Whenever I hear the commentators on the National Public Radio series This I Believe professing their admirable commitments to honor, family ties, work or poetry or the kindness of strangers, I always think, This is all very nice and inspiring, but have these people heard of hushpuppies? While other splendors and necessities improve, adorn, and propel the world, the deep-fried hushpuppy is the sine qua non, the raison d'étre, and probably the prime directive in various other languages whose irregular verbs I have never attempted to conjugate; it ranks right up there with good health, a loving mate, and spiritual fulfillment. Don't get me wrong: I'm not the kind of zealot who is blind to humanity's other achievements. I also believe wholeheartedly in the hand brake, the rifled muzzle, the King James Version, vasectomies, single-barrel aging, and hybrid roses. Those vital developments notwithstanding, the hushpuppy as conceived and consumed in the rural South is crux and hub and core.
Now I'm not about to define "hushpuppy" in some partisan and proprietary way, though it is kissing cousin to a fritter, neighbor to cornbread, and a far cry from a crepe. I won't pretend to one method of concocting the ideal knee-knocking, unforgettable, whiplashing-scrumptious hushpuppy, other than to recommend some basic components and direct you to tickle the oil right up to about four hundred degrees, the same temperature the mercury will register under the tongue of most anyone in my family when our ire is aroused. At one time, individually and collectively, we knew how to cook a hushpuppy so delicious it would make you cut a buck-and-wing and forswear indoor sports and weeknight church. Although we would happily savor them in screen-porch fish camps—from Dowd's Catfish on the Flint River in Georgia to the piratical Riverview Inn between Charlotte and Gastonia—it was the homemade item directly out of the deep fryer or skillet that hit the godspot.
Caution and good medical sense dictated that we should always lift the finished hushpuppy from the sizzling oil and set it on yesterday's news or "Alley Oop" funnies to drain a little grease, the lips being vulnerable to the blistering heat, and the mortal heart to fat and cholesterol and other subtle perils; but caution and reason could be eclipsed by the sharp and alluring smell of anticipated fare, and my people were inclined to opt for the soonest available full-tilt gratification. If this meant frequently swallowing the fire and taking a wound—like Isaiah himself with the smoking ember—O felix culpa. The postlapsarian condition is, after all, the state in which we do our best work, and the poker hand of my ancestral genes tends to bless us with hardy mouths and robust hearts.
Some few civilians don't know that a hushpuppy needs more than a pinch of cane sugar, and others don't understand about the onions, the snipped-up shoots of young green ones fresh out of the soil, if you're lucky enough to have access; but it's not my business to offer exhaustive instructions on Cracker cuisine, only to testify that we made them and ate them as we quarreled and joked, lied and scuffled and vied to impress one another; and despite the risks inherent in both family gatherings and the unforgiving species of cholesterol, many of us are thriving still.
My father's father, J. W. Smith, was in fact the best hushpuppy chef in unrecorded history. He so clearly understood how crucial to this delicacy is a side of fried fish that he excavated his own pond and stocked it—not with bass of the large- or smallmouth varieties or even with those bream as dazzling as a buccaneer's casket of jeweled swag. The bottom-feeding, sly, and whiskery catfish is the only true ally in this gustatory matter, and my grandfather littered the floor of his pond with trees and junk—old bikes and tires and plows, now and then the carcass of a white-tailed deer. We could not safely practice the backstroke in such waters, but he did lure our quarry, with rubber worm and blood liver and cheese and maybe even just the right low-country hoodoo spell.
When unhooking his prey, he'd allow one of the javelin barbels to gaff him, as he knew the bubbling grease to appreciate a drop or two of human blood; and he wanted to stay in mythic territory, as I obviously do too. But no matter how slick the fish skinned out nor how sweet and moist it cooked up, no matter how gold-gowned in its own batter and how crisp and peppery the tail, it remained, as I said, always an auxiliary item.
Furthermore, dear hearts, as Brother Dave Gardner used to say, we didn't neglect the coleslaw and sliced red Better Boys, the mustard potato salad, cob corn, perhaps a crock of molasses-baked beans, all nearly necessary, all Friday-night special. Iced tea, Dr Pepper, or bottle beer, it went without saying, maybe a dill pickle and a pimento cheese sandwich while we were waiting. But we all knew what we'd congregated to partake of and honor—the cornmeal hushpuppy amplified with just a hint of cayenne and a dusting of salt and black pepper—and we refused to be distracted by supplemental minor pleasures.
