Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Laurel Spellman Smith, Oil & Water - Sheffield, AL

The latest update from filmmaker Laurel Spellman Smith, touring her film Oil & Water on the Southern Circuit:

Sheffield, Alabama in the beautiful Tennessee River Valley/Shoals area, was the last stop on my half of Oil & Water’s Southern Circuit tour. Francine is continuing the tour tonight Western Carolina University in Ashville, North Carolina. This is Sheffield’s first year participating in the Southern Circuit and I could feel the audience’s pent-up hunger for thought-provoking films. The question and answer session lasted for a full hour, with not a single audience member leaving the beautifully restored art deco Ritz theater. And after that was another hour of informal discussion in the theater lobby! Alabama is home to deposits of shale oil and gas which are currently unexploited but are drawing increasing interest from oil companies. Several people in the audience saw Oil & Water as a cautionary tale of what could happen in their own back yard.

But the Circuit isn’t just about the heady interactions between filmmakers and audiences during screenings, it can also be a fun way to introduce northerners to southern culture outside theaters and schools. So on a day off, my husband and I headed across the border to Savanna, Tennessee, the "catfish capital of the world" to weigh in (literally!) on a long-standing family feud. My husband's family was originally from the area and had divided loyalties between two venerable local catfish restaurants: Hagy's Catfish Hotel and River Heights Restaurant. We attempted the impossible, or at least the medically inadvisable: two meals of catfish and hushpuppies in one day. While both catfish fillets and whole catfish are served at the restaurants (deep fried in a cornmeal crust), traditionalists prefer the whole catfish and that is what we ordered. A dozen fish and two dozen hushpuppies later, our unanimous verdict was...a split decision. The fish was a higher quality and cooked to perfection at the Catfish Hotel, however we preferred the wonderfully seasoned and crunchy cornmeal batter used on the fish and in the hushpuppies at River Heights. The dining room at the Catfish Hotel is more quaintly decorated but River Heights has the more spectacular view of the Tennessee River. So both restaurants are excellent choices, depending on what you are looking for.

Catfish Capitol of the World
Catfish Hotel fish & puppies
River Heights Restaurant in Crump, TN - Catfish!
World's best hushpuppies at River Heights
Fried catfish is such a staple of southern cuisine that it is usually just called "fish" as if there is no other species or preparation imaginable. After my adventure, I am inclined to agree, although the grilled salmon back home in Seattle can give catfish a run for its money.