John's Journal... Entry 170, Day 4
GIGGING A SUCKER
Cooking and Eating Suckers
EDITOR'S NOTE: One of the most-unique ways of taking fish in many states is gigging. Although some fishermen will curl their lips and stick up their noses at the thoughts of taking fish with a gig, more than likely these same fishermen have never been sucker gigging. In many areas of the country, gigging and eating suckers have a long and illustrous history. But I know of nowhere in the nation where the sport has evolved to a higher level than on the Current River in southeast Missouri. This week we will look at sucker gigging and learn, why, when, how and where folks go into the black night in aluminum boats with gigs to take suckers.
When the sucker boats arrive at the designated spot for the fish fry, old collapsible metal ironing boards are brought out of the backs of pickup trucks and set up on the riverbank as though someone is expecting his wife to come and iron a shirt. However, the ironing boards are used as fish-cleaning stations. Each fisherman scales, fillets and washes his suckers. All the fillets are put in a big pile until the fish are cleaned. Next the ironing boards are washed off in the river, and the clean fillets are placed one at a time on an ironing board to be scored. Scoring is the secret to producing delicious-tasting suckers. The sucker is a very bony fish. For this reason, the sucker is rarely, if ever, eaten by anyone but seasoned sucker giggers.
"The scoring of the fish is the real critical ingredient for eating a sucker," Black explains. "Each time you cut across the fillet, you don't want to cut but about 1/8-inch from your last cut. And you score the fish all the way down to the skin. Scoring cuts the bones as well as the meat. When the fish is fried after being battered with cornmeal, the bones dissolve, and you're left with a tender piece of delicious fish." Another critical ingredient to producing tasty sucker fillets is to use a real fine seasoned fish fry mix. "To the finely ground cornmeal, we usually add a little garlic powder, some lemon butter powder and some black pepper," Black says. "You want to make sure that the cornmeal mix gets in between every cut you have made on the fish. The cornmeal not only adds to the seasoning but also creates a space between each one of your scoring cuts. Then the hot peanut oil or vegetable oil can get in-between the meat and dissolve the bones. If your sucker fillet is prepared properly, you will never taste a bone."
The sucker gigging near Birch Tree, Missouri, on the Current River however is more than a fishing trip. These events, held every Friday night throughout the fall and winter, are one of the main social events of the community. "Sometimes we do bring our wives, and we do have some women who are pretty good giggers," Black admits, "but the Friday night sucker-gigging trip is primarily a men and boys' thing."
As you'll expect with such an important event, there is a certain ritual and order to the way that the sucker cooking is conducted. Greg Kyle of Van Buren, Missouri, and his family play a very important role in the Friday-night sucker frying. "I have been the cook for the Friday-night sucker gigging for the last 38 years," Kyle mentions. "My dad and I started cooking together, and one of the two of us will be here every Friday night from September through January. My dad didn't have a boat, but he loved to go on the Friday night sucker-gigging trip. So he got him a metal tripod and an old iron pot and would build a fire up under the iron pot, which was suspended by a chain by the tripod. Once the fire and the pot got hot enough, he would pour in the oil and wait for it to begin to boil. While the rest of his friends were out gigging suckers, Dad would start frying-up potatoes and onions so the men would have something to nibble on when they came to the bank after gigging the suckers and before they started filleting the fish."
One of the favorite pre-fish cleaning snacks is a potato sandwich. I had to admit I had never eaten a potato sandwich until I went on this, my first sucker-gigging trip. "To make a potato sandwich, you use one piece of white bread, then put several round slices of potatoes and onions on that slice of white bread, drench the potatoes and onions with ketchup and then add the second piece of white bread to make the sandwich," Alex Rutledge explained as he built me my first potato sandwich. The sandwich was really good and took the edge off the hunger pains that were beginning to develop after being out at night gigging suckers without any supper. One of the secret ingredients to producing the proper type of fried potato for a potato sandwich is the Vegamatic food processor. "When my dad found the Vegamatic and saw that he could turn the handle on the machine and produce a round crinkle-cut potato that would fry up crispy and fit well on a potato sandwich this machine became the only way to slice potatoes," Kyle said. "When the company went out of business, Dad went to every yard sale that he heard about it and bought 15 Vegamatics. Over the years, he has had to rob parts from the broken ones to keep one functioning, but you really can't make a proper potato sandwich if you don't use a Vegamatic slicer to prepare the potato for the sandwich. This machine also slices the onions the right thickness to match up the with potatoes on the sandwich."
If you want to learn more about gigging suckers on the Current River, you can contact Donald Black at P.O. Box 217, VanBuren, Missouri, 63965 or (573) 323-4033.
TOMORROW: DIVORCE BISCUITS FOR DESSERT