Of course, there was some smidgen of pretext. Both wings of my family hail from just outside Spalding County, Georgia's county seat, Griffin, where Doc Holliday first practiced dentistry and marksmanship. The downtown noise-ordinance zone was once an hour from Atlanta but is now virtually swarming with polyglot wireless Hotlanta commuters whose sur-names I wouldn't recognize.
When I was a boy, though, and summering on the farm to learn labor and discipline, Bible lore and the mysteries of animal husbandry, there wasn't much call for a full-dress formal clan reunion. We saw each other at the feed store, the sanctuary, the ball field, the barber, and farmers' market and so on, but we'd still convene by consensus just because we could, and because maybe we had grave plots to dispute or bushels of peas to hull, a fresh will to decipher or just a new in-law to welcome and interrogate and appraise, meaning fellowship and good stories, petty dueling and flirting and merciless mutual scrutiny. Amidst all that, the hushpuppies remained the cardinal attraction.
It didn't hurt that Uncle Rufus ran a gristmill on Greedy Faith Creek, and since everybody had some acres in corn, any branch of the family could supply the meal, ground to ideal fineness and guaranteed to retain a little amusing grist in the final product. Buttermilk was similarly acquired, home-harvested, though you don't exactly have to shuck a cow. Even the moths martyred in the grease and the accompanying mockingbird chivaree were essential ingredients; neither item was ever in short supply.
Who was there, lounging on the lawn, slouching by the horseshoe pits, or leaning back from the tire swing's black zero to see the clouds and then the summer stars—sparks of the Swan and the Harp—strutting and declaiming, hide-and-seeking, bantering or confiding? Not quite a multitude, though Uncle Rudy, who married my daddy's sister Dora, was raised Jehovah's Witness, so to keep the Kingdom Hall brethren appeased she had produced a full brood, from Naomi to Rudeen, Ruth and Thaddeus and five or six more. The older girls were not spare nor spindly and neither cut their hair nor painted their faces. They obeyed adults with an annoying dispatch, but to my mind they were wholly redeemed by their blue-bright eyes and skill with the button accordion. Under the right fingers, even "Hey Diddle Diddle" has its charm, and a spirited hymn has always been able to set me to dancing, orthodox dogma notwithstanding, if I have a plate of proper hushpuppies at my command. And my mother's sister, Dora 2, had married a pipeline worker named Theodore but always addressed as Henry. He told randy jokes, sang "Yes, Elvis Loves Me," and smoked Carter Hall in his pipe, adding to the atmosphere. My middle name comes from him, and it is reputed to mean "beloved of God," though I long ago learned in a dream that it truly means "hushpuppy glutton." I do love a good dream.
My daddy, Roe, learned the black arts of outdoor frying from his sire and is himself a master of the tongs and pepper shaker. He has always known how much egg to work into the batter, and no matter how many puppies you aim for, it's never a whole number of eggs. Two and a third, or three whites, four suns. Or most likely something like nineteen and a half, as you don't ever want to run short. He is a man who likes to instruct and organize and direct, and under other circumstances, I have always imagined, might have been a symphony conductor instead of a policeman.
My mother is a delicate and discrete eater, a house cat and whisperer, so I have little memory of her at these pseudo-eucharistic feasts, and my sister was too young through the highest times to be more than a swaddled squall and a blue-eyed puzzlement. My father's mother wore chunky boots about the yard—under the waspy scuppernong arbor and by the blacksnake's fig tree, beside the appleshade anvil, into the vegetable rows, and over at the simmering trash barrel with its firefly-winking scraps rising with the acrid smoke at dusk. She was the primary catcher of fishes, a surreptitious Tube Rose dipper, and rustler-up of ancillary items from the kitchen, but she had little hand in the conjuring of the "host," if I can push my reverence that far without inviting lightning.
We had a seasoned white oak spoon to beat the batter and added our ingredients with some rhythm, whipping them around with disciplined fury. Elbow grease at that stage was crucial to the desired effect and never hard to find, because every leaf on the family tree wanted a share of the credit when the chorus of compliments began to resound. Some males were born for crank competition and would supervise and warm up to the slow rotation of that sweat-dyed handle, flexing muscles and growling till the confection was firm.
