Crimson and Catfish
By Lindsey Rickard
When you think of tradition at the University of Alabama, you may think about houndstooth hats, football and now, catfish.
At least that's what comes to mind for Agnew Hall, owner of Ezell's Fish Camp in Pelham.
In an effort to upgrade the food selection at Bryant-Denny Stadium, the university approached Hall about offering his catfish at concession areas within the stadium at the Crimson Tide's home football games last fall.
"We were something they wanted in here because we're an old, Alabama tradition, and it goes with the university," said Hall, himself a 2002 UA graduate.
For Ezell's, that old, Alabama tradition started back in 1937 in the tiny Choctaw County community of Lavaca, Ala.
"My granddad, C.A. Ezell Jr., started it as a hunting club," Hall said. "It was right after the Depression. People from Birmingham would come down, and they'd set up a huge wash pot in the front yard and fry fish."
The original price, said Hall, was 50 cents a meal. Hunters liked it so much they continued to set up fish fry appointments. "They started making more and more appointments," Hall said. "Then, they finally talked my granddad into starting a restaurant."
Ezell's Fish Camp now has 10 locations throughout the Southeast, with a new restaurant just opening in Pelham. "Ezell's is an old tradition," Hall said. "It's an Alabama name with a local flair that's different. We're still family owned, and we're not a chain."
Mitt Walker, director of the Catfish Division of the Alabama Farmers Federation, said it's great to see catfish served to such a large, diverse crowd. "This is a great opportunity to expose people from around the country to a true Southern delicacy," Walker said. "It's also a testament to the tremendous versatility of catfish. It's been a tailgating favorite for years, but to have it offered in Bryant-Denny proves that catfish is truly a fan favorite."
Ezell's catfish, in particular, has become a favorite because of Hall's insistence on quality, U.S. farm-raised catfish.
"One of the first questions I'm asked when people come into the restaurant is, 'Where do you get your catfish from?'" Hall said. "We support the local farmers -- you know with U.S. regulations that (ensure) everything is done by the book and processed right. It's a big deal. I just trust these farmers, and the catfish quality is 100 percent better."
That's one reason Hall is a strong proponent of U.S. farm-raised catfish and country-of-origin labeling. "If you raise catfish domestically with quality grain feed, it's a whole different ball game," Hall said. "You're getting a high-class product. But you definitely need to know where it came from. I believe restaurants should have to tell you where it came from when you come in the door. A lot of people use Asian catfish and say they are selling U.S. catfish, but aren't. People should know what they're eating."
Hall believes the best catfish comes from the South, and would even support state labeling.
"I would never cut quality for money," he said. "Alabama has the best catfish -- and there are good farmers in Mississippi -- but I wouldn't go out of those two states. If it's Southern-raised, then you're good."
The Federation's Walker agrees. "We encourage everyone to always request only U.S. farm-raised catfish whether at a local restaurant or seafood counter to ensure you are receiving the freshest, best-tasting and safest product possible," Walker said. "By insisting on U.S. farm-raised catfish, consumers are also helping support Alabama farmers and an industry that is worth more than $500 million dollars to Alabama."
Of course, Ezell's serves up more than catfish at Tide games. In addition to catfish, the Tuscaloosa menu rolls out all the Southern "classics" -- shrimp and chicken baskets, shrimp and catfish po' boys, fried dill pickles and desserts.
That's why you'll see scores of fans crowding around Ezell's three catering wagons outside the stadium and lining up at the main concession areas inside the north end zone of Bryant-Denny.
But this was only the first season for Ezell's, and like the Tide, it appears to be a winner.
Now, Hall hopes he can extend that winning season throughout the 12-school Southeastern Conference.
"Alabama was first to offer me this opportunity," Hall said. "Shortly afterwards, I was approached by Auburn, but I told them I wanted to do this one first and get the kinks worked out. I love the Southeastern Conference, and I'm not opposed to any other school, but Alabama is first."
Lindsey Rickard is a public relations major at the University of Alabama and a former intern for Alfa Insurance and the Alabama Farmers Federation.