‘The catfish is plenty good enough fish for anyone‘ – Mark Twain –
It is said that the face of Helen of Troy launched a thousand ships. In that vein, the whiskered face of the catfish launched my quest to track down Supergraphics. While participating in the RAIN bicycle ride in Indiana, I’m contemplating a sabbatical of travel. Unsure of what my goal or destination might be, I see a U-Haul trailer with catfish emblazoned on the side. It announces Belzoni as the Catfish Capital of the World. That was it, I had to see what this venue was all about. Luckily my visit coincides with the annual Catfish Festival.
I can not find an available motel room near Belzoni and opt to overnight about a half hour north in Greenwood, MS. I spend the evening tracking a thunderstorm and tornado producing cold front that is ripping through the area. Though weather forecasts are not looking favorable for the festival, I look forward to a drive through the Delta anyway.
Heart of the Delta
Belzoni is located in “The Heart of the Delta”. The Delta is the distinctive northwest section of Mississippi which lies between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers. I drive towards Belzoni on Highway 7 through the towns of Itta Bena, Quito, Morgan City and Swiftown. The farm fields are muddy and empty.
While the soil may be rich and fertile, it’s obvious that the economy is not. The once labor-intensive money crop of cotton has been mechanized and textile industries moved overseas. The towns are relics of their former selves, bordering on virtual ghost towns. While the buildings may be dilapidated, I get a sense of a rebirth and pride.
Mississippians are a hard working and prideful sort and not prone to quitting. In the 70’s, the effort to supplement farmers incomes with catfish farming begins. Farmers had to overcome the catfish’s normal tendency to be bottom feeders. This feeding habit makes for a muddy tasting meat. The industrious farmers develop ways to convert pig and chicken feed into floating fish pellets. Subsequently, this rewires the catfish DNA to eat suspending feed and thus produce a more tasty food source for humans.
In just a few decades, catfish farming has become an important economic resource for Delta life. In fact, the Delta farmers have become so prolific in catfish farming that the area produces over 70% of the catfish consumed in the United States. This distinction earns Belzoni the designation of Catfish capitol of the world.
I see the Belzoni city limit sign and immediately begin seeing colorful catfish statues around the local businesses. Part of the Catfish on Parade Arts Project, the 33 fiberglass statues are themed and painted. I track down many of these before the Festival opens at 9:00.
It is with Southern pride that Belzoni celebrates the farming achievements with its annual Catfish festival. The organizers tout the festival draws up to 10,000 visitors each year. With temperatures just above freezing and howling winds, the crowds are significantly less this year.
I enter the festival and head toward the Catfish museum, a repurposed railway depot. Despite the weather, the attendee’s spirits are high and people friendly. The women are well dressed, make up heavy, hair teased and sprayed as if its date night. The vendors and shop owners are cordial, offering a smile and a “hello, how are ya”. Wondering if they somehow know I’m an out of towner, I come to the conclusion that they are just normally that friendly.
I am interested in the museum, but really just want to get warm. While I glance over some of the exhibits, I overhear a few locals engaging in some local gossip and goings-on.
I manage to insert myself into the conversation which invariably turns to the age-old question: Is catfish better fried whole or filleted? Being from Western Kentucky where the whole catfish “fiddler” is the only way to eat catfish, I take the position of “whole”. Soon, those supporting the local favorite of filleted outnumber me. Leading the fillet contingent was Dee, the days’ museum curator.
Our lively debate quickly abates when a big young man enters the museum reporting to duty with his oversized catfish costume in tow. Dee and crew treat me as part of the family as the hilarity of puns and jokes ensues as it takes a committee to get this guy into the suit. Seeing the consternation of the would be “catfish”, I offer to take a shift, as the suit looks comfy and warm.
When my offer is declined, I say my goodbyes and return to the festival streets. I grab a bag of freshly made pork skins from a vendor and head over to check out the Little Miss Catfish Pageant. However, the cold winds don’t solicit the cheery smiles and waves of the young evening-gowned contestants. As such, the event is cut short. Many vendors, tired of resecuring their blowing away tents, also begin to shut down shop after only a couple of hours.
Maybe Next Year
I too, have tired of the cold but don’t want to leave without the much touted “filleted” catfish. I duck into Allison’s restaurant. Allison’s is located inside an old non-descript downtown building. Probably an old department store. The entrance is an old heavy wooden door and the also wooden floors are creaky. The walls are brick and the place is warm; much like the cheerful staff. Of course, I order the catfish fillet platter. A southern tradition of fried catfish, french fries, hushpuppies, and coleslaw. I finished it off with a jar (yes a mason jar) of banana pudding that I purchased from a vendor before they shut down.
The food was hot and tasty. The wait staff was overly apologetic about the weather and low festival turn out, seemingly taking it personally. Their personal pleas to please come back next year were sincere and heartwarming. If food and hospitality are an indication, Belzoni helps the region earn its title as “The Most Southern Place on Earth”. It feels like home, even if they don’t fry their catfish whole.