As it happened, there were always at least one or two relatives with fond recollections of a Ford Model A crank, who would rather turn the ice-cream maker for old time's sake, so wouldn't be in the way. The contents of that cylinder, encased in the rock salt and then the cedar bucket, existed to provide a kind of palate-cleansing afterglow, and likely Uncle Henry Theodore or his adopted daughter Janeanne (former spouse of Alton Banjo) would have picked the peaches at Pomona out McIntosh Road that very afternoon.
I should say here too that those less discerning than my kith and kin might be tempted to drop by Food Lion or The Pig and pick up a shortcut hushpuppy mix—say Dixie Lilly or Uncle Buck's—but trust me on this: you will find that experience a tame and diminished thing, if you have ever tasted the scratch puppy in its natural habitat.
The vocal majority milling about and inhaling the pine-scented air (I called them the Salivation Army) passionately preferred to beat the batter, to work it toward the shaping stage, the paste consistency ready to dollop the size of a crab apple, but not everybody could: the "too many cooks" danger and so on. The me-next competition caused more scuffles and bruises than a misplaced kiss behind the abelia, and before it was over there were bound to be sharp words and sneers, and somebody'd seize up a hoe handle or a tomato stake, while the dogs Kicky and Spot and Trixie darted and circled and snapped. Then Grandaddy would have to flip aside his Herbert Tareyton cigarette and pull from his coverall pocket an old Smith & Wesson .32-20—a gun he called Us & Wesson—once nickeled like a mirror but losing plate in flakes, and discharge it into the air. The loud report and attendant whiff of cordite were part of the ritual; his lead target load might whistle through the willow crown or pecan canopy or just rise and rise until it became a star, but the message was unmistakable. Even the dogs shut up and slunk off. The accordion wheezed to a silence.
This brings me to the story, legend maybe, that hushpuppies were devised for throwing to dogs to occupy their jaws and stifle their howls and yowls and mendicant whimpers. You can easily see the etymological temptation in that apocryphal notion, but if you have ever eaten the 24-karat hushpuppy, you will affirm that nobody would donate a fresh one to a dog unless that animal was two hundred pounds of frothing, snarling cur with his eyes fixed on your carotid artery.
So where did the word come from, if not meant (in an isotope of the Irish eist) to hush the feisty pets? A popular story goes that Ursuline nuns in New Orleans before the Purchase conjured up a treat called croquettes de maise, which could mark the hushpuppy's genesis. Other folks will tell you that salamanders were once named "water dogs" in the hand-thrown language called the vernacular, and that cooked hushpuppies were somewhat cylindrical, like a finger or a lizard. The name came from the resemblance, they say, size and shape. But just run your eyes over a hushpuppy—not one from Captain D's or Cracker Barrel or some Southern Culture Ethnology Workshop, but a backyard, iron-pot, family-caucus, Friday-night, wait-your-damn-turn hushpuppy—and then take a hard gander at a salamander. No match, Butch. There just has to be another explanation.
My family was somewhat more extensive than I've let on; there were biddies and bulls and boars and cygnets in human form, as well as a patriarch, though not my daddy's daddy's daddy, who had gone on to what's rumored to be a sweeter place. The sovereign and wizened presiding grand geezer was a House, who had once lived briefly for some unfathomable reason in Michigan cherry country and had in a rare fit of appropriate ardor sired my daddy's mama.
I'm likely getting in big trouble here with the ghosts, because I was allowed to call her only "Grandmother," as if we were fugitives from a Henry James novel, and to name her otherwise was to court a switching—that abelia bush again, red wand stripped of leaflets, whish and whish. But her daddy in his eighties was earthy as a red wiggler, and he loved to laugh and spiel yarns rife with non sequiturs and misdirections, Minos-mazes with a shaggy dog, snoring bear, or besmirched preacher at the finish. His daughter, assisted by her daughter-in-law, was forever trying to shush him, forever failing. I expect my grandmother was a little embarrassed by his jovial and transgressive yarning, his irreverent loose-cannon wit. Once he told me, whispering so she wouldn't know, that he was himself traveling cheek-by-jowl with the shepherd boy Jack when he climbed the Bible beanstalk to stone the mighty Goliath.
You can see how that brand of mischief might offend a pious daughter, who was in her own advanced age sterner than Cotton Mather. And when he'd peeve her so much she fumed and steamed (remember that congenital temperature business), she'd fall back on the makeshift and functional, even quietly affectionate language of her past. She'd say, though nearly hissing it, "Hush, Pappy," offering him a glass or plate of anything to shut his story off. Any morsel or potation would do to fill his mouth, with the one exception of that unmentionable contraband smelling of rotten eggs in a jar hidden in an old ammo box in the garage or behind a loose board in the coop.
