Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Catfish Institute Promotes Fillets to Restaurants

Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Catfish Institute Promotes Fillets to Restaurants

Article excerpt

BELZONI, Miss. (AP) -- A decade into promoting catfish for a living, Bill Allen is finally seeing the nation catch on to his enthusiasm about the ugly bottom-feeder.

"Ten years ago it would have been highly unusual to walk into a top restaurant in Los Angeles or Seattle or Boston and find catfish on the menu," said Allen, president of The Catfish Institute, promotional arm of the growing catfish industry.

"If you mentioned catfish to anybody outside of the deep South, they would cringe," Allen said. "That still happens sometimes...that mentality's not completely gone. But now it's not uncommon at all to find it on the top menus."

The whiskered fish are appearing in swank eateries such as McCormick's Fish House in Seattle and Live Bait in New York. In many restaurants, it is served blackened, grilled, sauteed and of course, Southern-fried.

Deep-fried in peanut oil is how catfish appears at Chef Wolfgang Puck's Chinois on Main restaurant in Santa Monica, Calif. "It's our signature dish," manager Bella Lantsman said of the Chinois (pronounced sheen-wa) Chinese-style catfish. "It is very, very popular."

Not everyone has responded, though. While it's not uncommon to find catfish on more menus, Allen says, "it's not universal. There are lots of places all over the country that wouldn't consider serving catfish, and some people still have the impression it's a poor man's fish."

Too few understand that advanced aquaculture and a gourmet grain diet have created a farm-raised catfish that tastes nothing like the mucksucker that dwells in lake bottoms, he said.

Pushing catfish is especially critical after the past year's harsh weather, which has cut supply. Processors and farmers in the Mississippi Delta, where 70 percent of the world's farm-raised catfish is grown, say the situation is not catastrophic but the industry could not stand too many more difficult seasons.

"This has been a tough production year," Allen said, referring to the terrible heat last summer and bitter winter cold that complicated catfish farming. "That makes our job especially important now."

To appeal to often unadventurous American taste buds, the institute will spend more than $2 million next year in slick, Madison Avenue-style ad campaigns. The group is to catfish what the National Cattlemen's and Beef Association ("Beef. It's What's for Dinner") and the American Dairy Association ("Got Milk?") are to their products.

This year's humorous catfish campaign features pond farmers and gourmet chefs showing their vastly different but important roles. Past efforts have focused on the catfish's ugliness ("Obviously, Mother Nature Has a Sense of Humor") and the many ways it can be prepared ("Think of It As a Chicken that Doesn't Cluck").

From September to December -- the months when the 1996 catfish supply is at its prime -- print ads will appear in magazines and television commercials will run on CNN, USA Network and The Discovery Channel. …

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