A columnist for the "Philadelphia Daily News," Nancy French blends her hilarious fish-out-of-water tale with humorous observations about the South's obsession with everything from church attendance to the blue-state notion that red staters think as slowly as they speak.
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A Red State Of Mind
By Nancy French
Copyright © 2006
All right reserved.
What Is a Catfish Queen?
MANY GIRLS DREAM of fairy godmothers, glass slippers, and handsome
princes as they drift off to sleep under pink gingham quilts ...
but not the ones in Paris, Tennessee. We liked Cinderella, Sleeping
Beauty, and the Little Mermaid, of course, but our favorite princess
was no mass-marketed, consumer-oriented creation with figures
featured in the latest Happy Meal. Instead, we idolized a princess
who never went out of style. Year after year-as we graduated from
Slinkys to banana-seat bicycles to training bras to electric-blue
eye shadow and shirts inexplicably emblazoned with the Coca-Cola
logo-one thing stayed the same. We all dreamed of winning the crown
in the Fish Fry pageant, whether we admitted it or not.
I guess that's why I put on a rhinestone necklace and entered the
pageant. My dress was actually quite tame compared to the one I'd
later wear to the prom, which resembled the grisly aftermath of a
run-in between a mermaid and a sequin monster with a glue gun. The
dress I'd chosen for the pageant was royal-blue satin, with a
straight skirt and a fitted bodice with princess sleeves. I looked
nice and slim in it, especially since my permed hair-poufed out to
beach ball proportions-created the illusion of height.
I was 5 feet7-1/2 inches, which my basketball coach rounded up to 5
foot 8 to create a more intimidating roster. Point guard for the
Lady Blue Devils that year, I had spent many hours hanging out in
our locker room, which smelled slightly of mold and socks. That
night, however, it wasn't filled with lanky ballplayers complaining
of shin splints. Instead, I walked in my satin shoes (dyed to match
my dress) into a war room. Girls and their beauty products were
spread out all over the benches, their mothers wielding curling
irons with surgeon-like dexterity. A fog of hair spray, permanently
depleting the ozone over northwestern Tennessee, engulfed me at the
door. People looked up at me in surprise.
"You look pretty," the girls all said, which of course made me feel
ridiculous. They were all wearing underwear and T-shirts as their
moms worked furiously on their long tresses. When I'd signed up for
the pageant, the lady had told me to be there an hour and a half
before showtime, which I figured was to make sure no one was late. I
had no idea that all the work was done on the premises. "So you'll
look fresh," they explained. These girls were pageant experts,
having competed in the Fish Fry contests since the Baby Barnyard
I felt like I'd showed up for the SATs without a pencil. The other
contestants, moderately attractive girls I sat behind in math class,
looked positively stunning-and they weren't even finished getting
ready. Hair was piled high on their heads in large rollers, bobby
pins sticking out in every direction like thorns on a rose. Their
moms painted makeup on their faces with more care than the Sistine
Chapel ever received from Michelangelo. They'd spent weeks attaining
the perfect skin tone in the tanning beds so that everyone resembled
carrots or incredibly enthusiastic Tennessee Volunteer fans. My skin
was as pale as the bar of soap which was, in fact, my only beauty
regimen. I didn't know about eyeliner or what "my colors" were, and
my lipstick was from the bargain bin at Wal-Mart.
I stood there, shuffling my feet as my freshness left me like a
child abandoning a broken toy. As the clock ticked slowly toward
seven o'clock, dresses were carefully lowered over Aqua- Netted
hairdos. Potbellies were tamed with Lycra, cleavage was created with
duct tape, and height was bolstered with three-inch heels.
"Hey, Nancy!" my friend Olivia said. "My rollers are already hot if
you want to do your hair." The stunned silence of the room indicated
that everyone but Olivia realized my hair was already done. Her mom
interrupted with the cheery suggestion, "Let's practice our walks!"