It seems a viable etymology to me: "Pappy" to "puppy," just a vowel slip on a warm cricket night a little over a century back. He or any other raconteur would surely have abbreviated his usual narrative peregrination at the offer of a hushpuppy. And by the way, his name was Rory, and he was dedicated to the notion that bacon grease had to be involved in the recipe and that the curly snags on the surface of the puppy that result from drips and dribbles must be scorched deep, deep brown before the glory was full. If they came out just sort of panther amber, he'd call them fool's gold and scowl. Of course, he'd eat them just the same.
It seems important to testify, after all this, that no disproportion of ingredient—not even the necessary near-nothing of baking soda administered to excess—no misdistribution of the puppies in the batch, nor absence of cane sugar in the final product ever pushed anyone in my family to words and actions so absolute we couldn't recover. We skirmished and fenced, jeered and snickered and regrouped, and pretended to tolerate one another. (My cousin Larry Giles, however, was accidentally splashed with grease from a skillet in 1959 and to this day carries a scar shaped like Denmark on his shoulder.)
And when the dust from parting trucks and cars would settle on us and the honeysuckle and the shorn lawn alike, when Grandmother had concluded her prayers and other conjurations and switched off her bedside light and the dogs had curled on their pallets, my grandfather and I would traipse back up the terraces of the grazing meadow to the pond he'd gouged with an Allis-Chalmers tractor. He'd always say, "Don't you step on a copperhead, son; don't wake the skunks," and I'd promise not to. We'd tote the catfish bones on glass platters and, standing on the bank, fling them out to the water in a high arc, then turn together and piss eastward with sighs of content and relief.
* * *
Smith-Griffin Weekend Hushpuppy Wonder
4 cups oil
2 cups yellow cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup spring water
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 dash Tabasco
1 pinch cayenne pepper
Cane sugar, pepper, onions diced fine, bell pepper bits to preference
A recipe is not a treasure map, and even the proper ingredients and proportions can go awry without a vigilance intense enough to pass for reverence. Maybe it's worth asserting here that, no matter how our town attracted its name, a Griffin is a mythical and mongrel beast somehow half eagle and half panther, with a diamondback for a tail, as I've heard tell from that eloquent House patriarch, so it wouldn't be surprising if this recipe didn't require that each cook add or change or subtract a portion of some surprising creature according to the demands of the moment and idiosyncratic taste.
Some of the peculiars might include creamed corn, slivered tomatoes, even a splash of beer, but the only obligatory is a deep kettle or skillet (or a skettle!) of grease (lard or Crisco preferred) at just shy of 400°F (the boil beads the size of an adult gray squirrel's eye). You can test it by slipping in a smidgen of batter to see if it floats.
I'm scaling down quantities for practicality, but you need at least 4 cups of the oil, and you blend together in a clay bowl 2 cups of yellow cornmeal, a cup of all-purpose flour, 1-1/3 eggs, 1 cup of buttermilk, 1 cup of spring water, 3/4 teaspoon of salt topped by 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda. Whip that about con brio till all the lumps give up the ghost. Then see if the batter is cohering to appropriate glop. If it seems too dry, dash in more buttermilk; if too feeble, add meal.
This is when you dose the magma with a dash of Tabasco, pinch of cayenne, cane sugar, pepper, onions diced fine, bell pepper bits. Proportion depends upon your personal knot of nature and nurture, wind velocity, humidity, and in what key the squeezebox is playing. I do not recommend adding snuff, cigarette ash, or mosquitoes, but if they manage to get in, silence is advisable, as they will do no more harm than the sweat that is destined to escape the cook.
Your actual puppy dollops should be smaller than a hen egg, and they'll be done in about 300 seconds. I do advise cutting back the oil heat just as you spoon the puppies in. They'll float, and as you rescue each gold-brown treat from the boil, you can (if you must) preserve their freshness in an oven at about 200°F, but after half an hour they'll start to rebel and lose their magic.
This small-caliber recipe should make enough hushpuppies to offer each of the original dozen disciples a pair, which would be adequate to convert them to this cult but not to satisfy them. So how many would qualify as "a gracious plenty," enough to sate a real aficionado? You can never speak for the incurable gluttons, yet a simple optimist will settle for six or eight at one sitting, assured that other evenings, other feasts will bring additional servings. If ever offered the option, I know what I'll request for my last meal.
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