Tasteless, Cheap, and Southern?: The Rise and Decline of the Farm-Raised Catfish Industry
AdvisorGiesen, James C.
CommitteeGreene, Alison Collis
Ward, Jason Morgan
Hersey, Mark D.
This dissertation traces the rise and recent decline of the farm-raised catfish industry. From the 1960s to the 2000s, farmers and scientists reengineered the river catfish into an agro-industrial food crop. Through extensive agricultural scientific research and marketing, the farmed catfish industry changed the history of the animal, its image, its flesh and bone, its natural environment, and its place in society all by changing—or in an effort to change—its taste. This process moved the catfish from the ranks of a muddy tasting wild fish mainly associated with the poor, to a tasteless, cheap food consumed by all classes and ethnicities. Former cotton planters dug ponds and raised the fish, as researchers at land-grant universities gave the fish a taste and image makeover. Developing a bland meat and an efficient way to grow it presented only half the problem. Workers, predominately black, poor, and female, slaved away in dank, dangerous processing plants. Some struck, despite labor power’s impotence in a globalizing economy. Amid these labor disputes, competition from Vietnamese catfish imports began to trickle in onto the American seafood market. By the 2000s, the “Catfish Wars” had broken out between Asian importers and American farmers. Processors devised quality control measures that washed away the catfish’s distinctive qualities. They had done their work so well, that consumers could tell no difference between fish from around the globe. The farm-raised catfish embodied a culinary, cultural, and technological transformation. My work shows the importance of sensory experiences to southern culture, foodways, African American history, environmental history, and agricultural history.