Olivia's mom owned her own beauty shop, sold Mary Kay products, and
possessed a huge case of makeup that could magically transform any
ugly duckling into a swan, though Olivia was no duckling. Her rich
chocolate hair, big brown eyes, and position as head cheerleader
made her the most popular girl in the school. Her pink dress was
covered in sequins except for the flared bottom that showcased her
perfect calves as she sauntered across the locker room with
confidence and poise. Wait a minute, I thought. That's walking? She
looked like a dust bunny being blown gracefully from underneath the
bed, and I knew I was in trouble. Just as it never occurred to me to
practice my breathing until I took Lamaze classes many years later,
I had definitely not practiced walking. I tried a crash course,
awkwardly following Olivia across the locker room as the mothers
looked away in embarrassment.
"Honey, just stick your boobs out, suck in your stomach, and pretend
you've got a book on your head."
As I waited in line behind the curtains of the stage, I was
horrified. Boobs, stomach, book. Everyone looked better than I did,
even the members of the marching band. And they knew how to walk.
When the announcer called my name, I came out onstage and walked
from one piece of tape on the floor to the next, forming a triangle
of humiliation. "Nancy is the daughter of Bob and Betty, enjoys
playing basketball, and likes to hang out with friends." At each
piece of tape on the floor, I stopped and smiled at the judges
behind a table at the foot of the stage. The announcer ran out of
material before I reached the second mark. I mentally kicked myself
for not putting more effort into filling out the autobiography
paragraph on the application sheet. I could've at least mentioned
that I was the school spelling bee champ and enjoyed making fruit
baskets for the elderly.
Miraculously, I made it all the way to the second round-beating out
the girls who frankly should've stayed home-to the casual-wear
portion of the program. Other girls wore polkadotted sweaters with
pleated skirts or matching shorts sets, going for the
lunch-at-the-country-club look. My casual ensemble, however, was a
striped silk jacket in bold primary colors with gold buttons that,
frankly, fit in best under the big top. Although it didn't have a
bow tie that squirted water in people's faces, it did have a tie-a
long silk one that my dad had to teach me to knot.
It never occurred to me that being prodded onstage like a cow at the
state fair was anything less than empowering. I hadn't yet been
exposed to a proper women's studies program. A few months later, I'd
hear the term "sexual harassment" for the first time in my life,
when an incident involving a few girls on the bus and guys with
roving hands caused our health teacher to give a stern speech in
assembly. (Afterward, the guys joked that they were unaware "harass"
was just one word.) Nonetheless, on that night, under the hot lights
on the wooden stage, I wanted more than anything to complete my
silk-jacket-and-man's-tie ensemble with a fake diamond Fish Fry
After another strut on the stage, we waited nervously in the gym for
the top ten to be announced. I could tell by the hooting and
hollering that the crowd was getting more excited as the field of
competitors was being narrowed. Boyfriends of the participants
placed bets on whether their girlfriend would win and sat in the
front row like the owners of roosters in a cockfight. The rest of
the auditorium was packed, of course, as is always the case-the
community attended the pageants as faithfully as the high school
All this goes to show that the Catfish Queen was different from any
princess we read about in fairy tales. She wasn't just a pretty face
with a hard luck story, rodents turned coachmen, or an inflexible
curfew. Rather, she was a carefully chosen symbol of the city of
Paris, one with many important responsibilities. Namely, she had the
honor of starting the festivities at the Fish Tent by tossing the
first hush puppy.
The Fish Tent, of course, was the reason the World's Biggest Fish
Fry was in fact so big. In one week, twelve thousand pounds of
catfish were fried to golden perfection and served with French
fries, white beans, coleslaw, and, of course, hush puppies. For
those of you who aren't familiar with fine Southern cuisine, hush
puppies are balls of deep-fried cornmeal usually served with
catfish. Mark Twain spoke of them in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,
writing, "There ain't nothing in the world so good when it's cooked
right." According to tradition, they were so named because Southern
Civil War cooks tossed them to their dogs to keep them quiet when
Union troops were near, saying, "Hush, puppy!"
