That’s my daughter about to chow down on a platter of thin-fried catfish at Middendorf’s, in Manchac, La. She saw it featured on a cooking show and said, “I gotta have some of that catfish.” I had never been there, so off we went. The platter of thin-fried catfish I had was almost twice as big.
And man, it was delicious. Best catfish I’ve ever eaten. I thought about it all day. Anybody can drive to Manchac, which is more or less a swampy wide spot in the road where Lake Maurepas connects to Lake Pontchartrain, pay a few dollars, and buy happiness on a platter. I’m serious when I tell you I thought about that catfish all day, and it made me so happy.
But I am limited as a writer, and cannot find a way to express in more than a few words how eating that catfish with my girl was pure sunshine. So I didn’t write about it. Instead, when I got home, I found in my e-mail queue several outrageous things that were happening. That’s easy to write about, in detail. The late Roger Ebert once observed that the worse a movie is, the easier and more fun it is to write about it. It takes a writer of rare skill to essay about how a platter of fried catfish in Manchac made the big mess that is our world seem farther away, and in fact reminded one that life, despite it all, is good.
I am not that writer. Alas. And this is why people who meet me for the first time are always surprised that I’m so easygoing, and want to do nothing but eat, drink, and sit around telling funny stories. I’m not playing a cynical role; I really do care about everything I post here. It’s just not reflective of who I am, deep down: a guy who thinks the world is probably going to hell, but who believes good food and the company of people he loves redeems it all.
A side note. This week, I had a drink with one of my best friends. He reflected that he is not religious or conservative, and therefore often finds himself in tough conversational spots here. I laughed and said, “Well, I am religious and conservative, but I’d rather hang out with you than just about anybody else. What’s that all about?”
We thought about it for a second: what brings people together? Is it aesthetics? “Aesthetic” sounds shallow, but only to people who don’t take aesthetics seriously. My friend and I really love to travel, to cook, to read, and to talk about it all. Is that “aesthetic”? We never talk about church or politics, and yet, every time we see each other, the conversation is rich and surprising and deeply pleasant, and I never want it to end. The American essayist Adam Gopnik once divined the reason why certain Americans love Paris:
We are happy, above all, when we are absorbed, and we are absorbed when we are serious, and the secret of Paris, in the end, is that the idea of happiness it presents is always mingled, I do not always know how, with a feeling of seriousness.
That sense of serious happiness, of pleasure allied to education … this tincture of seriousness infiltrates our happiness, giving it dignity. In Paris, Americans achieve absorption without obvious accomplishment, a lovely and un-American emotion.
My friend — liberal and secular — has the disposition to receive what Edmund Burke called “the unbought grace of life.” It’s not as common as it should be, but he has it, and I like to think I have it too. We couldn’t sit there for five minutes and talk about God or the next election, but we can sit there and talk for half an hour about how wonderful it is to sit with one’s children at a glorified fish shack in the swamp, and to eat uncommonly delicious catfish, and to feel somehow that you have been given a gift that you don’t deserve, but that is yours anyway, and that the only thing you can do in response is to be grateful and happy. If you can find a friend who shares your gratitude and happiness for those unbought graces (or bought graces; you can obtain a large platter of thin-fried catfish for something like $16) — well, consider yourself doubly blessed.
If my friend were a religious man, we could talk about the sacramentality of food. But he isn’t, and it’s more important to sit there with our pints, talking about how the fundamental goodness of life is bound mysteriously to platters of fried catfish shared with one’s children.
That’s the sort of thing I wish I had the skill to write about more on this blog. I don’t talk much about religion and politics in my everyday life. I do talk about things like fried catfish, though. A lot.