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In 1990 I found myself living in Ashdown, Arkansas. Ashdown is on the southern border of Arkansas about 45 minutes north of Texarkana. The area is generally referred to as the tri-state area because the borders of Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana all come together just south of Texarkana. Texarkana is marked by State Line Boulevard running smack down the center of the city. If you are driving south, the right side of the white line lies in Texas, with Arkansas falling on the left. The Texas side, surprisingly, was dry when I lived there, with the Arkansas side being wet. I have no idea how this stands as of this writing. Ashdown, was in a dry county. If you wanted a beer on payday on a hot, sticky, Friday night (which would be most of them) you had to hop in your car and drive twenty-five minutes to the next wet county to get you one. The amount of liquor you could bring in was also monitored, and if you were an over imbiber your neighbors would sometimes check out your trunk to see what you were unloading and put a bee in the right ears about your activities. Once I drove to the liquor store on such a Friday night to get my husband a six pack so he would loaded and ready for bear when his ball game came on the following Sunday. The liquor store was situated on a rather isolated patch of land about halfway between Ashdown and Texarkana. Pulling in, I parked my car in the nearly empty dirt lot across from a beater of a pick up truck with three men seated in the cab. One of them, the driver, said something suggestive out the window to me as I got out of my car and headed toward the building. I had worked on construction sites for several years by that time, and had learned to ignore such statements. Inside, while retrieving an ice cold six from the cooler, I took notice of the man standing behind the counter. Built like a wrestler, he was wearing a Harley Davidson shirt. Though his left arm was whole, the right arm stopped at the elbow, and was wrapped with an ace bandage. I say this not for any reason in particular, except when he was ringing me up he dropped something, and while retrieving it brought up the missing appendage telling me he’d lost it while serving his country in Viet Nam. I thanked him for his service. After carrying on the usual customer, clerk, conversation for a few minutes, I placed my beer on the counter. I paid, got my change, and headed back out the door stepping into the oven-like lingering heat of the day. Standing by my car were the three men from the truck. By all appearances, they had already availed themselves of something alcoholic to drink. One of them, the driver again, was resting directly against my driver’s side door. I stopped walking towards them and pondered what course of action to take. One of them made another off-color comment to me, and the man next to him whistled loudly. My internal alarms began going off. Surveying the situation, I realized how vulnerable I was. Lonely stretch of road, small woman, three inebriated men, not great odds. Instead of continuing in the direction I was going, I turned and went back into the store, explaining the situation to the owner. When I stopped talking, the man reached under the counter and whipped out a shotgun, and in one swift movement with his left arm cocked it and walked out the door. Hello? I was thinking more, let’s dial 9-1-1, but okay. Wondering what on earth I had gotten myself into, and writing a note to self to have my hubby get his own beer from now on, I inched over to look out the window. The four men were gesturing and obviously not having a friendly chat. The driver, offering one last international one finger salute, followed the other two men to their truck, and music blaring, started the engine, and pulled out of the parking lot. My heart began to settle down to a normal rythm rather than the drum solo from Wipeout it had been previously entertaining. Whew.

I remained in the store until the owner returned, thanking him profusely when he came in for protecting my honor. He suggested I stick around about fifteen minutes to give the men had a chance to get a good head start. I didn’t need to be asked twice. Returning his weapon to it’s original hiding place, we easily took up our previous conversation where we’d left off. As often is the case in that part of the country, the topic turned to fishing. Catfish was a mainstay around there, being featured on nearly every menu I’d opened since arriving, along with it’s sidekick, hush puppies. Catfish was still considered a bottom feeder on the west coast, and hadn’t gained popularity in California as yet at that time, but has certainly picked up speed since I’ve returned. David, my husband, was from those parts and had been dropping a line in the water since he was a boy. Many times while we were living in Ashdown, the southern fried catfish served to company at our house was put there thanks to David’s excellent angling chops. Explaining this to Ben, we were now on a first name basis, him being my hero and all, he suggested we join him for a planned fishing trip on the bayous two weekends from then. Exchanging contact information, I told him I would ask David and get back to him. Keeping one eye open for that beaten up old Ford truck, I made it home without any further trouble. David, when I recalled my adventures, said I was never to go there again alone without him. Check and double check. It’s a dangerous world out there. I didn’t want to be featured on an episode of the Forensic Files.

