The Hancock-Henderson Quill, Inc.
Oquawka Catfish Annual Cook-Off
By SHAWNA RICHTER firstname.lastname@example.org
used with permission from The Hawkeye, Burlington, IA
OQUAWKA - The smell of deep-fried catfish permeated the air along Main Street Saturday morning, as 14 self-declared chefs and their crews prepared and cooked 4,000 pounds of catfish for the Oquawka Catfish Cook-Off.
Only 13 of the crews were competing. The 14th, a staff crew, was cooking for the masses, said Henry Harris, cook-off president, and more than a ton of catfish was cooked and served from 11 a.m. until the fish ran out.
An additional 1,800 pounds of catfish were divided among the crews competing for the $1,000 first-place prize.
"They have all different styles of cooking," Harris said.
Steve Tee of Oquawka made catfish and seafood gumbo. Fritz Ewalt of Monmouth, deep fried his catfish in a special seasoning - perfected with every Friday-night practice since he heard about the competition. Bernie Millen and Lynn Foust of Oquawka served theirs with donut holes as a side dish.
Diana Dutton stuck with tradition.
"Mine's the same recipe (as last year), but with different garnish and presentation," said the Oquawka woman, who earned the first-place prize last year. "It's better than last year. I hope."
Dutton was in downtown Oquawka by 6:45 a.m. to set up her open-fire cooking spot.
"This is the way my mother cooked catfish," she said, flipping the fish in a Dutch oven skillet suspended above a wood fire. "She taught my family when I was a kid."
Her brother, Gary "Rollo" Robbins, Biggsville, was competing against her a few tents down. He wasn't following his mother's methods. Instead, he used a large, square deep fryer and a few secret spices of his own.
"I've cooked a lot of catfish along the way," Robbins said of his years of experience, and so he knows how to bread catfish, how to cook it and how long to let it fry.
"I can't cook it fast enough," he said, eying the group of tasters in front of his tent. "I've got them in lines."
People were returning for seconds and thirds at his sister's table as well. Dutton's husband, Bill, said the key to good catfish is a good product, a good recipe and clean fish.
Her fish met those three rules, but she had a couple other advantages, Dutton said. Since she cooks from a single skillet, she can change frying oil every two hours. Others can't because their fryers are too big or use too much oil.
Dutton's other advantage was her secret seasoning - a seasoning she found by going "where the fishermen are."
Despite all their hard work, neither Dutton nor her brother cared whether they won the competition.
"It's all to raise money for MD," Dutton said.
Last year, the Oquawka Catfish Cook-Off staff was able to donate $5,000 to the Muscular Dystrophy Association and $2,000 to Henderson County Toys for Tots.
Harris said similar numbers are expected this year.
Then again, with catfish fans coming from Iowa City and Galesburg, to have a bite, the donations could be higher.
"We found out about the fish fry from Papa Joe's Fish (House in Oquawka)," said Karolyn Sedlacek of Iowa City, Iowa. "We had to come down and try it out, and I'm glad we did."
Sedlacek and her husband, Ralph, visited each vendor, trying every type of catfish available.
"Our favorites were booth No. 11 (Robbins') and No. 5 (Kevin James of Natchez, Miss.)," she said. "We're very picky in our catfish."
The two acknowledged that catfish can be cooked badly, often by leaving it in the fryer too long or not long enough. And while they encountered a few undercooked meats, they didn't hold it against the chefs.
The 13 judges did however.
By 12:30 p.m. the judges had tasted just two of the catfish samples, but they said they were being tough on the chefs.
"We expected high quality and we're still waiting," one judge said. Judges could not be named, Harris said, as they may be asked to judge again in the future.
The judges ranked the fish on presentation, taste and originality, and each had an opinion of what was good.
"I want it to taste like prime rib," one judge said with a grin.
He's probably still waiting.