"Will a catfish a day keep the doctor away?" posed Sen. John Warner of his Arkansas colleagues, Sens. Dale Bumpers and David Pryor, as they noshed away at last week's Capitol Hill reception hosted by the Catfish Farmers of Arkansas.

"I'm living proof that you can eat catfish nine times a day and come out alive," responded Pryor, whose recent campaign included more than a few catfish fries. "This is what gave me my energy."

Catfish might never attain the status of trout or sole beyond the land of Dixie, where it can be found baked, broiled and barbecued, but the breeders of this Southern staple are hopeful that their product will catch on across the country. Here, courtesy of the Catfish Farmers of Arkansas, is one way of preparing the inexpensive catfish: CRISP FRIED CATFISH (6 servings) 6 small catfish 1 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon pepper 2-ounce bottle hot sauce 2 cups self-rising cornmeal Oil for frying

Sprinkle fish lightly with salt and pepper; marinate in hot sauce 1 to 2 hours in refrigerator. When ready to cook, drop pieces into bag filled with cornmeal to coat completely.

In a deep pot or skillet half-filled with oil, heat until smoking hot. Place fish, one piece at a time, into fat. Cook until the fish floats to the top and is golden brown in color. Drain well on paper towels and serve hot.

(The hot sauce will not make the fish hot; it serves to enhance color and flavor.)