during the holidays, so the turkey and all the fixin’s fell on my young shoulders. I don’t believe I was but 8 years old…"
I saw Pam roll her eyes, but I was starting to like the direction this seemingly tall tale was going.
"…and let me tell you, it takes a week – full on, for a child that small to get a meal like that on the table. Especially knowing how particular my daddy was about the cornbread stuffing."
“You, fancy man, open up that freezer and pull out 6 or 8 of those catfish fillets and Pamela you pull down that box of spices and dust it off. We got royalty in the house and he’ll be wantin’ the good stuff.”
Before you know it Aunt Delores had flipped on the kitchen TV and lit another one of her skinny cigarettes, echoing forth the very phrase that was running through my mind, “pop me a beer hon, it is hot as all get out in this kitchen!”
Well 2 or 3 beers later Aunt Delores had directed me through several simple steps. She started me out by melting a little butter mixed with oil in the skillet. She told me which spices to shake onto each side of those catfish fillets. Her choices were onion powder, celery salt and paprika, for the “fancy young man”. She taught me how to boil rice so that it wouldn't stick together. Then instructed me to put butter into the rice, more butter and even more butter. "What do you think I am a poor woman? No sir, there’s plenty of butter in this house."So I plated that rice and then topped it with a couple of the golden pan-fried catfish fillets, then piled on a whole heap of pickled peppers.
I brought a plate over to Aunt Delores, hoping for some sort of approval from her. But no, Tom Brokaw was on so there was no talking allowed – save for “Pop me one of them beers.”
Once dinner and Tom Brokaw were finished Aunt Delores stood up and began to clear the table. I jumped to my feet, as any fancy young man might do and I tried to help with the dishes.
“Nope” she snapped at me. "I said I don’t cook during the holidays, but I never said a word about cleaning up. Don’t they teach English at that college of yours?”
Unrelated to this story, Pam and I broke up soon after. I left Tallahassee, and moved to California just a few months later. I may have broken Pam’s heart a little, but I needed to find my true self and I knew I could never do that in Florida.
But I did hear through the grapevine that Aunt Delores was a bit furious about my leave-taking. She took to telling perfect strangers that she had never really liked me and just knew there was something wrong with "a fancy young man like that" letting an old lady boss him around in the kitchen. Yet, I continued to get Christmas cards from her for many years to come. I heard she passed away in a nursing home well into her 90s.
The irony is, whether Aunt Delores actually cooked during the holidays or not I'll never know. But she taught me something about cooking during the holidays. Be it turkey and stuffing, king cake, Yorkshire pudding or Pan Fried Catfish with Buttered Rice and Pickled Pepper Relish, you never know when or where a holiday cooking tradition may begin.
• CLICK here for a printable recipe: Pan Fried Catfish with Buttered Rice and Pickled Pepper Relish
• See more 2009 Holiday Guest Posts here
(Images: Greg of SippitySup)