This recipe originated along the Savannah River, which during the eighteenth and nineteenth century was the waterway of commerce between Savannah and Augusta, Georgia. The river (was and still is) home to record sized catfish--mostly flathead and mud cats, although there were many other varieties, including channel cats, the fish of choice for the thousands of catfish farms throughout the South.
Many people, white and black, fished the waters of the Savannah River and its muddy tributaries for catfish for the table, and with no refrigeration, it was cook it or smoke it. Catfish were often caught with cane poles, but since night time was usually better fishing, the favorite way to catch them was with "trot" lines. A "trot" line (fisherman literally 'trotted' along the banks of the stream) was a line tied to a limb or bush overhanging the water. It was close enough to be baited and the fish pulled in from the bank. The limber branch would allow the fish to pull but not break the line, usually strong cotton string, Trot line fishing was an all night activity, and frequently larger fish were filleted and cooked right on the stream bank. And thus was the origin of "Savannah River Catfish Stew." Cooking SRCFS required much less "set up" than fried fish and hush puppies (by the way, that's another story) because all you needed was a large cast iron pot with a tight lid, some fatback, a few potatoes, and a some onions. And of course, some dried or fresh hot peppers. Many times the catch included a 5 to 10 pound fish, and one of these, cleaned, boned and cut into biscuit sized pieces, was enough for a pot of stew. Here's how it was done then, and it works well now.
3-4 lbs. of catfish filets or nuggets cut into 2-3 inch squares. ( I have actually been desperate enough to substitute several cans of salmon when I couldn't get catfish, but that's a whole 'nother thing, as we say in the piney woods.)
1/2 lb. salt pork (fatback) or streak o' lean (you can substitute ham fat or bacon, but it won't be quite the same with the smoke flavor.) sliced into 1/4" slices (about the thickness of a pencil). Leave the rind on if it comes with the fatback.
4-6 medium to large onions, the stronger, the better. Peel and slice into 1/4" slices.
4-6 Large potatoes, peeled and sliced into 1/4 " slices.
Several fresh or dried cayenne or other hot peppers such as longhorn. (you can substitute dried pepper flakes if the others are not available. Use about a tablespoon if you can stand the heat; otherwise, season to taste.) It may take a time or two to get the hot pepper ratio just right for your taste, so be conservative on your first attempt.
Salt & black pepper to taste, but remember that the salt pork has a lot of salt, so be conservative.
Savannah River water to taste.
WHAT TO DO WITH THEM
Step One: Catch or buy 5-8 lbs. of fresh catfish
Step Two: Clean the fish, filet, and cut the flesh into 2-3 inch pieces.
Actually, you can probably skip steps one and two and go straight to the supermarket and buy 3-4 lbs. of catfish nuggets. (These are farm-raised fish and are very good, but as you can imagine, not as good as fresh caught.)
In a large Dutch Oven (cast iron is best, but others are ok, even, grudgingly, including a crock pot) place one layer of slices of salt pork fatback or streak o' lean (fatback with some lean meat) in the bottom of the pot to cover the bottom entirely. This should use all of your fatback.
Next, add a layer of onions, a layer of potatoes, then cut one pepper into slices and spread over the layer of potatoes. Wash the fish in Savannah River water (or the water of your choice) and spread a layer of fish over the potatoes.
Repeat this layering process until you are out of fish.
NOTE: Do NOT add water. Just washing the fish is enough. The onions and fish will cook out enough liquid to make a nice juicy stew after slow cooking. Trust me (and history) on this.
Place the iron Dutch Oven with a tight lid over the coals of a campfire, sprinkle some of the live coals on the lid, and leave alone overnight or for at least 6 hours. Since this procedure is not practical in all cases, simply place the pot on the LOWEST possible setting of your cookstove and leave it alone for 3-4 hours before peeking. DO NOT STIR! When the stew is done, the fish and potatoes should come apart easily with a fork, and the onions have practically disappeared. Remember, every time you peek,you lose moisture and flavor.
