By Kim Green
Culinary artistry assumes many forms, from avant-garde molecular wizardry to the centuries-old farm-table cuisines of Italy and France. But whether it’s trendy or eternal, one thing holds true of all fine craftsmanship of the edible variety: love. If a meal tastes delicious and authentic, you can bet that somebody in the kitchen loves the food they prepare and the people whom it nourishes.
At the Catfish Hotel in Shiloh, the tradition of lovingly prepared whole catfish hasn’t changed much since owner Jim Hagy’s grandfather cooked meals for his fishing buddies in a rough-hewn shack on the banks of the Tennessee River. Hagy says his granddad taught him his simple and (some would say) perfect method for dressing and frying whole fiddler catfish. “There’s no written recipe,” he says.
Hagy’s family has owned this riverside travelers’ haven since before the Civil War, when riverboats plied the Tennessee and used that log shack as a storehouse. In the 1930s, the Hagys’ legendary hospitality prompted then-governor Gordon Browning to suggest that the family open a catfish restaurant there, so impressed was he by a catfish-fry fundraiser they’d hosted in his honor.
What “Family Restaurant” Really Means
Since then, the Catfish Hotel has come to embody “family restaurant” in the broadest sense. Jim Hagy fondly recalls generations of Hagys pitching in to fry up mountains of hush puppies on an early morning. And the building itself was a constant work in progress, as ad hoc additions rose from the original shack. “It was this monstrosity, a crazy fun place,” he says.
The restaurant was rebuilt after a fire in 1975, and Jim Hagy now lives in Nashville. But he says the restaurant still connects the Hagy descendants and offers them an extended family that transcends blood relation. Manager Barbara McAfee, a 31-year Catfish Hotel veteran, nurtures the place as her own with help from her family. And generations of regulars have found their way to these tables overlooking the Tennessee River to enjoy Hagy family recipes, old and new.
From the traditional spread – all-you-can-eat whole catfish, hush puppies, French fries, and cole slaw with homemade dressing ladled on – to newer menu items, like lemon-pepper broiled catfish and BBQ ribs, each recipe represents a Hagy’s creative energies … not least of which, Jim Hagy’s grandmother’s lemon rub pie, his mother’s German chocolate pie and his sisters’ white chocolate banana cream pie.
For Hagy and the rest of the Catfish Hotel family, feeding folks delicious, traditional fare is an expression of caring for the travelers who’ve journeyed here. “It’s like having people in your home,” Hagy says. “You just want it to be good.”
The Dish on the Catfish Hotel
Hagy’s Catfish Hotel, at 1140 Hagy Lane near Shiloh National Military Park (see map), is open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday (until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday), and closed Mondays (except Labor Day and Memorial Day). You can reach them at (731) 689-3327 or www.catfishhotel.com.