David rarely passed up an offer for a day on the water and this was to be no exception. Plans were made with our new friend, Ben, and times set for my first adventure out on a bayou. I was both excited and terrified, at the same time. David had shared with me many of his experiences back in the swampy areas of Arkansas and Louisiana, both states of which he lived in at one time or another. One particularly alarming story he told was when he and a friend had gone fishing in Louisiana. It was early morning, as he told it, and as soon as he dropped a line in the water it seemed like a fish was on the line. In order to keep the fish fresh, as he reeled them in, he attached them to a stringer. A stringer is a long chain with a series of hooks attached to hold your recently caught fish which you dangle off the side of the boat submerged in the water. The two men sat peacefully floating along, I’m sure with an empty beer can or two between them, when David noticed the stringer was moving around quite vigorously. Thinking perhaps a larger fish was pilfering one of the smaller ones on the line, he yanked the stringer into the boat to investigate. Mouth expanded over a fish, a cottonmouth landed, writhing and not at all happy about the situation he was in, in the bottom of the boat. David said he and his buddy nearly beat each other to death with the oars trying to get it back in water, finally succeeding. I asked why they didn’t jump in the water. His reply, “he may have had friends, or there might have been a gator floating around. What? Why would you choose to fish there? Surely there are safer waters to find yourself floating on? As they say in the south,”I guarantee”.

Another fishing story floating about in my mind that morning on the way to Ben’s, was again set back in the bayous. This time David was by himself in a piroque. A piroque, is a flat bottomed boat, looking much like a canoe, in his case made of aluminum. The bayous, as I was come to learn, have a unique beauty to them. Eerily still, but for the sounds of birds calling to each other from the tree tops, or insects buzzing around your ear. Things can be seen floating by under the surface of the muddy water. I didn’t ask, and didn’t want to know. On the day he told about, he said there was no breeze and it was sticky hot, an apt description for any sunny day down there. Suddenly, he heard a noise that sounded like a freight train that seemed to be rolling toward him out of nowhere. In seconds the sky over him got dark and he was surrounded by a huge cloud of mosquitos. “Momma”. He said they were swarming on his face, arms and legs. For weeks he was covered in calamine lotion to the point where he looked liked a Kabuki dancer. Not for me. I’m not a bug girl on even the best of days.

The last story, another fishing tale, of course, took place in Louisiana once again. Fishing with a buddy from work, according to David the fish weren’t biting much as the heat of the day had arrived. As is typical in Louisiana and Arkansas, clouds had moved overhead indicating a quick dousing of summer rain was imminent. This was a phenomena I had to adjust to when living down there. It doesn’t rain in the summer in California, or at least very rarely. In the humid southern states it’s nearly a daily occurrence. This accounts for the fetid smell in the woods there, because the vegetation below the surface rots under the sizzling top cover. This day the clouds opened up and a downpour ensued. The weather turned ugly fast and, according to David, a water spout, or water tornado formed where they were. The story goes all the water was sucked up leaving them almost stranded on a bank and holding on for dear life and then the sky relinquished it’s burden again nearly drowning them. Now these fish tales may be only that, but they had enough validity for me to have me wondering why I was bumping along this dirt road in Southern Arkansas probably heading toward certain death.

In the end, I found the bayous most enchanting in their way. In spite of all the bug spray I was sporting, I managed to get quite a few bites on what skin was exposed. I caught a few fish, heard some fascinating stories, and had an adventure, while making a new friend. Our day culminated with fried catfish, hush puppies, steamed corn and lots of laughs. Another stamp in my memory book.

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Last night was one of those odd sleep nights, mainly because I did not participate in any of it, sleep, that is. Not being an expert on the subject, I would deduce that having a lot on my mind when I went to bed, my mind just chose to process all those bits and pieces rather than just say goodnight like a normal brain.