Serve the stew in heavy crockery or china bowls. Stir the stew just before serving to mix up the main ingredients. Don't stir the fatback on the bottom; it is there to give the stew some fat, but also serves to keep the first layer of onions and potatoes from scorching. The fatback may be scorched, but will not harm the taste of the stew. It actually enhances it. This recipe should serve about 6 people, but since hot pepper seems to increase the appetite, think large servings. You won't need anything else with this, except maybe some sliced tomatoes and cucumbers. Cornbread and iced tea are traditional accompaniments.
If you have questions about this recipe, email its author, Jim Kline, who fished the Savannah River and Butler Creek in his youth. firstname.lastname@example.org
A WHOLE 'NOTHER THING This is a colloquial (spoken) expression that is a localism (regional idiom or mannerism) in the deep South (Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, and Mississippi). It means simply, "something altogether different."
BISCUIT In the South this is bread made from flour (about 2 cups), shortening, butter or lard (about 2 tablespoons), buttermilk (about 2/3 of a cup), baking powder (about 2 teaspoons), and a pinch of salt. The ingredients are kneaded (mixed) and rolled to about a half inch thick then round biscuits of about 2-3 inches are cut from the dough, placed in a lightly greased baking pan (such as a pie pan) and baked for about 10-12 minutes until light brown on top. Mmmmmmmm, Good!
CANE POLE Cane is a variety of bamboo that grows well in humid, temperate climates. A cane fishing pole is usually 10-12' long and is very limber and very strong. It was used for fishing for this reason and the fact that it grew wild in many swampy areas.
CATCH In this context this word that is most often used as a verb is used as a noun meaning all of the fish that were caught. In restaurants one will frequently see the expression "catch of the day." Meaning the fish that is most readily available. (Or perhaps the kind the restaurant has the most of and would like to get rid of before they start smelling bad.)
CATFISH Scaless fish with whisker-like feelers extending from the upper jaw. Its appearance gives it the name "catfish." Catfish are found in both fresh and salt water, and the fresh water varieties are often sought for the table. In rivers some varieties grow to 100 lbs. Or more, but the most popular variety, the channel catfish, is far smaller. These fish are now raised commercially in special ponds and are available in almost any supermarket or fish market in the U. S. A Spanish name for catfish is bagre (showy or gaudy).
CAYENNE The name Cayenne is from the island capital of French Guiana. The word is derived from the Tupi language of the Amazon basin, and it is likely there where the use of this plant originated. Cayenne pepper is ubiquitous (appearing everywhere) in the Caribbean and the southern United States and is often just called "red Pepper." It is about an 8 on a 10 point scale if you take Habeñero as 10 and Jalapeño as 6. You can buy it fresh in the summer and dried all year. In the spice counter you will find it in flakes and ground. It has a distinctive flavor, but longhorn pepper, although milder is close. Serrano (Mexican chiles about 2" long) will also do, but they have their own distinctive flavor.
CLEAN THE FISH This does not mean wash the fish, although you should after you clean it. This term means to remove the head, internal organs, and in the case of catfish, the skin. Be careful! Catfish have three sharp, jagged spines--one on each side and one on the top of the head about even with the gills. To skin a fresh caught catfish, hold the mouth tightly with a pair of pliers. Make an shallow incision all around the fish starting just below the top spine. With another pair of pliers, grasp the skin at the incision just south of the top spin, and pull toward the tail. If you do this properly, most or all of the skin will come off with one pull. Repeat the process, and you will get the hang of it (become accustomed to it).
CORNBREAD The other southern bread. This is made from cornmeal (coarser than harina de maiz) and buttermilk with an egg and a little shortening added as well as baking powder or baking soda. The ratio is 2 cups meal, 1 egg, 2 tablespoons shorting (lard or butter), a cup of buttermilk, and 2 teaspoons of baking powder or soda. Mix well and pour into a heated, greased iron skillet (about 8" in diameter). Bake at 450 degrees for about 20 minutes, or until firm in the middle and light brown on top. Turn out into a plate and slice into wedges. Serve hot with butter. (Leftover corn bread is great for breakfast with butter and syrup. I also like it cold with peanut butter.
