Some of the most amazing food can be found on the small, yet jam packed island of Manhattan. If you can think of it, it is here. Whether it is authentic Thai, Mexican, Indian or Turkish dishes, you will find it in New York City. And to make it even better, you can have just about any of it delivered. The only exception, I have found is the lack of really good southern cuisine. More specifically, fried catfish. Sure, you can find it in New York City, but it doesn’t quite measure up to the tasty versions that are served up across the southern United States.
However, one man is making catfish served southern style available to the masses across the country. Carter Harrison, the man behind King Kat Inc. of Hickory Plains, has been either raising, processing or catering catfish since the 1970s. Harrison was recently in Washington, D.C. cooking for the Catfish Farmers of America when I caught up with him to talk about his career and the current state of the catfish industry.
Before the crowd of Southern senators and congressman arrived at the reception, Harrison talked with me about his business. He got his start with catfish in the late 1960s working alongside his late father-in-law Raymond Schroeder in Carlisle. The two would often spend 18 hour work days along side each other. Harrison, who grew up in Des Arc, says he had no clue what he wanted to be when he grew up. “How many young people know what they wanna do? I grew up in the country and just knew I liked being outside,“ Harrison said.
Outside is where Harrison was when we spoke as he prepped for the reception not far from the steps of the nation’s Capitol. The hot topic of the evening was the inspection process of catfish with the focus being on imports. Harrison says the imported catfish from China and Vietnam is cheaper but not being held up to the same standards as the U.S. raised catfish. “They are bringing it in at a lower cost, not by the guidelines that they need to be, competing with our product that is cultured and produced under good situations under U.S. guidelines.” Currently, imported catfish has 75 percent of the filet market.
The United States Department of Agriculture currently inspects catfish, but the government, sighting duplicity issues, wants to move the inspections to the Food and Drug Administration’s supervision. According to Ben Pentecost, president of the Catfish Farmers of America, 91 percent of the fish in the U.S. is imported. The FDA currently inspects only two percent of the imports and conducts chemical testing on one tenth of one percent of imported fish. The House Agriculture committee has already voted to move the inspections from under the USDA to the FDA. A similar bill is pending in the Senate.
Joey Lowery, from Newport, farms 400 acres of catfish.
“We can compete with anybody but we have to have the right atmosphere to do that in,“ Lowery said. The catfish inspections are detailed in the 2008 farm bill that has yet to be implemented. Congressman Rick Crawford, serves on the agriculture sub committee that voted to move the inspections to the FDA. “It’s a food safety issue, it’s a quality issue and it’s not a trade retaliation issue,” Crawford says. “If the FDA is going to be in charge of inspecting it, we are going to make sure they inspect it properly and to the right standard.”
U.S. seafood importers with the aid of the National Fisheries Institute have spent over a million dollars to keep the inspections under the FDA’s authority.
After marrying his wife, Debbye, Carter Harrison went into full-time catfish production, even building catfish ponds and processing catfish. In 1985, he streamlined the business focusing primarily on catering. Harrison now has three full-time workers and his family often helps out, even though he says King Kat isn’t a traditional family business. His children seem to disagree.
“No one can merely ‘observe’ when at the farm,” says Harrison’s daughter Shana. She was at the farm before her father left for the Washington, D.C., trip. “Before the day was out, I was sent off to buy dry ice for the trip. At one point, I also saw Chris and Bryce out in the kitchen doing something to get it ready. It seems that the concept of ‘family business’ continues to grow with us, despite our age or how far away from Prairie County we roam.”
Harrison’s mobile operation runs like a well-oiled machine. He does some prep work before leaving Hickory Plains and adds the finishing touches once he arrives on site. The food is packed in ice chests on dry ice. The Mississippi-raised catfish is later dressed and fried in his mobile kitchen. Like the veil of secrecy surrounding the ingredients of Kentucky Fried Chicken’s recipe, Harrison prefers to keep his breading recipe under wraps. But he does make a concession when I ask him if he will divulge it to me, “only if you wanna buy it!” he says.
If you can think of an event where you need a meal, King Kat has catered it — from RiverFest, to funerals, to luncheons in Washington, D.C., to fundraisers at local schools. As one publications once wrote, King Kat has served catfish from the outhouse to the White House.
With a career spanning over 40 years, Harrison talks about his favorite part of the job. “Pleasing people,” he says this with a pause as tears come to his eyes. “I’ve enjoyed working with a lot of young people along the way, too.”
When asked what he would be doing if he weren’t the king of catfish catering, he says with a laugh, “I wouldn’t be fishing! I’d be seeing the county. I’d still eat catfish though, maybe driving a bus and touring people in later years but that won’t happen. I’m gonna cook to long to do that.”
In the fast paced world of social media, you won’t find King Kat on Facebook and you will not be able to keep up with their travels on Twitter. You can’t even get the scoop on King Kat off of his website - there isn’t one. Harrison says, “we have a phone number” and that has kept him busy and in business since 1980.
DJ Duckworth is a television journalist currently living in New York City. The Carlisle native is a contributing writer for New York Family magazine. You can read more about her adventures at www.iamdjduckworth.com