Belzoni—which is pronounced, depending on who you ask, either Bel-ZONE-uh or Bel-ZONE-ee—is typical of the Mississippi Delta, this flat floodplain in northwestern corner of the state that is two hundred miles long and, at its thickest, sixty miles across. The town is sleepy, just over 2,000 residents; the quaint storefronts of its small downtown are mostly boarded up now.
But at the festival the streets were bustling, lined with vendors who sat under vinyl pop-up tents. There were plenty of familiar wares, the same stuff always sold at small-town Mississippi festivals: homemade pickles, Ole Miss yard signs, lawn furniture made from scrap wood.
But at the Catfish Festival there was also a preponderance of lesser tchotchkes. Whole tents were devoted to the sale of foam toys spray-painted to look like lizards, or to the kind of inflatable rubber instruments they gave away at the bar mitzvahs I attended as a kid.
Downtown Belzoni is dotted with fiberglass statues of catfish, man-sized and brightly painted. The art project, Catfish on Parade, was installed ten years ago when the catfish industry was at its peak. During the festival, when, I stopped to examine the statues, I found that most of the plaques indicating names and artists had fallen off.
This disrepair feels emblematic of the industry. In 2012, the total weight of catfish processed in the U.S. was down 55 percent from its 2003 peak. In 2010 alone, according to the New York Times, nearly 20 percent of U.S. farming operations closed.
In 1976, when Belzoni donned its “World Capital” title, Humphreys County had the highest acreage of catfish ponds in the U.S. Now neighboring Leflore and Sunflower counties out-produce Humphreys by large margins. So the title has taken on newer, more slippery justifications: sometimes, for example, people cite the high percentage of U.S. catfish farmed within sixty-five miles of the town. The three counties together still make up nearly 30% of U.S. production.
At the Catfish Museum in downtown Belzoni, one of the informational placards has embraced the town’s emptiness. The world capital title, a caption states, can be explained because “there are a lot more of them than us”—them, of course, being the fish.
What, really, is a catfish? The answer depends on how far back in history you go.
By the broadest taxonomic definition, the label includes anything in the order Siluriformes, a diverse group of fish that, for the most part, can be recognized by those whisker-like “barbels.” Siluriformes is a large label. It includes some catfish that full-grown remain as small as a human finger. Talk to a farmer in Belzoni, though, and the word “catfish” means one specific thing: the fish raised here is almost exclusively one species, Ictalurus punctatus, known more commonly as the channel catfish.
American farmers are proud of their fish, and not without reason. It’s an efficient source of protein, for example—one pound of catfish requires just two pounds of feed, compared to four for pork or eight for beef. Catfish processing created jobs in rural areas like the Delta where, after the mechanization of farming, many were out of work. “If it had not been for the catfish industry in the past thirty-five years, Humphreys County would be in much worse shape,” says Wanda Hill, co-chair of this year’s festival.
The fish most commonly imported from Vietnam, meanwhile, known scientifically as Pangasius bocourti, is from a different family entirely. Thanks to low feed costs in Asia, and the species’ ability to grow at a higher density, the per-pound price of Vietnamese catfish can be up to two dollars lower than the American fish. The fact, then, that pangasius was sold under the same label for much cheaper, constituted, according to some in the industry, “species fraud.”
In 2003, American catfish was booming. That year, the average American ate over a pound of the fish, and almost 700 million pounds were processed in the U.S. But, noting an uptick of pangasius on the market, Southern lawmakers pushed a bill through Congress that year that set a legal limit to the “catfish” label. In the U.S., it now refers only to the family Ictaluridae, which, in its natural habitat, is restricted to North America. Even that law was controversial; McCain called it “a clever trick of Latin phraseology” and “a troubling example of the very parochialism we have urged the Vietnamese government to abandon.”
Unfortunately for U.S. farmers, consumers didn’t seem to care what their fish was called, so long as it was cheap and tasted good. Even when pangasius began to be marketed under names like Basa and Swai, it still clicked with consumers. Here in Mississippi, like much of the southeastern U.S., it’s possible to find eaters raised on farmed catfish who instantly recognize, and prefer, its taste. But in a rather demoralizing study conducted by Mississippi State University in 2009, a blind sample of “untrained testers” preferred pangasius by a three-to-one ratio. In 2011, for the first time, pangasius actually outsold catfish in the U.S.
At noon we gathered on the courthouse lawn to watch the beauty pageant. The victor had been selected the night before, but nearly every folding chair was filled for the official announcement.
As each of the eight contestants walked down the courthouse steps, escorted by the same blonde football player, the announcer read her biography: a list of hobbies, Honor Roll accolades, the good works she had done with her church.
After three or four you could predict what you would hear. Every girl wanted to be a doctor, or if not that a nurse, or a biomedical engineer; she liked to read books, to sew, to cook, to help other people. As we watched, my girlfriend leaned over and whispered to me. “It feels so… white,” she said.
As we pulled into Belzoni, I had told her I wanted to have an open mind about the festival. I love Mississippi, and I love its small towns—I took a job here five years ago, thinking I’d stay for a year or two, but now it feels like home. But for newcomers like me, it’s hard not to be fixated at times by the long shadows of racism and injustice. As Wanda Hill, co-chair of the festival, put it to me, “Mississippi has a history—an ugly history.”