Each episode of Tennessee Uncharted documents the experiences of Erick and his crew across the State of Tennessee. This is the full text of the short story that resulted from their adventure in Paris, TN.
What has the power to bring a community together? What has the strength to connect thousands of different people and unite them on common ground? For the folks of Henry County, it’s a shared love for the outdoors, but once a year, during the last week of April, it’s also a kinship found in a sizzlin’ Southern staple that even Methodists and Baptists can agree on…fried catfish.
Now if you remember, back in Season 1 we spent some time here with Henry County native Brenda Valentine, exploring how the sport of hunting contributes to a community that’s truly bonded by the outdoors. However, on this episode of TNU, we’re here to take a look at some warmer weather wildlife and partake in an event that brings this community together in a completely different way. Armed with nothing but my appetite, I’ve traded in my rifle for a fork and traveled to Paris, TN to get a full-flavored taste of the World’s Biggest Fish Fry.
TN National Wildlife Refuge:
As we continue to upload more and more of our lives into the virtual world, we’re becoming more and more disconnected with the real world.
In my opinion, too many of tomorrow’s faces are growing pale in the light of TVs and computer screens, instead of squinting their eyes to the blaring beautiful light of the sun. Because for me, without many of the sun burned, grass stained, mud-covered days of my life, I believe I wouldn’t know what it truly means to live. In all honesty, some of the only days I really feel I’ve got a good grasp on life is when I’ve got dirt under my fingernails.
So, on our way into town, I migrated over to the new Visitor Center at the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge to tag along with a field trip and get a closer look at the wildlife, plants, and habitats of Tennessee.
Located on and around Kentucky Lake and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, this refuge, which stretches for 65 miles along the Tennessee River, is part of a national network of lands and waters set aside to conserve America’s fish, wildlife, and plants. But what was originally created as a sanctuary for migratory birds, now provides and protects so much more.
Now I’ll be honest, this field trip was nothing like the field trips I took as a kid. I don’t remember any of them being this interactive and hands on. And I know I never got to use power tools! All I remember is a lot of single file lines and constantly hearing my teachers say, “Erick, don’t touch that!”. Here it was just the opposite. It's hands on, not hands off. This trip was interactive, informative, and most importantly, downright fun. I’m leaving with a new appreciation for outdoor education and with enough materials to build a birdhouse with Annabelle in my own backyard as soon as I get home.
Worlds’ Biggest Fish Fry:
There may be over 100 species of fish in these parts, but right now, I’m only concerned with one…Mr. Catfish.
All that learning sure did make me hungry. Luckily, Paris is not only home to a ton of wildlife, but also home to a 5-ton fish fry, and the heart of the whole festival is found right here in the “Fish Tent”.
Our first task of the day was mixing up something that is usually one of the last items on the plate… coleslaw. But before you change the channel, did I happen to mention that we were mixing up 600 lbs. of cole slaw.
Just so you know, I checked online and there’s no recipe for making 600 lbs of slaw. I get stressed out cooking for a few people at home, but as impressive as these proportions were, they were but a small taste of the other two tasks I had ahead of me in the kitchen. Now, if you’ve learned much about me over the course of the show, you’ve likely noticed that if I’m not strummin’, singin’, or sinkin’ my teeth into something delicious, I’m chatting. So, as the other volunteers and I unloaded the endless palettes of ingredients and supplies, I took the opportunity to learn more on how this fried phenomenon grew into the event it is today.
Apparently, the "Fish Fry" evolved from "Mule Day," which originated in 1938. Farmers came to town on the first Monday in April to trade their mules and other farm products, do their shopping and enjoy the fellowship of their friends.
But as mules gave way to tractors, the Chamber of Commerce here in Paris started looking for another event to replace "Mule Day” and in 1953, held the first "Fish Fry.”
But as obvious a star, as the catfish may be, I think we can all agree no plate of fried catfish is complete without its friend…the hushpuppy. So next I helped out the Hushpuppy King and his Hushpuppy Posse…
2 Rivers Bass Club:
The more time I spend in Paris, the more I can see that participation and appreciation are the two key ingredients that make them successful. Yes, Henry County is not only a community that is involved and connected but a community that gives back as well. And thanks to the folks at 2 Rivers Bass Club, I got to share something with a very special group of kids that I won’t soon forget.
The many afternoons I’ve spent sitting on a bank with a bucket of minnows waiting impatiently for my bobber to be pulled under water is are one of the many things in this life that I take for granted. I just assume that everyone grew up playing outside all day just waiting for the lightning bugs to tell you it was time to go home.
Today I got to help someone catch their very first fish. He’d never been fishing before. He’d never baited a hook. He’d never cast a line in the water. He’d never held a fish or even seen one up close for that matter.
And as I stopped and listened, I realized I was surrounded by the sound of laughter. True joy. It was then I realized that today was about much more than just a chance for these kids to go fishing for the first time.
Riding in the Parade with TWRA:
Between the beauty queens and hushpuppy kings, I felt honored to be amongst the royalty of Paris, but I was even more honored to be able to ride along with TWRA in the Grand Parade. And, no, I’m just saying that. So far, I’ve spent time with Officer Clay Riley on two occasions now and each time I’ve been impressed by how personally he takes his role with the agency.
On this episode, amongst the crackling cast iron and cornmeal covered hands, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my youth.
When I was growing up, what brought my family together were Sunday afternoon fish fries in Gates, TN at my Mama Baker and Daddy Cecil's house. That old house would always be busting at the seams with all my aunts, uncles, and cousins, and every room would smell so good you’d swear you could eat the curtains. Unless Mama Baker was cooking cabbage, and then every room just smelled like the bathroom. To this day, these are some of the best meals that I can remember, but not just some of the best meals, some of the best memories as well. Because it’s not just the food that I can’t forget. It’s the memory of how that food, for a very short time, brought all of my family together.
Those Sunday afternoon fish fries didn’t seem all that special at the time. I thought it was something that everyone did, and I figured it would probably be something that I’d always do. Sadly, I was wrong. Mama Baker and Daddy Cecil are no longer with us. I’ve lost many of those aunts, uncles, and cousins along the way as well. That house in Gates, that was once just a short bike ride away, is now over 5 hours. Time has scattered my family like a broom through a dust pile.
But the World’s Biggest Fish Fry takes me right back to that house, right back to those moments in time. Every bite of catfish brings me closer to my family and closer to the yesterdays of my youth.
I’ll admit, it’s easy to get disconnected. It’s easy to lose touch and become distant, even from the things that we love. My time here in Paris has taught me a lot. Most importantly, though, it’s taught me that it’s time to start having some Sunday fish fries of my own.