Dutch Oven A large metal (usually iron) cooking pot with a tight fitting lid used for slow cooking. The lid is often concave in shape to allow a place for hot embers to facilitate the cooking process. You can buy cast iron Dutch ovens in hardware and department stores, and the process of seasoning them is important. Seasoning instructions usually are given with the pot, but if not, rub the inside with fat or shortning and place the pot in your conventional oven for 1-2 hours on 350 degrees. Never wash this utensil in a diswasher or with hot soapy water. Just rinse with warm water and scrub lightly with a potscrubber, rinse againwith clear, cold water, then dry and put away. Over the years the "seasoning" will take on its own distinctive quality. We have one we have used for more than 40 years, and it is practically non-stick with seasoning.
FATBACK Salt Pork and fatback meant the same thing. If there is some lean in the fat, it is called streak o' lean. Fatback is actually from the belly of the pig. Bacon and streak o' lean are from the sides. It is salt cured so salt permeates the fat and for that reason, you must go light on the salt you add to the stew. You may have to ask for this at the market, but most supermarkets carry it. It is not inexpensive now, as it used to be years ago when it was widely used, but you don't need much.
FLATHEAD (catfish) Flathead catfish are named for their flat heads, and can reach 100 pounds in size. Mud cats from their muddy color (and taste). Channel catfish were usually caught in the deep channels of rivers in colder, swifter water than most catfish preferred. Blue catfish have a blue-green color. And believe it or not, walking catfish walk from pond to pond. To see a picture of a flathead catfish, go to http://homepages.go.com/~omegaman66/fishlist/flathead.htm
ICED TEA (Pronounced 'ice tea') Tea served with ice. In the South its is almost always sweetened when made (sometimes very sweet) and some people like a pinch f baking soda in a gallon jar of tea.
LAYERING This is a case of using a noun form as a verb. A layer is single thickness of some substance. A layer cake, for instance, is made from slabs of cake with frosting between and on the top. Layering is the process of making layers.
NUGGETS Nuggets are irregular sized pieces or lumps of some natural substance. The term is often used to describe pieces of gold. Lately, marketers, such as McDonalds, have used the term to describe small pieces of chicken or fish. Supermarkets frequently advertise catfish nuggets. They are smaller and cheaper than filets.
ONIONS, THE STRONGER THE BETTER There are two things here, one about onions and the other about language. Onions are strong or sweet rather than strong or weak as you might expect or even sweet or sour. A strong onion brings tears to your eyes when you peel it, so peel it under running water. A sweet onion can be eaten by itself, rather than as a condiment. Sweet onions are usually flatter than strong onions, and one town in Georgia, Vidalia, has made its name synonymous with sweet onions. The other matter is language. In English the double comparison of adjectives is a frequently used idiom. "The ____-er, the better" serves as an elliptical sentence (a sentence with the obvious words left out). For example, "Turn up the music, the louder, the better" means ". . . the louder it is, The better it is."
PEEK To peek is to take a surreptitious look. Peek-a-boo is a game you play with infants by covering your eyes and then uncovering them and saying "peek-a-boo!" The idea is to get the infant to reciprocate (do the same).
PINEY WOODS Literally flat land with lots of pine trees, but this is an idiom for country (as opposed to city, urban, or suburban). Here it is a mildly self-deprecating remark. In some contexts it could be disparaging.
SCORCHING To scorch is to burn slightly. This can enhance the flavor of some foods (blackened fish or steak, for example). In our recipe it is ok to slightly scorch the fatback (think of crisp bacon), but be careful not to burn the stew. COOK ON VERY LOW HEAT.
STEW A dish that serves as the main course that is prepared from several ingredients, usually including cheaper cuts of meat or fish, that is cooked to a consistency that is thicker than soup. When the main ingredient is fish or shellfish it is usually called "chowder," although the term fish stew is also used. There are recipes for catfish chowder that are far different from this catfish stew. There are many kinds of stews and chowders in American cooking--Irish Stew, Mulligan Stew, Scotch Broth, Filet Gumbo, Jambalya, Goulash, Pozole--that have their origins in the immigrants who brought the recipes.
TROT A trot is a gait (style of stepping) used by horses. It is somewhat less than a full gallop. Applied to people it is more than a walk but less than a run. (Nowadays, people call it a jog.) A trot line is a line set in the water from the bank, usually on a limb or bush. Some fishermen tie lines for fishing from plastic bottles, such as gallon milk jugs, and call a series of them "trot lines." Just like so many other terms used today, the origin has gotten lost as times change.
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Last modified: August 2000