Catfish caught Huck Finn-style from the banks of the Mississippi - or, more likely, pond-cultured or farmed - is a perennial Southern favorite. There are more catfish restaurants here in Little Rock, Ark., both eat-in and take-out, than there are lobster pots all along the New England shore.
Dishes like catfish and hushpuppies, chicken-fried steak and turnip greens, were considered unfashionable for a while, as people gave in to the ``snob element,'' according to Lenore Blaylock, an expert on local cuisine who has run a catering service in the Little Rock area.
But today the food scene has shifted back to the regional mainstream. Homemade, old-fashioned food is ``in.'' Although some fancy restaurant chefs like to ``upscale'' the old dishes, others like the old dishes just as they were.
Catfish is served in some of the tonier restaurants here as well as at the casual ones. Grandpa's Catfish House, in North Little Rock, is happily in the second category. Peanuts in the shell are on every table, and the owner insists that the shells go on the floor. The catfish at Grandpa's comes in nine ways - including blackened catfish seasoned with Cajun spices. You can order catfish center cuts, fillets, saut'ed, steaks, or the whole fish. The menu also lists catfish tails, ``all-u-can eat,'' for $5.95, and the bottom line reads: ``Grandpa's will also cater your next catfish fry.''
``Most catfish `fries' today are organized by clubs and community groups and catered by professional companies or restaurants,'' says Ms. Blaylock. ``Although people tell of old-time catfish fries that were wonderful gatherings of large families and neighborhood parties, it's much easier today to let a professional organize these cookouts.''
Catfish goes elegant at Alouette's, a French restaurant. Chef Denis Seyer's menu lists Catfish Mousseline With Sauce Nantua, an elegant sauce made of crayfish, lobster, and cream.
One of the newest restaurants in town is in the Hotel Excelsior, where executive chef Dan Wilson says they serve catfish in the caf'e, but not at Josephine's, the room for finer dining. Josephine's menu offers ``traditional ingredients used in unsuual combinations that elevate down-home fare to a new level.''
``Before planning the menu, we researched historical cookbooks and old menus to find traditional Arkansas foods,'' chef Wilson says. He then applied ``techniques and methods different from the traditional'' to those foods. One of the results: Delta sausage, a ``tender, delicately flavored seafood sausage made of shrimps, scallops, salmon, and sole served on an Ozark sweet tomato hash.''
Evidence that Little Rock people are beginning to appreciate unadorned old-fashioned home cooking as well can be found in a restaurant in the downtown area called the Blue Plate Special.
``We really try to cook here just like you would at home,'' says owner May Parr, coming from behind the counter to offer an extra side dish of okra and tomatoes to a patron.
Mrs. Parr and her husband, John, bought the restaurant three years ago. Dessert sales have quadrupled since then, Parr says. The reason, she explains, is top-quality ingredients.
``When a recipe calls for cream, we use real cream. All our piecrusts are from scratch and the breakfast cinammon rolls, banana bread, muffins, and fried pies are, too.''