A gentleman in Philadelphia, born in 1756, claimed to have on many occasions caught 3000 catfish in a night by dipping them up with a net. They were so plentiful he sold them for two shillings per hundred. Much of his catch went to the Fishing Company of St. David where as many as 40 dozen fish were cooked at a time.
The house belonging to that Company was described as, “neat and tasteful”, made of wood, 70 feet long by 20 feet wide, and set against the butt of a hill side on a stone foundation. The sides of the house consisted solely of folding or moveable doors and windows which were carried off by the Hessians for use in building huts during the Revolution. The man claimed that they so damaged the place that it was never again used for a fish camp afterward. – Watson, John Fanning. Annals of Philadelphia: Being a Collection of Memoirs, Anecdotes, and Incidents of the City and its Inhabitants. 1830. Philadelphia.
In the early days, rations were never enough food for armies without the need of adding to the larders whatever foods could be found. Washington’s army and explorers in the party of Lewis and Clark were no exceptions.
A diary entry penned by a soldier in Washington’s army discussed throwing out lines and catching large catfish in 1770 while on a tour to the Ohio River.– Sparks, Jared. The Life of George Washington. 1839. London.
While the diarist left no hint as to how the catfish was cooked, another diary entry from roughly the same time period specified their party had fried catfish, freshly caught. – Dillon, John Brown. Oddities of Colonial Legislation in America. 1879. Indianapolis.
A member of the Lewis and Clark expedition documented their fine catch of fish also.
Two of our men last night caught nine catfish that would together weigh three hundred pounds. The large catfish are caught in the Missouri with hook and line…We are generally well supplied with Catfish, the best I have ever seen. Some large ones were taken last night. – Gass, Patrick. Lewis and Clarke’s Journal to the Rocky Mountains: In the Years 1804-5-6. 1847. Dayton, Ohio.
The Lewis and Clark expedition again left no account of how the catfish were prepared, but given they were rarely well supplied with provisions, it is a good bet they were roasted over hot coals. The size of the fish they described was rather commonplace for the time, accounts abound of catfish weighing 80 to 100 lbs. or more.
“An Alabama paper says that a gentleman by the name of Richardson, lately caught in the Tennessee River, a cat fish that weighed one hundred and eighteen pounds—and measured five feet two inches in length, four feet round the middle of its body, and 12 inches between the eyes”. – Niles’ Weekly Register. April 22, 1837.
Hunters often resorted to fishing with line, seine, net, or trap when efforts failed at bringing down game. Since many such parties took little provisions with them, the fish were cooked very simply. In this instance, the writer told us how they cooked their catch.
In a little while they caught twelve catfish, fat yellow fellows, which proved to be of excellent flavor. They made a fire on the spot, and proceeded to roast one on the coals, and though they had no seasoning the meal was a very grateful one. – Hazard’s United States Commercial and Statistical Register, Volume 1. Dec. 4, 1839. Philadelphia.
Those who did have more ingredients prepared the catfish more traditionally. A party in Texas left accounts both from when provisions were low and when they had been replenished. The methods used in preparing the fish were more traditional when they had ingredients to use in preparing the fish.
The first account said there was no seasoning of any kind, not even salt, available yet the men ate, “pound after pound of the coarse fish”. After two months they were able to obtain some basic supplies at which point they noted, “that even fried fish was a rare dainty”. This is indicative of the preference of old Southern cooks of using a frying pan whenever possible. – Kendall, George Wilkins. Narrative of the Texan Santa Fe Expedition. 1844. London.
Catfish soup or chowder was much appreciated though most printed recipes are from the early 19th century. In closing I will leave the reader with two receipts – one for catfish soup from 1821, and the other from 1840.
CATFISH SOUP: Clean three or four catfish very carefully, washing them in cold water. Cut them into small pieces, bones and all. Take a knuckle of veal, and some bone or meat of gammon, break them, with a hammer, into fragments. Add any bones or scraps of meat, that are sweet and good; put all these into a stew pan, with a dessert spoonful of flour rolled in butter. Boil for four hours, adding hot water to make up your quantity. Scum it carefully when required. Then strain the whole through a hair sieve.
Boil for five minutes, three carrots, 1 turnip, a head of celery, 4 onions, and throw away this water; then cut your herbs and put them, with a bunch of sweet herbs and some chopped parsley into your soup, and boil them till they are tender; add half a pint of Tenerific [?] wine, four bruised cloves, a little mace, pepper and salt to your mind. Serve it with the carrots, turnip, and onions taking out the sweet herbs. A dozen oysters with their liquor strained will improve it. – Willich, Anthony Florian Madinger. The Domestic Encyclopedia, or, A Dictionary of Facts and Useful Knowledge. 1821. Philadelphia.
Catfish Soup. Cat-fish that have been caught near the middle of the river are much nicer than those that are taken near the shore where they have access to impure food. The small white ones are the best. Having cut off their heads, skin the fish, and clean them, and cut them in three. To twelve small catfish allow a pound and a half of ham. Cut the [salted, country] ham into small pieces, or slice it very thin, and scald it two or three times in boiling water, lest it be too salt. Chop together a bunch of parsley and some sweet marjoram stripped from the stalks. Put these ingredients into a soup kettle and season them with pepper: the ham will make it salt enough. Add a head of celery cut small, or a large bunch of celery seed tied up in a bit of clear muslin to prevent its dispersing. Put in two quarts of water, cover the kettle, and let it boil slowly till every thing is sufficiently done, and the fish and ham quite tender. Skim it frequently. Boil in another vessel a quart of rich milk, in which you have melted a quarter of a pound of butter divided into small bits and rolled in flour. Pour it hot to the soup, and stir in at the last the beaten yolks, of four eggs. Give it another boil, just to take off the rawness of the eggs, and then put it into a tureen, taking out the bag of celery seed before you send the soup to table, and adding some toasted bread cut into small squares. In making toast for soup, cut the bread thick, and pare of all the crust. – Leslie, Eliza. Directions for Cookery, in its Various Branches. 1840. Philadelphia.