When attempting to tease apart the strands of American cooking that weave together soul food and Southern food, there's no better source than Adrian Miller, author of the James Beard-award winning Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time. Miller's book is a great resource for tracing the history of specific dishes, some of which go as far back as when the slave trade first brought Africans and their food to America. But when it comes to understanding a menu at a modern soul-food restaurant, sharing lunch with the author (who is also the executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches) means not only getting the history, but also the current rationale behind what makes soul food unique.
When I invited Miller to lunch, our intent was to meet at Chicken Shack 303 in Aurora, but the place had barely hung up an open sign before it closed down at some point in the last month or so. Luckily, Aurora is a melting pot of culinary diversity, so a quick search revealed that Catfish King was only a few blocks away. (In another sign of the city's diversity, the restaurant is located next door to a pole-dancing fitness studio, so you can eat your fill of fried fish and then work it off stripper-style).
In Soul Food, Miller explains that catfish became popular among African Americans as a result of the influence of the West African diet, the use of catfish to feed slave populations on plantations, and its availability as an inexpensive source of protein from Southern waterways. There's much more to it than that, but I'll leave the bulk of the historical delving to Miller; ultimately, though, catfish became part of the soul food canon because of a deep cultural memory. In other words, it's comfort food.
Catfish is comfort food for me, too: I grew up in North Texas, where dozens of man-made reservoirs provided fresh catch for lakefront catfish houses with names like the Duck Inn, where I would fill up on hushpuppies dunked in tartar sauce. Catfish King serves catfish, of course, as well as hushpuppies, but it also offers other fish — Miller points out that perch and whiting are soul-food rarities not generally seen in white Southern restaurants — and a few barbecue options. At Miller's suggestion, I ordered fried whiting, a general name for what could be one of several different species.
But we made sure catfish ended up on the table, too: Amy selected fillets and Miller ordered his whole so that we could sample the difference between fish cooked on and off the bone. And we couldn't pass up the fried chicken gizzards, another telltale sign that Catfish King is more soul food than simply Southern.
Sides ranged from creamy macaroni and cheese to smoky (Liquid Smoke smoky) collards to picnic-style potato salad and coleslaw. I took it as a good sign that the breading on the whiting was distinct from the breading on the catfish. Both were cornmeal-based, but the catfish dredge had added seasoning that gave it a darker hue and a spicier finish. And there was a notable difference between the whole catfish and the fillets. The meat from the whole fish was moist and delicate in texture, but with a more pronounced flavor than the fillets. The fillets were firmer and flaked into larger pieces, held together by only the exquisitely crunchy crust. Neither the flllets nor the whole catfish had the telltale muddy flavor associated with the bottom dweller, a fact that can be attributed to modern fish-farming practices — and one that many catfish aficionados lament due to the farmed fish's overall lack of flavor.
Miller explained that whiting first started showing up on fish-house menus as a cheaper alternative to catfish during certain historical periods when catfish scarcity drove up prices. I enjoyed the whiting — unlike similarly budget-friendly tilapia, which I always find unpleasantly soggy and reminiscent of aquarium water.
Inundated with planks of fried fish and bowls of side dishes, we didn't notice for a long time that the gizzards were missing from the table. But they eventually arrived (after a reminder to the waitress) and Miller and I enjoyed the sizzling, chewy chicken offal. That texture is part of what makes a gizzard unique and is not something that can be cooked away, no matter the technique used. A little chewiness is expected but is definitely an acquired taste, one I acquired from my dad, who always kept the heart, liver and gizzards for himself, except on special occasions when he'd mince everything up for giblet gravy.
Despite the huge portions, I couldn't leave without an order of peach cobbler; I wanted to compare it to the same dessert I ate at the Welton Street Cafe earlier this month. According to Miller, there's a "great cobbler debate" among soul food cooks and historians: whether cobbler should be served wet or dry. Catfish King's cobbler is decidedly dry, with a thick, pie-like filling — rich brown from a tremendous dose of cinnamon — between layers of flaky, layered crust. It was closer to a German strudel than many of the strudels I ate during my month of German cuisine.
Welton Street's cobbler, in contrast, was a dessert meant for a bowl, not a plate. Sweeter and soupier than Catfish King's, the crust was moist and mixed in with the filling, almost like sweet dumplings. That two so obviously different desserts can both be called cobbler is testament to the vast cooking culture of the American South and Midwest. Miller let us know that many adherents of the wet school of cobbler would consider Catfish King's version nothing more than a pie.
Catfish King's casual style, big portions and well-made food are in keeping with the rural catfish houses of my childhood, but the urban setting and addition of barbecue, whiting and a few distinct sides (like collard greens, which I never saw on Texas menus) give the place a distinct soul-food vibe. The pace of service was definitely relaxed (lunch stretched on for a good two hours), so it's worth going with friends who will keep the conversation lively. If you have a soul-food scholar in your midst, so much the better.