Around two, with my other half snoring peacefully on his side of the bed, the large white cat on his chest moving up and down as he did, I gave up the fight and got up. At that time in the morning the choices for activities are somewhat more limited than during the day. I made a pot of coffee and turned on the TV. On the first channel that popped up an ad pitchman was touting the amazing characteristics of a mega food processor, which, according to the testimonials, was imbued with enough power to puree an entire water buffalo in less than ten seconds. Resisting the urge to pull out my credit card, and bearing in mind my already strained freezer space, I picked up the remote and indulged in a little channel surfing. With my other half asleep, there was no need to negotiate soccer, football, or chick movie. I had the power.

I don’t watch a lot of television. It’s on quite often, but for the most part I never actually see the programs. Being a very active person most of the day by the time I sit down and become interested in something I fall asleep. After looking through the offerings, I found several, of what I call the “new Christmas movies”. Is it my imagination or do they all seem to have been created by the same writer, based on the same three plots, and take place in the same small town? What happened to Miracle on 34th Street, and The Bishop’s Wife (the original with Cary Grant)? I instead settled on Shadowlands with Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. A chick movie I had not seen before.

Shadowlands is the story of two writers, one of which has a terminal illness. After seeing Deborah Winger’s previous movies, there’s no need to guess which of the two actors isn’t doing well. To say this movie requires an entire box of Kleenex, and possibly a grief consulting session following the credits, would be an understatement. Understand I tend to be an empathetic person. If I kill an ant, I sent a note of condolence to the family. By the time this movie was over, I had enough wadded tissue on my lap to make an afghan.

Anthony Hopkins was wonderful, as always. He brings such depth to his characters, and feeling. To excel at such a level at what you obviously love to do, must be gratifying at the very least, and downright heady at best. Although I love to emote, I’ve never had the urge to do it on stage. For me, it’s telling my Susie stories at the dinner table upon request, or during staff meetings where I used to work when prompted. Actually standing in front of hundreds of people or performing in front of a camera has just never called to me. Being an only child I definitely don’t mind stepping into the limelight now and again, just on a lesser scale. Hollywood isn’t exactly beating down my door with script offers, so for now I’ll settle for being more of a smoked sausage than a full-blown ham.

There’s nothing I like more on a rainy afternoon, except maybe a really excellent book, than curling up on the couch with my favorite throw, a bag of Limon potato chips, and a bowl of sour cream and switching on a great movie. My all time favorite, is, and most probably will remain, To Kill a Mockingbird. For whatever reason, I can see it over and over again and never tire of Harper Lee’s rich story of the deep South, and all that accompanied living there in that snapshot of time, and perhaps in some ways still does.

Growing up going to the movies was an event. My first date was to the movies, and many following. Sometimes if we sat in the balcony we had to see it twice so we could tell our parents what the movie was about when we got home. Smile.

Theaters aren’t as majestic these days. Generally there are ten in a building, no balcony, no cartoons (what!), and for the most part, one movie, one price. I can remember when my first husband and I, newly married and not having much money, would go into Los Angeles on a Saturday and go to the old theaters featuring “Three Top Hits for $1.50. In truth, it was one top hit, one you’d never heard of, and the third a movie that you could make in your living room on your cell phone. It was fun for us though, except the smell. I do remember that. Street people, and lost souls, hungover, or about to be, who scrounged up the price of a ticket and either slept it off slumped in their seats or escaped the elements for a few hours. In our experience bathing was a luxury they weren’t able to indulge in regularly, so we would try to sit off by ourselves and always brought a bag of Vick’s menthol lozenges to block the smell. Funny. There were also the occasional trenchcoat types, who we avoided altogether, even a Vick’s lozenge couldn’t make that all right.

The last time we went to a movie, there was a couple sitting in front of us. The woman was what I refer to as a “theater narrator”. From the moment the lights dimmed she began an incessant discourse about the actors, what’s going to happen next, what just happened, what the ending was going to be, repeated requests for food, family updates, and in between all that actually carried on a cell phone conversation with her brother. About half way through the other people in the theater began drawing lots to see who was going to insert what was left of her hot dog into the perpetually open hole between her nose and the bottom of her chin. Her companion kept shushing her, but it seemed her idea of whispering was what most of us would equate with loud conversation. If I was her spouse, I’d corner the market on duct tape.

