By Stacey Patton Wallace
My Mama Barbara Patton (By the way, she is not the former mayor of Opelika, but I think it’s cool that they share the same name.) is an outstanding Southern cook, as were my grandmothers, Vivian Brooks McEachern Adamson, Mama’s Mama, and Pearl Coker Patton, Daddy’s Mama. Unfortunately, the history of great cooks in my family has stopped with me. I can cook, but I really don’t like to cook. As I’ve mentioned before, I just love to eat.
Some of my fondest memories of family meals center around Mama’s amazing Saturday night catfish suppers. Daddy and Granddaddy Patton ran a trotline in the backwater of the Tallapoosa River in Alex. City from the 1950s (before my time) until Granddaddy died in 1976. After that, Daddy continued to fish his trotline until the late 1980s. During that time, my niece Lindsay and my nephew Ryan, who were in single digits, LOVED to go fishing with Daddy and cried if they missed an opportunity to go with him. Once Ryan, who was about 5, held a catfish in both hands, looked it squarely in the face, and said, “Fish, my Granddaddy’s going to cut your head off.” All members of the Patton family are serious about their food. That trotline really helped supplement the food budget for my parents.
A typical catfish fry had Mama standing on her feet for at least three hours. She used a big, dark (formerly silver) pot with a wire handle to cook catfish, French fries and hushpuppies. When she was feeling really good, she might even fry the most delectable onion rings. Mama’s onion rings were lightly breaded, crunchy and delicious; they didn’t consist of ten layers of breading before you get to the onion as I see in many restaurants. After you’ve had the best, you don’t want the rest. Mama made her food as grease-less as possible by draining her catfish on good old-fashioned Piggly Wiggly paper sacks. The paper drew off excess grease, which made the food even tastier. The only onion rings that came close to being like Mama’s were at Barnes’ Openhearth Restaurant, which unfortunately closed some years ago.
Mama retired from cooking catfish suppers for two reasons. The main one was because Daddy gradually gave up his trotline. Also, Mama and Daddy started going to Red’s Catfish in Clay County. Red’s fish was the closest to Mama’s that I have ever tried; people from Atlanta, Georgia, even came to the restaurant although it was out in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by a cow pasture.
All that being said, my husband Mike and I really enjoy catfish; however, we haven’t found a great catfish restaurant here in Lee County. I even asked my sweet church family from Central Baptist, many who are from Lee County, if they knew of any such place, and they only remember places that have closed. For instance, the former Good Ol’ Boys had great catfish before the restaurant closed, much to our dismay.
However, I was happy to read in a recent Opelika Observer article that new owners are reopening Good Ol’ Boys soon and plan to still have catfish on the menu. Mike and I will have forks in hand, happy with anticipation.
Until that great day, let me recommend a nearby restaurant which serves terrific catfish as well as other tasty entrees: Oskar’s Café on Highway 49 in Dadeville.
Besides great food, Oskar’s service staff is always top notch. Our last two servers, Madolyn and Savannah, were sweet, attentive and helpful. Also, I appreciate the fact that all of Oskar’s employees wear masks.
Oskar’s is Mama’s favorite place to eat in Tallapoosa County. Recently, Mike and I took Mama to Oskar’s to meet my niece Captain Brittney Patton, who is currently stationed at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. As I have mentioned before, Brittney is my hero because she serves in our nation’s Army. She was visiting both her Daddy and Mama’s families in the great state of Alabama.
Mama, as usual, ordered a fried catfish filet, onion rings, coleslaw and hushpuppies. Mike duplicated her order, except he chose French fries instead of onion rings. Brittney opted for a veggie plate, and while I do love Oskar’s catfish, both fried and grilled, that day I was in the mood for the hamburger steak with gravy and onions, fries, salad and a roll.
Also, when you dine at Oskar’s, you MUST try the fried cheese balls. Just that item is worth the trip. I hadn’t even heard of fried cheese balls until about five years ago, but trust me, Oskar’s knows the best way to cook this mouth-watering appetizer.
Before our appetizer and entrees came, we laughed and talked, enjoying old family stories. However, as soon as the food arrived, conversation stopped. As my much older brother Jim says,
“It was feeding time at the zoo.” The only time the Patton family stops talking is when the food arrives. As always, all entrées and side items were superb. Also, once again, Mike and I didn’t need to-go boxes.
Oskar’s makes the grade with an A+ from this retired English teacher. Remember, “Pooh-sized” people NEVER lie about food. Enjoy!
Stacey Patton Wallace, who retired from teaching language arts for 30 years, is a professional diner. Her column, “Making the Grade,” will appear each week in the Observer. Stacey may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org