While living in Missouri, I ate my first Arkansas catfish stew when I visited a friend one weekend at his family’s home in Carson. What I remember most was that the stew was cooked outdoors in a heavy washtub—evidently an old tradition in towns all along the Mississippi River. I also recall that the catfish were the most gigantic I’d ever seen—maybe ten pounds each—and that the stew itself was probably the best I’d ever tasted. Yes, I know that Mississippi is now the leading producer of catfish in the nation, thanks to modernized fish farms and processing methods throughout its Delta region, but after all, pond cultivation began in Arkansas back in the 1950s, and ... well, the memory of that delicious washtub stew made with wild, huge, ugly, bottom-feeding river catfish lingers. This recipe is tame compared with the stew I was served, so if you want to give it real character, buy a large, whole, hideous fish and use the head, tail, and bones to make a rich catfish stock to replace all or part of the water.
In a large, heavy pot, fry the bacon over moderate heat till crisp, drain on paper towels, and set aside. Add the onions to the pot and cook, stirring, till very soft, about 4 minutes. Add the tomatoes, potatoes, water, cloves, Worcestershire, Tabasco, and salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a low simmer, cover, and cook 30 minutes. Add the catfish and reserved bacon, stir, cover, and continue to simmer till the fish flakes, 10 to 12 minutes. Serve hot.
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