The Natural Plate

A true summer supper
catfish-dinner-TSummer is upon us, and with it, my thoughts turn back more than 40 years to long, lazy mornings fishing with my grandmother on the dock in front of her cabin at tiny Lake Norrell in Saline County. To a boy growing up in Arkansas in the 1960s, Lake Norrell might as well have been the Atlantic Ocean. It’s where I learned to swim, water ski, fish, run a trotline, catch crawdads and gig frogs. And it’s where I learned that the perfect Arkansas summer meal is caught with worms, cleaned outside on a wooden picnic table, battered with cornmeal and fried in an iron skillet.

I recently found myself thinking about those summer days at Lake Norrell after coming across a story on the website Delish.com entitled “All-American Eats: Must-Try Foods from the 50 States.” The editors chose one ingredient or dish to represent each state. What did they choose that best represented Arkansas? Chocolate gravy. The website described it as “a breakfast staple in Arkansas.”

My grandmother never prepared chocolate gravy—which, of course, is not to say it wasn’t served in some Arkansas families. But it’s far from a staple in this state. Had they mentioned cream gravy or even redeye, made with the drippings of a salty country ham and a bit of coffee, I might have given them a pass. But far too often, writers and editors in places such as New York and Chicago list what they think those of us in Arkansas ought to be eating and drinking as opposed to what we’re actually eating and drinking. Case in point: the media’s fascination with sweet tea and fried green tomatoes, both of which have become trendy in the state but are not things I was raised on.

When I was growing up, if you wanted your tea sweet, you took a spoon, put sugar in the glass and stirred. It wasn’t brewed that way. And, yes, my grandmother fried just about everything—potatoes, okra, squash—yet we were much more likely to have fried green apples than fried green tomatoes in the summer. If the tomatoes fell off the vine early, you put them in the windowsill to ripen rather than battering them and putting them in a skillet. At least that’s what my grandmother did.

But there was no better meal suited to my grandmother’s tastes than a steaming plate of freshly fried, freshly caught fish—the payoff from summer mornings spent at the end of my grandmother’s dock with cane poles in hand. (The cane, by the way, had been cut by my grandfather, a man we simply called Pa.) My grandmother would bait the tiny hooks with the worms Pa Nelson had raised. Before dropping a worm into the water, she would spit on it for good luck and say, “Nelson sugar.”

It wasn’t uncommon to catch several dozen bream before lunch. We threw nothing back. My grandmother’s motto was, “If it’s big enough to bite, it’s big enough to eat.”

As the sun climbed higher in the sky, we’d end our fishing and ask for Pa’s help in cleaning the bream, the smallest of which would be fried up so we could eat them, bones and all, and always—always—with vegetables fresh from the garden, especially sliced tomatoes. We’d then spend the evening on the screened-in porch, listening to the frogs, watching the fireflies and anticipating the next morning when time once more would be spent on the wooden dock, baiting hooks, catching bream and absorbing the wisdom of the woman I considered the world’s best fishing companion.

My perfect summer meal, then, if the editors cared to ask, would be the same as it’s been for decades: fried fish, caught just hours before with a red worm and a touch of “Nelson sugar.” Tomatoes and other vegetables picked that morning from the garden. Perhaps some fried potatoes, cornbread and peas. Maybe even a cobbler made from wild dewberries picked earlier in the week. Give me that, and I’ve just defined an Arkansas summer.

You can save the chocolate gravy for a visitor from up north.

Rex Nelson writes about fishing, food and life in rural Arkansas in his weekly newspaper column and on his Southern Fried blog, rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

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