Summer is road-trip season, so we're taking a culinary tour of America. But
because Portland is a city of immigrants from other states, we don't have
to leave town to do it. We're traveling to 50 Portland restaurants to try
one distinctive food from each state. Our 50 Plates tour
fried catfish from Mississippi, which joined the union on December 10, 1817.
The state: Known for floods, white supremacy and teen pregnancy, Mississippi also boasts the country’s lowest rates for health care, income and educational attainment. Woof. But the Magnolia State has birthed more than its share of luminaries, including William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Morgan Freeman, B.B. King and Elvis Presley. Also 3 Doors Down. And Oprah (who sadly left the state at age six).
The food: Mississippi produces the majority of farm-raised catfish eaten in the United States, with about 60 percent of country’s supply grown within a 65-mile radius of Belzoni, a Delta town that hosts an annual catfish festival featuring a beauty pageant and catfish eating contest. (The fest will celebrate its 40th anniversary next year, so book your tickets now. Look at the dewy cheeks on that catfish court! Can’t make it all the way to Mississippi? Celebrate National Catfish Day, established by Ronald Reagan in 1987, every June 25.) It’s no surprise, then, that a deep-fried version of this whiskered bottom feeder is the state’s signature dish. The fish, either whole or cut into fillets, is dredged in cornmeal and spices and then fried in oil. The result is hot, flaky and delicious.
Other dishes considered and rejected: Mississippi mud pie, hot tamales, comeback sauce, koolickles, root beer (invented in 1898 in Biloxi by Edward Adolf Barq).
Get it from: Whether by design or happy accident, Mississippi Avenue is the place for Mississippi cuisine. That's where you’ll find Miss Kate’s Southern Kitchen (4233 N Mississippi Ave., 724-7878), owned by Charlie Hudes, whose grandmother Kate Koestler was a bridge-playing socialite in Vicksburg, Mississippi. In between meetings of her garden club, Mamaw Kate cooked up Southern fare that was, we have on good authority, “just heavenly,” including fried chicken, red beans and rice, coleslaw and biscuits and gravy. And, of course, fried catfish. At Hudes’ cart, a catfish plate ($11) comes loaded with a super buttery biscuit, two sides (think mac ‘n’ cheese, creole fries or collard greens) and four pieces of freshly fried fish. That fish is eminently satisfying—the batter is crisp and peppery, and the meat inside sweet, white and flaky. I neglected to ask if this particular catfish had been grown in Mississippi, but it still tasted like something you’d be served at a family cookout in the Delta on a sticky summer night, fat mosquitoes biting at your ankles and Skynyrd blasting from a pickup truck.
Click on the map to see each state's distinctive food and where to get it in Portland.