Catfish has never been my favorite food.
I don’t know whether it is the texture or the greasy smell that you get when making it most of the time.
And, let’s face it – it has to be deep fried or it never even approaches edible.
Someone even tried to give me catfish sushi one time. GROSS!!!
But I got my exposure to catfish when I was just starting cooking.
Has anyone ever heard of a Lums restaurant? They were a small, Midwestern chain like a cut-rate Denny’s. They went of business quite a while ago but they specialized in burgers, ribs, and – every Friday night – an all you can eat catfish fry!
My first job in high school was at a dishwasher at the Lums restaurant right off I-71 and Route 37 at the Sunbury, Ohio exit. There wasn’t much else there besides a gas station, discount smoke shop and us.
It was my third week washing dishes when it happened.
The Friday Night Fish Fry was always our busiest night. Families would rush the place intent on eating us out to the walls. And, they did – every week.
10 deep fryers would start up about five and keep going stuffing the masses until midnight. Each fryer could handle 10 lbs. of catfish at a time. Ten minutes per batch for 60 lbs. of catfish per fryer per hour. That’s 600 pounds per hour sent out to those slobbering hordes. Some nights we went through almost a ton of catfish.
Brian, the manager, took me aside and said, “Mike, Gary called off tonight so I am going to need you to go on breading patrol.”
“Yeah, I am going to need you to mix and bread the fish for the frying.”
Brian showed me how to mix the corn meal and spices and how to dredge the filets through mixture. Then I would lay out ten pounds per tray and pop them in the cooler until needed.
After 20 minutes, I had a tray ready. I was stoked.
The manager looked at me, cocked an eyebrow, and said, “Very nice. Just remember that you need to pop a tray out every two minutes to stay ahead.” I was crushed but determined.
While I worked, Little Pauly, the cook, prepped the deep fryers. The oil has to be drained out every so often and strained through a paper filter to clean it. The liquid would then be poured back in the fryer and could be reused several times before disposing of it at the end of the night. Pauly was so good that he could drain several fryers at once while also frying the fish for the orders already up.
The dinner rush started and all was going fine despite the fact that we were shorthanded. Within the hour, we had already fried up and gone through about 400 lbs. of catfish. and I was running as fast as I could to keep up. I had finally achieved some sort of system on the breading and had even managed to pull ahead of the curve a little bit.
I was grabbing a couple more trays of prepped fish from the cooler when disaster struck.
“God-damn mother f&%#@@$$^&!!!!#$$%&^$#@!” came screaming through the door of the cooler followed by crashes and slamming pots. I stepped out of the cooler with the trays of fish when –
– and the next thing I knew I was staring at the ceiling of the kitchen watching trays and pieces of raw fish pour down on me. Wiping the corn meal out of my eyes, I realized that the floor of the kitchen was covered in cooking oil at least an inch deep.
Brian was bent over Little Pauly pouring ice onto his foot in a bucket. The fry cook was just moaning.
“What happened?” I coughed out.
“Pauly slipped and accidentally pour hot grease on his foot. When he jumped, he knocked over the oil pots.”
“Is he okay?”
“Does this f#^^$$#ing look okay?” screamed Pauly as he held up his foot.
They may have been cheap sneakers but they were now melted cheap sneakers. This was not good.
“Order Up!” came from the counter.
Brian looked out at the full restaurant and the line waiting as he called the EMT’s.
The EMT’s bundled Pauly off quickly to the hospital while the restaurant continued to fill.
Sliding across the floor, he stared out through the serving window and the hungry masses ravening to eat and came to a decision.
“Mike, we have to feed ’em.”
“How the hell are we supposed to do that without a fry cook?”
“You’re on!” he smiled.
“WHAT?!?” I gawped.
“Call it a baptism by fire.” Brian continued.
“Are you insane? I can’t cook.”
“If we don’t feed them, they just may eat us!”
Stepping back, I slipped again and ended up on my back on the floor.
“We have to clean this up before we do anything.” I gasped as I tried to stand again.
“No time. Start reloading those fryers.” Brian ordered.
“You are crazy!”
“I am a crazy man with a full restaurant. Now, get those fryers going or you are fired!”
Trying to stand once more, I again slipped to the floor.
Huffing, the manager slid across the floor like an ice skater. Grabbing a huge stack of menus he started to plaster them across the floor of the kitchen.
“Is that better?”
And, it was. He had created pathways with menus between all of the cooking equipment and the serving window. The rest of the floor remained an inch deep in cooking oil. But, step off the path and Wham! flat on your back.
I managed to refill and fire up the fryers while Brian started dredging catfish fillets.
“And we’re off!” he shouted flinging a tray of corned fishiness my way.
Fish practically flew from that kitchen as I tossed them onto the passthrough into a pan and the servers had to tray them up as I could not safely reach the plates on my side. The one time I tried I ended up on my back surrounded by broken crockery.
Four hours we cooked that way. About two hours in, we heard that Pauly was going to be fine but would be off work for a week.
The only monkey wrench thrown into the works was when the servers ran out of pie out front and the only supply was in the cooler across an oily no man’s land. Grabbing up my courage, I ran and slipped across the floor while managing to change direction by grabbing an errant dishtowel.
Now that I was there, it proved almost impossible to open the door to the dessert cooler as I couldn’t get any leverage on the floor. This was solved by tying several dishtowels together and knotting them to the handle. Wrapping this around a table leg, I managed to pull the door open.
Grabbing three coconut cream pies and a peanut butter cream I stepped out of the cooler. Almost immediately, my feet started to slip. I managed to hook my feet under a rack to stop one foot from sliding but that other started to spread wider and wider. As you may know, men are not made to do the splits but that is exactly what was happening to me while holding four pies!
Brian managed to get a grip on my apron and slowly pull me to my feet while pushing me in the direction of the passthrough. Locking my feet and praying, I reached the far side and stepped onto my menu landing pad.
Breathing a sigh of relief, I placed the pies on the passthrough and smiled.
“Hey, where is my carrot cake?” yelled one of the servers.
“We’re out!” I snarled.
We must have fed 500 people that night.
Oh, I quit the next day.
Now, let’s do it right:
3 tbsp. ground Parmesan cheese
2 lbs. catfish, cut in fillets
2 cups white cornmeal
Oil, vegetable or lard depending on your taste.
Start by mixing the cornmeal, cheese and spices to taste in a bowl.