It’s that time of year; time for the annual Catfish Festival in St. Stephen.
A while back the fine folks from that town invited me to help judge their annual catfish stew cook-off, which takes place during the annual event.
I told them that I’d be happy to be a judge, knowing full well I A: didn’t like catfish; B: ever had catfish stew, and C: had never been a judge before.
I don’t eat fish. This stems from a traumatic childhood incident involving an embedded shard of fishbone, my uvula - that little bell-looking thingy hanging down at the top of my throat, and my mom’s insistence on dislodging the bone-shard with a steak knife.
The thought of catfish stew made my stomach roil.
How can I judge a contest when the very thought of fish made me gag?
I resolved my dilemma this way: That which does not make me gag wins the blue ribbon.
There I sat, at a table with my fellow judges and this big bowl of lime sherbet. To clean your palate, they told us. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. My palate was pretty dirty.
Dessert first… Cool.
So I started in on the lime sherbet.
Before I could lift the spoon to my mouth, two big bowls of steaming-hot catfish stew appeared before me. Our job: taste the stew; judge the best.
My stomach growled when I saw all that stew.
Free eats, I thought.
This didn’t smell half bad. No gag reflex to stifle. I thought, when in Rome. I grabbed the spoon and dug in.
I discovered, much to my surprise there was no fish taste.
This was good.
Dang tasty, in fact.
I wolfed down the first bowl because I was hungry, even tilting the Styrofoam cup and scraping every last morsel of stew from the bowl. I smiled when I saw the waiting second bowl.
Oh yeah. I can really get used to this judging thing.
Now this bowl had some heat, and some serious bite. It tasted better than the first.
That’s when the lady set yet two more bowls of stew in front of me.
I started to sweat.
I looked to my left and right to see the other judges savoring each bite and then cleansing their palates with the spoonful of sherbet. I was just wolfing down catfish stew and falling behind.
So I polished off bowl number two in short order.
Someone belched and I thought, “Oh goodness ... that was me.”
Two more bowls of stew joined the line. Four more? Far be it from me to shirk my judging duties so I popped a shirt button, loosened my belt buckle and knocked off bowls three and four in short order.
My judging partner cut me a look when I groaned, “I don’t think I can eat all this.”
He looked at the stack of five empty stew bowls with this wide-eyed gape that said, “This guy’s an idiot.”
Then he looked at my pale, blanched complexion, hearing a deep rumble that sounded like someone dropped a really big rock into a very deep pond.
It wasn’t thunder.
“Did you eat it all?”
I swallowed thickly and nodded.
“You’re not supposed to eat it all,” he said. “You only take a taste or two of each bowl.”
Now you tell me.
Nobody told me I wasn’t supposed to eat everything they gave me. Nobody bothered to explain I only had to take a taste.
Nobody said I had to eat the whole thing. But I did, in about 15 minutes in fact.
I hear this low, thick gurgle that said I had twenty minutes to get home or all bets were off.
“You know,” the contest organizer said as I bolted for my car. “All you can eat catfish stew, just five bucks.”
I think I already had all the catfish stew I could eat.
And then some.