Every life is a series of what-ifs. In the case of Fiona Doyle, the earliest what-if happened when she was just 5 years old: What if Fiona had not run into a popcorn cart at the Memphis Zoo? What if that cart had not overturned? And what if hot oil hadn’t spilled out and damaged one side of her face? The many operations Fiona underwent growing up didn’t hide the scars that the girl lived with throughout grade school and high school. But she’s hiding something else: a real talent for songwriting and singing, and only Fiona knows it. Given the chance to perform those songs on open-mic night at Otherlands coffeehouse in Midtown, she turns that chance down. But Fiona dreams of going to Northwestern University outside Chicago to study creative writing and music, and that she does after a new surgical procedure helps to alleviate some of the girl’s deep-seated self-doubts. The question, however, remains: What if Fiona had never had that early accident in the first place? Meet Fi Doyle. She’s a fiercely competitive high-school lacrosse player, and she leads the city of Memphis in goals. In fact, she’s ranked number one in Tennessee. That should give her a good shot at a sports scholarship to her dream school, Northwestern, one of the leading colleges in the country for women’s lacrosse. But an ankle injury causes Fi to have a serious setback. More serious is the declining health and uncertain future of Fi’s boyfriend, Marcus.
Fi, it turns out, doesn’t apply to Northwestern. She stays in Memphis to look after Marcus and to attend (and play sub-championship lacrosse) at a college a lot like Rhodes. What if Fi did, though, agree to go to Northwestern’s summer lacrosse camp? And what if she does well enough there to win admission to the school? Who knows what might happen?
Readers won’t know, because that’s where Everything That Makes You (Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins) by Memphian Moriah McStay ends. Or comes close to ending. The final scene in this ambitious debut novel for young adults is back inside Otherlands, where many scenes have already taken place. Fiona Doyle makes it (nervously) onto the coffee shop’s modest stage. She finally performs her own songs before friends and family. And the dreaded ordeal behind her, life resumes.
McStay — who grew up in Memphis, graduated from Northwestern with a degree in economics, then followed that up with degrees from the University of Chicago — lives today back in her hometown with her husband and three daughters, but she’s traded an outside career for writing full-time. And with Everything That Makes You , she’s written not one but two novels under one title. Both storylines share the same major characters. Both storylines trace the fortunes and misfortunes (in alternating chapters) of Fiona/Fi Doyle. And that’s a strategy to challenge the skills of even a seasoned writer. But readers of this debut novel — once they grow used to the book’s parallel narratives — will find that McStay pulls it off with confidence.
And that goes not only for young-adult readers, the publisher’s intended audience with Everything That Makes You . The characters here are too sharply drawn and the action too accurately observed to limit that audience to young people alone.
What, finally, makes you you ? Everything you live through, according to McStay’s title, and that includes every obstacle, chance occurrence, and accomplishment. No harm in reminding grownups of that life lesson too.
I f you think catfish is only for deep frying, you don’t know Catfish , a handy new cookbook in the “Savor the South” series published by the University of North Carolina Press. It’s co-authored by Memphis food writers Paul and Angela Knipple, and yes, they start with the basics: how to fry catfish (whole, steak, fillet, and popcorn) and how to put together the classic sides: hushpuppies, coleslaw, white beans, and pickled green tomatoes. There’s a whole lot more to this bewhiskered bottom feeder of the South’s waterways, lakes, and “farms,” however. The Knipples go international with recipes using catfish in baba ghanoush, empanadas, and samosas. They have instructions here for Nigerian, Indonesian, and Szechuan catfish stews. Salads, po’boys, and tacos are included too. And as for entrees, think Hungarian-Style Catfish Paprika with Sour Cream Noodles, Moroccan Catfish Tagine, Thai Green Catfish Curry, and, for a stateside taste of Woodstock nation, there’s Cross-Eyed Catfish with Wavy Gravy.But for a taste of catfish Memphis style, the Knipples name-check a number of locally run eateries familiar to many Memphis diners. Catfish Pudding? The authors’ recipe is a variation on the fish pudding (using cod) served at the annual Lenten Waffle Shop at Calvary Episcopal Church. Cajun Cabbage, to go with your catfish? It’s on the menu at Soul Fish, and though it may not be a traditional side in these parts, “it’s perfect even for the anticabbage crowd.” Casablanca restaurant is the source for the baba ghanoush recipe, but instead of shrimp, the Knipples substitute farm-raised catfish for its firmness and sweetness. And for a Mediterranean specialty with a Southern twist, see the makings for cold-smoke catfish from Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen.
If all this sounds a little too fancy, consider what the Knipples call “the most difficult recipe in this book.” Food writer John T. Edge once called the same recipe, in an article he wrote for Garden & Gun magazine, among the “100 Southern Foods You Absolutely, Positively Must Eat Before You Die.”
It’s fried catfish.
But it’s not the easier to prepare, thick-sliced catfish. It’s thin-sliced (“a far more unusual beast,” according to the Knipples), and it’s a signature dish at Middendorf’s Restaurant in Manchac, Louisiana. To make it yourself, you’ll need a sharp knife and a steady hand to cut the fillets evenly and just so. You’ll know you’ve done right if, as the Knipples write, “the catfish comes out looking like huge flower petals practically floating on the plate.”
That’s a far cry from rag-bologna bait and an uncle’s trotlines that Angela and Paul Knipple recall from their childhoods, which they describe in their introduction to Catfish .
A far cry too from the humble fish that, the authors tell us, inspired songs by Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, and, one might say, the music of George Gershwin — Porgy and Bess , remember, takes place on Charleston’s Catfish Row. It inspired a boy on a river raft too:
“About the first thing we done was to bait one of the big hooks with a skinned rabbit and set it and catch a cat-fish that was as big as a man. ... He would a been worth a good deal over at the village. They peddle out such a fish as that by the pound in the market house there; everybody buys some of him; his meat’s as white as snow and makes a good fry.”
The boy who knows as well as anybody that catfish meat is not only snow-white but makes “a good fry”? He’s Huckleberry Finn.