Uncle Jack's Riverbank Stewtext and photos by Phillip Jones
Simple ingredients, plus time to relax and savor the outdoors with family and friends, turn this classic Carolina recipe into a cherished tradition.
All great cooks, and many of the not-so-great ones, closely guard a secret recipe or two, the kind handed down through generations. And whenever the conversation turns to secret recipes, very often there's a story mixed in with the list of ingredients. My Uncle Jack Yelton's catfish stew recipe is no different.
A stew recipe is often cooked, and handed down, by sportsmen because cooking is one way a fellow can brag about his outdoor skill with a fishing rod or shotgun - that is, as long as he brings home enough meat to fill all the plates at the next family gathering. What was unusual about Uncle Jack was that he did not like to fish. He just enjoyed the cooking and that was usually done along the banks of the Wateree River. Uncle Jack called it swamp cooking.
The catfish stew recipe that he cooked was handed down to him - head to head, nothing written down - by a family friend who often cooked at local hunting clubs where, as the story goes, more folks came to sample his table fare than came to hunt. For Uncle Jack, the fun was in the cooking, not the collecting of ingredients, and he insisted there was no finer kitchen than the great outdoors. So he adjusted the original recipe to suit his medium-sized cast iron pot, which he regularly simmered by the heat of a friendly campfire.
The ingredients are simple: a few medium catfish (a pound or two each), a few good-sized taters, a sweet onion, some red pepper and two or three pounds of fatback (if you have to ask what fatback is, then you should not be in the kitchen in the first place). Throw in a loaf of Sunbeam bread and your favorite beverage (bring your own or drink creek water) and you have the makings for a fine supper.
Once you have a nice bed of coals going, start frying out the fatback. You can get by with two pounds of fatback, but Uncle Jack always brought along three, just to be on the safe side. Besides, if you don't need it all for the stew, it makes a great appetizer.
Slice it into small thin pieces and dump it into the hot, dry pot. Stir it to keep the pieces separated and to keep it from sticking and burning. Savory drippings will be rendered into the pot as the fatback turns golden brown. When the sizzling stops, take the slices out and let them cool on a plate. Have a taste, but leave some to go back into the stew pot.
Next, take your taters and onions (sliced thin like potato chips) and toss them into the hot fatback drippings. You will need to stir regularly as they start to brown. Judge the amount of taters and onions by the size of your fish.
When they are brown, add water to your pot - be careful, there may be some spattering - and fill it close to the brim, then stir in about one fourth of a small box of red pepper and add salt to suit your taste. When all this comes to a boil, drop in your catfish and whatever's left of the fatback slices.
When the fish becomes flakey and the red pepper has your eyes burning, the pot is ready to come off the fire. Timing is everything, but that's one secret Uncle Jack couldn't teach us. If you over-cook it, then the taters get mushy. Undercooked? Well, nobody likes an under-cooked catfish. Don't rush it and allow plenty of time for sitting, tasting and talking. It took me many tries to get it right and to realize that the secret was not in the recipe at all, but in the good-times shared with family and friends while it's cooking.
The reason for the Sunbeam bread, Uncle Jack said, is to eat a slice if you happen to swallow a fish bone. Usually, a pot of rice is cooked along with the stew. Putting rice or a piece of bread in your bowl first also helps soak up some of the juice and cool down the red pepper.
Uncle Jack's oldest son, Mack, recalls riding along to the grocery store where they would purchase a flopping fresh catfish or sometimes ground beef for huge, hand-slapped burgers (but that's another story). Mack cooks his own version of the stew in the original iron pot that Uncle Jack used for decades.
Several years ago, another family member, Billy Thompson, became interested in Uncle Jack's secret recipe, and eventually, Uncle Jack passed it on to him too - head to head, nothing written down. Billy, now the family catfish stew chef, has taken the recipe a little farther. Unlike Uncle Jack, he loves to fish, and a few days before any family event, you'll find Billy near Low Falls Landing catching medium-sized catfish. The only thing that he changed is that he fillets the catfish to remove all the bones and serves the Sunbeam bread with cornbread and dinner rolls.
Billy says he will pass the recipe on to his son someday, or other family members who want to keep Uncle Jack's memory alive and his catfish stew simmering. Whether or not my version of the stew comes out just right every time is not important, because the memories it evokes of Uncle Jack and my dad cooking and swapping tales by the Wateree River are always delectable.