Anyhow, now I’m tired, and it’s time to get up. Have a great day. I made this recipe with catfish, and it was wonderful, but any white fish would be good. The sauce is a lot of production for a little output, but you don’t need much and it’s so good. It does not reheat well and needs to be served immediately.

Fried Catfish with Tangy Mustard Sauce

2 Tbsp. grape seed oil
1 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1 lb. catfish filets
1 1/2 tsps. hot Hungarian paprika (or regular if you prefer)
1 Tbsp. butter
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
1/8 tsp. of cayenne pepper
Mustard Sauce (recipe below)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 fresh lemon
Lemon wedges

Heat oil and butter in large non-stick skillet over med. heat. Season fish well with salt and pepper. Dust with paprika and sprinkle cayenne over all filets. Add fish to skillet. Cook until golden on both sides, about 3-5 mins. per side or until thoroughly cooked and flakey. Before removing from pan squeeze 1/2 lemon over fish. Transfer to warmed platter.

Mustard sauce

3/4 cup dry white wine
2 tsp. minced shallot
1 pinch thyme
1 small bay leaf
6 Tbsp. butter
2 large egg yolks
1/8 tsp. Hungarian paprika (or regular if you prefer)
1 1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard
Salt to taste

Bring first 5 ingredients to a simmer in small saucepan. Simmer 10-15 mins. until mixture has reduced to 2 Tbsp. Pour into med. metal bowl and allow to cool slightly.

Meanwhile melt butter in separate small skillet until frothy. Skim froth and pour clarified butter into small glass container and keep warm.

Whisk egg yolks and paprika into wine mixture in metal bowl. Place over larger pan of water on low bowl. Don’t let water touch bottom of bowl. Keep whisking over heat until mixture forms ribbons, about 5 mins. Add clarified butter and continue over heat until mixture is smooth and creamy, about 2 mins. Remove from heat and add mustard. Mix well. Spoon along side fish on plate. Yum.

Note: A reader suggests this method for the sauce as well. If you’re looking for an easier route to this delicious sauce he suggests you travel this road.

As to your sauce, I have a much eaiser method. Take the butter and DO NOT MELT IT but place it in with the well chilled egg yolks and your wine reduction. The chilled butter will temper the yolks and keep your sauce from breaking. You then place the pan on low heat and begin stirring immediately and for about 5 minutes until the sauce thickens naturally. Using my method, you never have a broken sauce

Blessings on you and yours
John

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I feel extremely blessed to have some really strong and excellent women friends in my life.  Truly, they are the glue that keeps the picture in the frame for me.  We speak the same language, in my opinion most of them have spines that can support twice their body weight, and are there when my back needs cover no matter what the issues in the past or those that could arise in the future. They’re my friends.

I saw Chaz Bono interviewed on a talk show the other day discussing his transition from a female to a male body.  This is pertinent, why, you’re asking?  Well, he said that since assuming his male persona and the hormones and accessories congruent with the change, he can’t sit in groups of women as he used to and listen to them talk amongst each other because it drives him straight up the proverbial wall.  Apparently, this was something he did as his female self quite comfortably and enjoyed.  I just found that so interesting.  My other half is always questioning what I find to talk to with my friends that I just spoke to maybe three days prior.  There’s no answer that would make sense to him, just that we always seem to have something to say to each other, and are natural communicators.

Several weeks ago I was talking to a dear friend of mine who moved from California about ten years ago and now resides in a small town in the irrepressibly beautiful state of Oregon.  Sal and I met at a common workplace back in the early 1980’s and although losing sight of one another along the trail from time to time since then have managed to reconnect at several junctures and now remain in contact regularly despite the miles between us.

When we met, I was in the middle of my second marriage, and she was in between her first and her second.  Both of us enjoy a good laugh, or more than one, she had two boys about the same age as my son and daughter and being within a few years in age ourselves with a lot of common interests just naturally gravitated towards one another.  At the time she took a position at the company I was working for, she had just moved back to the Bay Area from Bear Valley, California.  Bear Valley is a beautiful resort area in the central Sierra Nevada Mountain range, mainly touted as a winter sports paradise but offering ample outdoor activities during the warmer summer months as well, including white water rafting, canoeing, hiking, etc. If you like the outdoors, it’s just the place to find yourself.

