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EATS ONE ATE Tracing the history of tamales and catfish...

November 16, 2010

My name is Jay, and I am a collectoholic. I think it all started when I was in a band of ragamuffins, known as Jayola, Clayola, Trayola and Larry, who scoured the upturned earth in our new construction neighborhood in search of Indian relics, and the limestone bank which let loose several buckets full of what we called fossils.
A few years later the habit evolved to football cards, cigar boxes, and matchbooks, and as a freshly-graduated grown-up with no honey to spend that money on, collecting went to a whole new level.
One of the traits that have emerged in the legion of personality tests I have taken over the past few years (another collection) is that I am also an information collector. I think that is why I like going to meetings.
In a previous occupation I attended lots of meetings, often over the course of several days. One of the challenges of a multiple-day meeting is the caloric math: the only exercise is rising from the meeting hall and walking to the dining room, rinse (your mouth) and repeat. Coffee breaks usually do not require the exertion of leaving the room, and if you fly to the meeting you don’t even leave your seat for those meals. And if you’re lucky, the meeting food is decent.
The Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium in October took meeting math and turned it on its pig ear – food was the focus, food was the topic, and the food was fantastic - when it comes to meetings, the snack bar had been raised.
The first course of the first day was tamales, as both subject matter and lunch. I’ve never really been a big tamale guy. My only memory of Mama making tamales involved a can opener and a saucepan. No offense to Mama, but that did not create a craving for tamales later in life.
Until this last October, I can only recall having eaten tamales once or twice, and as far as I know they were not born of a tin can. Making progress.
In the meetings we traced the path of tamales from Africa to Mississippi, to surrounding states and beyond. Arkansas poet Greg Brownderville regaled us with tales of Hot Tamale Charlie and his unrequited love, Splendy Pretty. Before all this tamale talk I was prepared to try them again, and oh, we did. The organizers even contributed positively to the meeting math conundrum by asking us to walk about six blocks to the lunch venue.
Lunch tamale Numero Uno was wrapped in the traditional corn husk and packed with quail confit – I had to find a dictionary to tell me what confit is, but I only needed my taste buds to tell me that tamales could be my friends. Tamale Two was even better, and was truly unique to this tamale novice. Instead of the masa being rolled around the filling, this one was studded with tasty nuggets of cracklin’ and ribboned with collard greens. Side dishes included refried black-eyed peas and a sweet potato salad – both of which I intend to tweak and try in my own kitchen. Bread pudding with butternut squash gave us just enough energy to walk the six blocks back to the Lyric Theater – uphill.
The evening eat-fest was nostalgia with a twist. From my days as a student at Hotty Toddy U., I remembered well that dinner at Taylor Catfish would be comfort food at its most delicious. My memory was accurate – everything but the cole slaw was fried to perfection. The twist came from appetizers not normally on the menu at Taylor – probably because they were created by New York chefs. The first was a spicy catfish stir-fry, prepared by chef Eddie Huang – a bit on the spicy side for my tender tongue, but worth ordering again for the overall flavor. On the other end of the porch chef Suvir Saran was serving catfish-crab cakes. I could have eaten a plateful of those, which just goes to show you: there is more than one way to fry a cat.
I wasn’t sure the menu could improve the next day, but we were indeed wowed again – down home tamales and catfish on Friday simply whet our appetites for ceviche, oxtail, and exotic tacos on Saturday. More yum to come.

Jay Reed is a local foodie and pharmacist. The culinary tastes expressed here are his and do not necessarily reflect the appetites of the Starkville Daily News or individual members of its staff. He welcomes your comments at eatsoneate@gmail.com.

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