In addition to being back-to-school time, August is National Catfish Month. Catfish might not be a part of your daily life, but the fish once played an important role in the lives of Philadelphians. In a way, it’s like cheesesteak is today; when tourists came to Philadelphia in the 19th century, they would ask their hosts where to find the best catfish meal. The Penn Museum just so happens to have a resident catfish specialist.
Dr. Teagan Schweitzer works in the zooarchaeology lab within the Museum’s Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials (CAAM). Her catfish research stems from her dissertation “Philadelphia Foodways ca. 1750–1850: An Historical Archaeology of Cuisine.” In the name of National Catfish month, I asked Teagan a few questions about her research—and how she ended up in such a specific field.
Question: How did you become interested in archaeology?
Dr. Teagan Schweitzer: I grew up in Michigan. In fourth grade, there was a survey that we had to fill out and part of it asked what you wanted to be when you grow up — and in my fourth grade class, the coolest thing to want to be was an archaeologist. Then I actually thought, “Oh my gosh, that is the coolest thing!” At first I wanted to be an Egyptologist, not unlike many people, but in college I could never get into any Egyptology courses, because they were so popular. My dad is an architectural historian but also really knowledgeable about American history. I grew up going to a lot of historic places in the U.S. and learning to love American history. When someone told me there was a field of archaeology that combined both American history and archaeology, I thought “That’s for me! That’s what I’ve been looking for!”
Q: And how did you get into zooarchaeology?
TS: As part of my high school curriculum, we had to do a senior project. Knowing I wanted to do something with archaeology, I ended up working at the Natural History Museum at the University of Michigan with an ethnobotanist there for a month. In that month, I met some of the other graduate students at the University of Michigan, one of whom, Chris Glew, was a zooarchaeologist. I also studied abroad at the University of Cambridge for my junior year in college and there was a faculty member, Dr. Preston Miracle, who had also done his graduate work at the University of Michigan who was a zooarchaeologist. Then, when I came to Penn for graduate school, I met Dr. Kate Moore, who is the director of the zooarchaeology lab and Undergraduate Advisor in Anthropology, and she was also from the University of Michigan. It felt like I was getting a lot of messages that zooarchaeology was something I should study. In the years between undergrad and graduate school, I had gotten really into food: reading cookbooks and all different kinds of books on food. Zooarchaeology was a good way to combine my interest in archaeology and food, to make the things I’m researching the things I would want to read anyway.
Q: Why catfish? That’s a pretty specific focus.
TS: It wasn’t me that chose the catfish, it was the bones that chose it for me. I work primarily with bones from Philadelphia in the 18th and 19th centuries. Catfish bones are, of all the fish that people ate in this area, the most resilient. In the archeological record, they survive the best. What that means is that when I’m analyzing and cataloging the archaeological material, the fish bones I find most often are catfish. It became clear pretty early on in my research that people were eating a lot of catfish in this area. Because of this, I wanted to find out what people were doing with catfish in the Philadelphia area. It turns out that there was a popular 19th century Philadelphia dish called “catfish, waffles, and coffee.”
Q: Can you tell me more about catfish, waffles, and coffee?
TS: It was served primarily at roadhouses, little inns, and taverns. There was a woman named Mrs. Watkins who had a roadhouse on the Schuylkill River; she is the one who is credited with the origin of the dish catfish, waffles, and coffee. In the historical record, there are two different ideas of what that dish entails. One interpretation is that you get catfish, you get waffles, and you get a cup of coffee. But alternatively, it’s also used as a colloquial term similar to “from soup to nuts” (which we don’t use much anymore either). It means you are describing the full trajectory of the meal: soup starts the meal, nuts end the meal. It just meant you were going to get a lot of food and some of it was going to be catfish. It was so much food that it was a feast– fried catfish and a relish, followed by beefsteak, with fried potatoes, stewed or broiled chicken, waffles, and coffee, with an optional dessert.
Q: Are you still focused on catfish?
TS: It’s not something I’m actively researching, but I’m doing more cataloging these days than historical research. I still find a lot of catfish bones in the material that I’m cataloging. I’m looking into some other fish species that were popular in Philadelphia and seeing what their stories were. I work with archaeological materials that come from the Fishtown, Kensington, and Port Richmond neighborhoods in Philadelphia. Fishtown got its name because it was a hub of the shad fishing industry in the region; I’m working to flesh out this story both from an archaeological and historical perspective.
You can read more about historic food in Philadelphia in Teagan Schweitzer’s article on turtle soup in the Penn Museum’s Expedition magazine.