Three years before our paths crossed, Sal found herself divorced with two elementary aged sons, ten years of stay at home mom experience to fatten her resume and having no idea where to proceed from the spot where she was standing on.  Coming across an ad in the local paper regarding a deli for sale in Bear Valley, and having absolutely no restaurant experience other than sitting at a table and ordering a meal, she called the realtor, piled the boys in the car, drove to Bear Valley, and signed the deal on the deli as well as a condo close by.  Whoa.

It was a small deli located inside the lodge building itself which she dubbed “The Pot Belly Deli”.  Deciding to concentrate on breakfast and lunch exclusively and with one employee to support her, she set about getting the small restaurant ready to open and figuring out what to do with it when it did. Now, I’ve owned a restaurant, albeit on a larger scale, but no matter what size, unless you’re selling Coney Island dogs under a umbrella, it can be daunting endeavor, most possibly even then.  It’s not like cooking in your home.  You have to learn how to order one item that, if left over, can be incorporated into another dish. Waste is money, and money wasted means loss to the business.

Somehow Sally rolled up her sleeves and just dug in.  The small restaurant was equipped with the minimum amount of equipment necessary to make this happen.   Her sunny disposition, intelligence, and, of course, you can’t forget a large dollop of desperation as she’d sunk her savings into the deli, she went to work, allowing no room in her thoughts for failure.  After many hits and a few misses she developed a steady clientele.  The food was simple but good with unique sandwiches and crunchy cole slaw at lunch, and the menu manageable for her small staff.  She made a living, supported her boys, and had room for a treat or two along the way.

After three years of running it successfully and living in the safe bosom of the mountains she decided it was time to come back down to the nether regions and get the boys in school and herself back into the work force, and eventually complete her degree. For me that was a hugely brave thing to take on by yourself with no experience, no familiarity with the area, and no friends for support.  It’s so easy to lean back on the familiar and not dip your toe into uncharted water, but in the end I think less rewarding, than if you stick your toe in and take a chance on what wonderous things you might discover floating below the surface.

Ruts, I find, are easy to fall into to, but far more difficult to climb up out of.  Cooking at times can become routine, but if you truly have a passion for it and immerse yourself in the smells, colors, tastes, and doing of it, it’s miraculous how many creative and different ways you can find to prepare a catfish fillet or a chicken breast.  It’s just fun, at least for me, and if your attempt falls short of the mark, there’s always an artery clogging pizza just a phone call away.

Have  great day!

Catfish Wraps with Crunchy Cole Slaw

Cole Slaw

2/3 cup sugar
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1/2 cup milk
1 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup buttermilk
3 Tbsp. white vinegar
5 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 1/4 cups green cabbage, shredded
1 1/4 cups red cabbage, shredded
1/2 cup red onion, chopped

Combine all cole slaw ingredients except cabbage and red onion in mixing bowl and whisk until well blended. Refrigerate until one hour prior to eating. Combine cabbages and red onion until well mixed. (I add the dressing in batches and if I have too much, refrigerate the rest for up to two weeks.) Refrigerate until ready to eat.

Wraps

1 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp. paprika
1 1/2 tsp. dried thyme
1 1/2 tsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. garlic powder
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 tsp. black pepper
1/2 tsp. lemon pepper
1/4 cup yellow mustard
4 6 oz. catfish fillets
2 Tbsp. cooking oil
4 9″ flour tortillas (use wheat or white as you prefer)

Garnishes

sliced English cucumbers
Lemon slices
Sliced avocado
Sour cream

Combine the first eight ingredients in a shallow pie pan. Put mustard in another shallow pie pan. Using basting brush lightly baste fillets on both sides with mustard. Dredge in flour mixture.

In med. skillet heat oil over med-high heat. Add catfish and cook 5 mins. on each side or until fish flakes easily. Remove from skillet to warmed plate.

Either wrap tortillas in tin foil and place on plate over boiling water or heat according to directions on the package until warm. Cut each fillet into four sections. Arange four pieces on each tortilla and top with cole slaw. Serve with garnishes as desired. Yummy.  Serves 4.

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