Partial to Home: The hushpuppy debate

 

Birney Imes

 

 

Just after 5 o'clock Wednesday afternoon HD Taylor pushed through our back gate. He was carrying a small cooler of catfish strips and a 14-inch cast-iron skillet. 

 

The skillet came from an antique shop in Northport, Alabama. The fish from the Luxapalila. 

 

You buy an old cast-iron skillet, and you're buying a piece of history, history you add to and pass on. When asked about the frying pan, the proprietor of the Northport shop quoted HD and his late wife Shirley a price more than they were willing to pay. 

 

"They had skillets in there all sizes," said HD. "They had one this big," his hands describing the lid of a 55-gallon oil drum. "They wanted $1,000 for that skillet. 

 

By the time they left the shop, the owner had halved her price for the smaller pan and made a sale. 

 

That was about 15 years ago and the number of Luxapalila "cats" that have taken their final swim in that skillet are too many to count. 

 

When HD complained to a fellow kayaker about his full freezer, the friend suggested a potluck supper for his fellow paddlers, his surplus catfish the main course. 

 

I'd volunteered to take care of the hushpuppies and after an internet search and leafing through Beth's cookbooks, I'd found a recipe. 

 

I shouldn't have bothered. When hushpuppy-making time came, HD took my bag of Sciple corn meal, poured it in a bowl without measuring and added a couple eggs, baking powder, chopped onion and buttermilk. For good measure, he added part of a can of Coors beer, though I suppose any brew would do. 

 

Note: The Sciple family in Dekalb has been producing stone ground corn meal, flour and grits from a water-powered gristmill for five generations -- in continuous operation since 1790. The closest source I know for Sciple products is Tem's Food Market in Macon. 

 

If you want to make Rosie Brown laugh, ask her about hushpuppies. On Thursdays, Rosie works as cashier at her husband's business, Southland Oil. I know her husband, Arthur, to be fond of fried catfish, and I told him about our fish fry the night before as I was pumping gas. During our conversation, he bragged on his wife's cooking. 

 

Though she now lives in Caledonia, Rosie grew up on what she refers as the old Go-Go Beach Road, which, as the crow flies, is not far from her husband's bulk oil company on Highway 45A just south of the Magnolia Motor Speedway. 

 

Rosie credits her grandmother Iona McDavid for her culinary chops. Her cornbread and hushpuppy recipes are the virtually the same, she says. 

 

She puts chopped bell pepper in her hushpuppies -- "red or green whatever color you like." Sometimes she adds corn. 

 

"How big do you make them," I asked, "about the size of a golf ball?" 

 

"About the size of winding balls," she said 

 

"Winding balls?" 

 

"Jawbreakers," she said. "That's what we called 'em as kids. Winding balls. They were too hard to bite into so we had to wind them from side to side (in our mouths) to wear them down." 

 

Rosie swears allegiance to Sunflower brand corn meal mix and Sunflower flour. "It's what we've always used," she said. 

 

There is more than one origin story for hushpuppy, the most often repeated being fishermen and hunters, or possibly Confederate soldiers, frying fish over an open fire threw small balls of fried cornmeal batter to hush barking dogs. 

 

A Louisianan might beg to differ. Using locally available ingredients, Ursuline nuns who came from France to New Orleans in the early 1700s made a dish called "croquettes de maise" or corn croquettes. 

 

South Carolinians will argue that "red horse bread" the concoction of a freed slave who operated a fish house on the banks of the Edisto River at the turn of the century was the first hushpuppy. Red horse is a species of fish found in Carolina rivers distinguished by its red tail. 

 

French Nuns, Confederate soldiers, barking dogs fed balls of fried cornmeal the size of jawbreakers and red horse fish. Is it any wonder people scratch their heads when the conversation turns to Southern food, or, for that matter, the South itself? 

 

Birney Imes ([email protected]) is the former publisher of The Dispatch. 

 

 

Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.

 

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