My Love Affair with Crisp Fishy Things

Exploring an edible continuum, from dried eel to catfish chips.
catfish chips

During my Georgia youth, I was big on dried fish. When we traveled to Atlanta on family outings, my father would arrange detours to Asian markets, where he would plunder the freezer case, in search of ready-made dumplings, and I would buy bags of dried eel.

I was probably ten or twelve at the time I developed that yen. It wasn’t like I was some sort of sophisticate. I just liked the snap and the salt and the briny whiff that came swirling from the bag.

Eventually, I backed off the dried fish and moved toward the fried end of the crisp-fish spectrum. Since moving to Mississippi, I’ve gotten my fix at Taylor Grocery, the fabled catfish joint eight miles south of Oxford, where, with a little persistence, one can trade a hushpuppy for a deep-fried catfish tail, a negotiation that comes into relief only if you know just how good Taylor’s hushpuppies are.

Recently, though, I’ve discovered two crisp fishy snacks that do not require finagling. One even arrives via mail order.

At the New York City restaurant John Dory, April Bloomfield’s deliriously decorated send-up of a seafood shack, I just ate a salad of arugula and parsley, topped with a deep-fried air-sac pulled from a cod. (The chef on duty described the fried-pork-rind-looking thing as the sac that a cod inflates in order to float.)

That air sac was perfect: Shatteringly crisp, it tasted lightly of the sea and proved a rich foil for the lean, clean thatch of arugula and parsley beneath. But it was an ephemeral treat, gone in a few enthusiastic bites, and, at least for me, back home in Mississippi, unattainable.

Mr. Bill’s Catfish Chips on the other hand, now arrive on my doorstep via parcel post, packed in resealable paper bags. (The minimum mail order is five pounds.) Emily and Katy Simmons, daughters of Mississippi Delta catfish farmer Henry Simmons, of Yazoo City, are the women at the helm.

What they do is this: They slice their daddy’s catfish fillets super-thin, in the manner of Middendorf’s, the 75-year-old catfish restaurant in Manchac, Louisiana. And they fry chip-sized portions of those fillets in deep oil until all that’s left is what the Simmons sisters call, well, catfish chips.

I’ve been serving them whole, as beer snacks, on Saturday afternoons, and I’m thinking that, next time my wife cooks Martha Foose’s catfish-in-a-brown-paper-bag riff on pompano en papillote, I’ll get my piscine crunch fix by crumbling a few catfish chips on top.

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