People lined up outside the Fish Tent hours in advance to jockey for
the first plate of food-guaranteeing not only hot catfish but also a
photo in the hometown newspaper, the Paris Post-Intelligencer.
However, the most important photo of the day was that of the Catfish
Queen tossing the first hush puppy to a family member, usually her
father, to officially begin the celebration. This tradition became
so famous that major-league baseball patterned their season opener
after the Fish Fry-but it never was as exciting.
It might seem improbable that the world's biggest anything would
occur in Paris, which is well over a hundred miles northwest of
Nashville and even further northeast of Memphis. But to me, Paris
was America at its best. I had moved to Paris as a child from an
even smaller town in Kentucky, so I felt like George Jefferson when
he moved on up to the East Side. Paris not only had a Wal-Mart,
McDonald's, and Dollar General store, but an Arby's-a sure sign of
civic taste and sophistication. More important, however, Paris had
Kentucky Lake-one of the largest man-made lakes in the world, with
2,300 miles of shoreline and year-round boating, hunting, and
hiking. But it was the fishing that drew a hundred thousand people
every April to our little city of nine thousand residents.
The lowly catfish, a bottom feeder that has the misfortune of
tasting good fried, was king that week. Vendors sold Styrofoam fish
hats, fish toys, and T-shirts emblazoned with "Paris, Tennessee-Home
of Beautiful Catfish and Delicious Women." I felt that
particular pride of living in a place that at least some people
considered a vacation spot. For absolutely no reason, it made me
feel smart. After all, I didn't have to stay at the Best Western to
see the catfish races and knew the best location for the premier
views of the parade. (Catfish races, by the way, are like any other
race, except that they are staged in specially made Plexiglas canals
while the townspeople stand around cheering for their specific
fish.) I guess the feeling is a little like how sophomores feel upon
seeing wide-eyed freshmen walking through the halls holding
maps-excited to see fresh faces, invigorated to show them around,
and somehow gratified to realize that other people were interested
in the place you call home. Many years later, the tourists walking
by my apartment near the Liberty Bell would elicit in me the same
sensation I felt back then when giving people directions to the Fish
Paris had a rodeo, several dances, and a carnival that defied all
safety and health regulations. Apparently the only job requirement
for running the Tilt-A-Whirl was a blood alcohol content above .3
percent, while selling corn dogs simply required an aversion to
deodorant. The Catfish Queen made an appearance at each of these
events, showing dignitaries around, wearing new outfits, and posing
In fact, a special section of the Paris Post-Intelligencer was
dedicated to the winners of the pageants, called "Paris in the
Spring." Winners were featured on entire pages with huge photographs
and exhaustive biographical sketches. They even posed for
advertisements paid for by local businesses, so that they appeared
all week in various shots-eating hush puppies at Cindy's Catfish
Kitchen, sitting behind the wheel at Carter's Used Cars, and posing
with kids on the playground of Miss Betty's Kinder Garden.
"Two, seven, nine, thirteen ..." As the pageant sponsor read the
numbers slowly and sequentially from her perch on the bleachers,
contestants and spectators alike crumpled over in tears or jumped
out of their heels in joy. I glanced down at the number sixteen
written in glitter on a paper plate pinned to my dress and swallowed
hard when she jumped from fourteen to twenty-two.
Turns out the only way I could've worn the crown was if I pried it
off Olivia's perfectly coiffed head in the parking lot on the way
home. I never got to be a Catfish Queen, and Olivia won so many
pageants over the years that her dad had to build an addition to the
house to showcase her crowns. Our senior year in high school,
however, I somehow beat her in our mutual bid for homecoming queen.
Not that a liberated gal like me cares about such things.
Excerpted from A Red State Of Mind
by Nancy French
Copyright © 2006 by Nancy French.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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