Sunday, April 25, 2010

Coleslaw and Hushpuppies- A staple of the South

Growing up, Coleslaw and Hushpuppies were not as appealing as, say, hearty roast beef and a decadent 7 layer chocolate cake - but we didn't always have a choice, and a 7 layer cake of any flavor was never seen in our house. Roast beef, yes - occasionally - but the cheaper cut with lots of fat (and flavor, actually).
This blog is about the foods we ate growing up.
It's strange how taste buds change as we mature. Foods that I had growing up weren't exciting. No one said they had to be, but when you're looking at a plate of big butter beans (aka giant Lima beans) with rice, and cornbread and a slice of fried fatback and a nice fresh green onion on the side, you crave a juicy hot dog, some french fries, and a soda. That other food, while actually healthier and probably tastier, was 'old fashioned-old people' food... It could not have been meant for kids. We wanted corn dogs, cheeseburgers from McDonalds,, pizza from Pizza Hut...
Unfortunately, or maybe not, we didn't get those things very often. In fact, I can't ever remember getting a cheeseburger from anywhere except the Crystal burgers we used to get when we went camping through the mountains in the summer. I don't remember ever going out to eat at a restaurant when I was little. When I was a little older, Mama babysat a little girl whose grandmother owned the Hoof and Horn on Spruill avenue and we were invited to eat there a couple of times for free. That was delicious food! Roast beef, prime rib, Hamburger steak, french fried potatoes, beans corn, cabbage, rolls... Absolutely delicious food, and I think that it simply tasted so wonderful was because the dining room tables had white linen tableclothes, waitresses brought us glasses of ice water and tea and then cleaned up after us. No dishes to wash...
As I have grown I find myself wanting to eat in Mama's kitchen again. Not the restaurant, not the Crystal Burger - Not the Bantam Chef where we ate on Sundays after church sometime (Those burgers taught Burger King about the two hands to hold a whopper idea - they were huge! As big as a small dinner plate, Daddy said, and he was right)
I want Mama's beef stew...which wasn't beef "stew" at all. It was more like a vegetable beef soup. She cut up roasts, fat and all, potatoes, onions, tomatoes from the garden usually, okra from the garden, lima beans from the garden, sometimes carrots from the store, and good old salt and pepper.  She made cornbread - not the sweet kind because that isn't cornbread - that's cornmeal cake as fas as I am concerned. Try as I might I cannot get that same taste that it had when it came out of her large stew pot. I can get close but not -there-... I am almost sure that it is psychological - It's not our old kitchen table in Mama's sunny yellow kitchen with the window open to catch the breezes that came through thanks to the huge fan in the back bedroom window. I didn't see Mama cutting the roast beef  and I didn't have to cry while chopping the onions. Somehow all of that added to the taste, I am sure.
Now, as we were rather poor by the standards of the day, we often ate fish that Daddy caught. We had catfish, Crappie, Bass, Spot (caught in the Intercoastal Waterway that drowned our neighbor), Bream (Brim), and occasionally Flounder. I hated fish! I didn't like the bones, I didn't like the flavor! Most of my meal consisted of the hushpuppies and the coleslaw that completed the meal.
You hear a lot of theories as to why these small round balls of fried cornmeal are called Hush puppies. I wondered myself. I have heard that hunters used to fry up corncakes and would throw the remnants to the dogs to hush them up so as not to scare the deer, etc. But that doesn't make sense because hunters want the dogs to be hungry when they hunt so they are more keen on tracking the 'food'. Some have it that hushpuppies were tossed out of the back door of plantation kitchens to shut the dogs up when they'd whine around the back doors for food. But that doesn't make sense either... Dogs were kept in the house if they were pets, and kept in pens if they were hunting dogs. Hushpuppies were made for one reason. Slaves who were planning to run would take cornmeal and mix it with water and fry up small round nuggets to take along with them. When they crossed plantations, or came across the pens of the dogs that plantation owners kept, the dogs would bark, alerting the owners. Slaves would toss them these fried corncake balls with the admoniton to "Hush, puppies!" The dogs would forget the running slaves, and chow down. 
Through the years, it became Hushpuppies, and took a place on the tables of Southern folk because cornmeal was readily available, cheaper than flour, and it tasted good fried. 
Mama made hers with yellow cornmeal, buttermilk, a handful of flour, an egg or two, chopped onions and a pinch of salt.  We couldn't afford cooking oil so Mama fried everything in lard.There is nothing like that taste in anything you buy today.
We made our own coleslaw too. I want to laugh everytime I go past the packaged salads in the stores today. That is NOT coleslaw, people. Coleslaw is grated cabbage, not sliced or shredded... Chopped onions, salt, pepper, Duke's Mayonnaise, a teaspoon of sugar, and apple cider vinegar. You have to grate the cabbage with a hand held grater ( and a food processor does work) and there aren't any carrots or purple cabbages in it either. Mix it up, serve it and enjoy it!
Today I love fish - I still don't like Bream or Bass. I will eat any fish from the sea, and will eat my weight in Crappie and Catfish. But I don't want any of them if I can't have Hushpuppies and Coleslaw. To think that I disliked this growing up is absolutely incredible. I had food that was fit for Kings and I didn't really appreciate it.
Homemade ice cream- Blue Bell gets close. There is nothing, nowhere, no matter what they claim, that comes close to cooking milk and sugar and vanilla with egg yolk into a creamy liquid custard,  taking it out onto the back porch, pouring it in the canister, surrounding it with rock salt, and then cranking that handle for a good half hour or more. Sometimes, when the ice cream is almost 'ice cream' you could open the lid and pour in canned peaches that had been chopped up, or strawberries, or some canned chopped pineapple. I promise you, and those of you who came from backgrounds similar to mine will agree, that nothing tastes better than this sweet concoction. I will grant you that part of the delicious appeal of homemade ice cream is the anticipation... There is nothing more incredibly apt to whet the appetite or to hone the tastebud as anticipation.
My older sister, Carolyn, made Peanut butter cookies. She was the Popcorn cook too in our household. Nobody makes better peanut butter cookies than she did and lard was the key I am sure. We popped popcorn in two tablespoons of lard... and nothing compares to it, today.
I watch a cooking show and occasionally they wrap a chunk of some kind of meat in something called "Lardo" and I'm pretty sure it is nothing but a thin slice of pure fat - exactly what lard is rendered from... The dish usually gets rave reviews... and I'd bet if you ordered it in a restaurant it would be a specialty and carry an exhorbitant price.
Sweet potatoe pies - my Mama was the master! She perfected the recipe for them. She made her own crusts for years! She baked and peeled her own sweet potatoes for years! I would give anything for one of them. My little sister Jo makes a very acceptable version, though, so when I crave one, I can coax her into making on for me.
There is nothing better than childhood in the 60's. I would not trade the years of my youth for what kids have today. I would much rather spend Saturday mornings building villages out of sand in the back yard, taking fronds from Mimosa trees for Palm Trees, taking the clusters of colorful Lantana (the wild variety) for small rose bushes to adorn the little houses and mud fences, and I would trade nothing for the sight of Daddy taking the ice cream churn out of the shed and setting it up on the back porch, and running into the kitchen to see Mama opening cans of evaporated milk and measuring out sugar... I lived in paradise, I tasted the heaven that is real homemade ice cream, and the memories are golden.
Today I will trade you any steak for a plate of good Hushpuppies, some southern coleslaw and a dish or peach ice cream from the churn. But I won't trade those memories for anything.