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Asian shrimp roiling waters, and catfish (in name only)

It's not often that network TV shows have themes agricultural or aquacultural, so it was interesting that a recent episode of the NBC political drama, “The West Wing,” had as its underlying issue the plight of the U.S. shrimp industry.

When you go into a restaurant and order a shrimp dish, you likely don't give a thought to its origin, but odds are pretty good the shrimp came from Thailand, Vietnam, or China. It's estimated that at as much as 75 percent to 90 percent of the shrimp consumed in the United States is of Asian origin, much of it commercially raised, often in environments that wouldn't be tolerated in this country.

Particularly hard hit by this growing wave of imports have been commercial shrimpers in the Gulf states of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, who contend that the shrimp they catch is fresher, tastier, and meatier than the pond-grown stuff that's been shipped from half a world away.

Unfortunately for them, big distributors and processors have increasingly moved to imported shrimp, chiefly because of price and availability. All this has resulted in a great deal of political maneuvering on both sides, as portrayed on the TV show, while in the real world, the Bush administration in early December authorized an investigation into whether the flood of Asian imports constitutes dumping.

It is much the same battle U.S. catfish producers have already fought and that producers of vegetables, fruits, and other ag products are facing from the Far East.

Speaking of catfish, while in Savannah, Ga., recently, we dined at a restaurant owned by a TV cooking personality (after an hour and a half wait outside on the street). Although I have a long-time, built-in aversion to buffets (they're all basically high school cafeteria food), we opted for the buffet of “home style southern cooking.”

Our local Western Sizzlin' has a far more extensive buffet at a third of the $16.99 per person at the lady chef's place. The food was OK, but it was still cafeteria stuff.

The piece de terriblé was (supposedly) catfish — scrawny, whole fish, about the size of two fingers. Each may have had about six bites of fish, but it was such a bony mess I quickly gave up in disgust. It may be the absolute worst excuse for catfish I have ever tried to eat anywhere. Whether it was domestic or imported, I haven't a clue, but I can only imagine the impression it makes on people from around the country who eat there, lured chiefly by the owner's TV persona.

Thirty-plus years in catfish country and hundreds of meals of exceptionally fine farm-raised fish, prepared in a myriad of delicious ways, have made me less than tolerant when it's poorly done.

The Catfish Farmers of America organization would do well to have a representative call on the TV person and explain the merits of really good catfish — or better yet, prevail on her to come to the Delta for an up-close, personal exposure to the ways really good cooks prepare this fine fish.

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