My original crop of Old Men approached both catching and cooking fish as serious business, the first because it fed us and the second because it could burn us. A different mentor I met years later was more relaxed about such things, though, and his attitude helped keep the times interesting.
I was enjoying my first day on my first job out of college when Mr. Charlie Mullinnix introduced himself and drafted me into the service of the Tupelo Luncheon Civitan Club. The group met and still meets weekly for lunch, and they undertake a number of service projects that raise money for worthy causes. Among the many opportunities to serve Mr. Charlie listed was the group’s cooking team, club members who catered fish fries. I thought I could help there because I had a good bit of experience with the frying of fish. It turned out I was about to acquire a good bit more.
Every year at Thanksgiving, hapless chefs nationwide point out the method’s dangers when they drop a frozen turkey into a lipping-full pot of overheated oil and recreate a scene from their favorite Michael Bay movie.
If you’re careful and know what you’re doing, though, there’s nothing inherently unsafe at all about deep frying. At home, we used a freestanding cooker of my senior Old Man’s own design. He’d welded it out of quarter-inch plate and angle iron and given it two burners that were fed propane through a short length of hose. You couldn’t swap empty fuel containers at the gas station in those days, but we used the same size bottle such services offer now.
Our setup was stable and sturdy. The fuel sat far enough from the fire to be safe but not so far as to put the line between in danger. We cooked fish and hushpuppies in batches a few at a time and monitored the oil temperature constantly with a thermometer.
The first event I worked with the Civitans was at Ballard Park and, when I walked up, the cooking was already in progress. Mr. Charlie had a group of at least seven burners going, each heating a huge cauldron of oil over a galloping flame. The seven burners were fed propane from three great big tanks through a complex network of lines, pipes and hoses that looked like an electrical system in a Third World country. These tanks were much bigger than any I’d ever used. Whatever the largest tank would be that anyone could possibly consider “portable,” that’s what size all three of these were.
I was admiring the system when I noticed a flame sprouting from a kink in one of the copper lines. Evidently the line had been bent forth and back until it sprang a leak, which was marked by a pencil-thin flame six or seven inches tall that stood three feet from the nearest burner.
With some haste, I set out to find Mr. Charlie and inform him of our impending doom. Eventually I spied him some distance away, working to open what must have been the largest can of ground black pepper ever sold. He had a big bowl in front of him holding two or three pounds of corn meal he meant to season for catfish breading. Working on it as I approached, he finally removed the can’s pour spout and upended it, only to have the whole top pop off into the meal, all five pounds of pepper following close on its heels. I assumed he’d have to add a lot more corn meal or throw it out and start over, but he fished the lid out of the bowl, cast it aside and began mixing like nothing untoward had happened.
I took this under advisement and said, with no small amount of urgency, “Mr. Charlie, one of the gas lines has a leak and it’s on fire.”
He continued mixing.
“Mr. Charlie, there’s a leak in one of the gas lines to your burners over there,” I repeated.
He stirred on without comment.
“Mr. Charlie,” I insisted, “there’s a big leak in one of the gas lines and the leak is on fire!”
Finally he looked over the top of his glasses at me and said, “Well, how big a fire is it?”
“Pretty big,” I told him. “At least six or seven inches high.”
“Well, just watch it,” he commanded. “If it gets any bigger, we’ll stick another pot of fish over it.”
We finished cooking without anything blowing up and, later that evening, we served our customers the most thoroughly-seasoned batch of fried catfish I’ve ever tasted. I don’t know how many ways there are to skin a cat, but I can say with certainty there are at least two ways to fry a fish.
Kevin Tate is V.P. of Media Productions for Mossy Oak in West Point.