Every now and then, my wife encourages me — REALLY encourages me — to put on pants, get out of the house and go hang out with friends for some “boy” time. After all, I serve as the sole representative of semi-masculinity in a family that includes my wife, three teen daughters, and various female pets who still haven’t forgiven me for having them fixed — the pets, I mean.
Recently, I took my wife’s advice when three of my buddies invited me to accompany them on a road trip to a legendary catfish joint called Big Pines Lodge, just outside Uncertain, Texas. Yes, that’s a real town in deep East Texas on the shores of Caddo Lake — an ancient body of water known for cypress trees swathed in Spanish moss, a healthy population of alligators, and curious city folks anxious to test the capacity of their innards with all-you-can-eat fried catfish.
I had visited Big Pines Lodge numerous times in the past, even before a devastating fire destroyed the original building and its contents, including the vintage frying grease that was rumored to have been used since the Mesozoic era. In its earlier incarnation, Big Pines was part catfish joint and part tackle, gun and ammo shop, so just walking in the door helped an alpha nerd like me earn some Chuck Norris man points. In fact, on one visit, I was feeling so machofied that I wolfed down 14 whole fried catfish. (After my first seven, my wife made me sit at a different table.)
This time, though, I knew I wouldn’t be able to top my all-time endurance record. That was the inspired achievement of a young man in his prime, and no amount of Pepto-Bismol could rescue my middle-aged digestive system from that magnitude of delicious industrial transfats.
Despite the nipple-chafing afternoon breeze, we couldn’t resist opting for the open-air seating on the patio overlooking the bayou. Our server was friendly and attentive, and I’m pretty sure she could’ve taken all four of us in the UFC Octagon. She got us in the mood by bringing out Big Pines’ famous coleslaw, relish tray, and scrumptious homemade hushpuppies that appear to have been squeezed into the fryer from an icing bag.
For our second course of deep fried delights, we chose an appetizer of crispy alligator fillets. Some people say alligator tastes like chicken, and I agree — if the chicken was recently devoured by a large swamp-dwelling reptile. (I only had to eat five or six to decide whether I really liked them.)
The main course was a plate of fried whole catfish — the only way to eat them, in my carnivorous opinion. Holding the whole fish and gnawing the flesh directly from the bone takes a man back to his primitive predatory past. (If only they had ketchup and Diet Dr. Pepper back then.)
As we wedged ourselves back into our seat belts amid a medley of bodily noises and drove down the narrow tar roads away from the bayou and Big Pines Lodge, I couldn’t help reflecting on my childhood. When I was a boy, my dad would take me to Caddo Lake in the spring to rescue hatchling red-eared slider turtles trying to cross the treacherous lake roads to get to the water. I always kept a few as pets and released the rest to torment fishermen and feed the great blue herons tiptoeing among the water lilies. I don’t think I could bring myself to eat a turtle — unless I was starving or on a diet — but I do wonder what they would taste like deep fried with a side of hushpuppies.
If you ever find yourself in East Texas, I encourage you to take your own road trip to Caddo Lake. It’s like entering another world — a world of beautiful wetlands, friendly people, and amazing wildlife — some of which is pretty tasty with ketchup.