Monday, August 30, 2010

The Most Exotic Thing I've Ever Eaten

Far-away cultures and folkways intrigue me. But there is one culture in particular that captured my imagination and filled me with fascination and envy. For as long as I’ve known about them, I wondered what it would be like to live among these romantic souls. To breathe in their folkways, so different from mine. To speak their language and sing their songs.

And oh, their food. I wanted to taste their food. The way they wrote about their food made me drool. But none of the restaurants I frequented in my Los Angeles childhood served it. Nobody I knew made it. Mom occasionally made ethnic dishes from the classical European repertoire—osso buco, coq au vin—but wouldn’t go anywhere near the dishes I dreamed about. You wouldn’t like them anyways, she said.

But two years ago, I had the opportunity to live among these people. They tended to live in the rural outskirts of town, and no longer kept many restaurants in our area. Their best dishes, as is the case with many cultures, were well-kept secrets served at home.

Then I discovered that my bird-watching buddy Luz, a Colombian biologist, shared my fascination. It was an autumn Saturday, and we were wrapping up a happy morning looking for migrating wood warblers.

“Oh, I found this restaurant that has this crazy food!” she told me. “It’s right by I-75! I’m going with my friend Valerie for lunch—want to come?”

Would I? I’d never had a whole meal of this mysterious cuisine, and this would be my chance. “That would be awesome—what’s this place called?”

She inhaled in happy anticipation. “Cracker Barrel!”

Yes—Luz and I were fetishists for the food and culture of the American South. I always wondered what it would be like to be a real Southern lady who made fluffy biscuits and towering layer cakes, and served friends fresh-squeezed lemonade on the back porch of an ancient family plantation. Luz went so far as to marry a guy from Tennessee. Her now-former mother-in-law made killer fried green tomatoes.

Luz’s friend Valerie was a biology postdoc from Toulouse, and offerings at Cracker Barrel were even more exotic for her than for us.

“Dumplins? What eez ‘dumplins’?” she asked, peering at the menu.

“Well, they’re kind of like—well it’s hard to describe.” Luz said. “But you have to try the fried okra!”

I knew this was the tourist version of Southern cuisine, and it only whetted my appetite for the real thing. This meant I’d have to find a friendly local who could teach me more about it.

But where would I find such a person? Rumor had it the old-line Southern natives in my little college town resented – and hence, avoided – the Yankees and foreigners attached to the university. After all, people who put tempeh on their pizza and drink unsweetened iced tea are not to be trusted.

Then I remembered that I actually knew a real live Southern lady who didn’t hate me. And I’d been sitting across the table from her on Monday nights for months.

Susie Baxter heads a writing group I belong to, and is a proud native Floridian, born and raised in rural Suwanee County. (This is the north-central part of the state, just east of the panhandle.) One of the first things newcomers learn about Florida is that the more north you are, the more South you are: Suwanee County is closer geographically and culturally to neighboring Alabama and Georgia than to far-away Miami or Palm Beach.

Susie’s memoir-in-progress about her childhood in Suwannee County is a delicious mélange of everything Southern: quiet dirt roads, a homemade rope swing hanging from an ancient oak in the yard, dusty tobacco fields, mysterious bullet holes in floorboards, and of course, lots of food—all cooked lovingly on a wood-burning stove, and almost all grown on the family property.

Meals in Susie’s childhood were filled with all those mysterious Southern foods I’d read about for years, but never seen served anywhere – let alone tasted. Among these are hoecakes.

I discovered that the term ‘hoecake’ is used across the South to refer to a number of different griddled flatbreads, ranging from simple mixtures of cornmeal and water to white-flour-based breads resembling giant scones. The name ‘hoecake’ recalls the old tradition of cooking the cakes on the back of a hoe. (Most sources spell it as two words, but Susie spells it as one, and I’m following her lead – and recipe –here.)

Susie's family’s version is a cornmeal-based griddle cake enriched with eggs and milk. Her family often had them with meals in place of biscuits or bread. Here is Susie’s description of her family’s recipe, from her upcoming memoir, “I, Susanette...”

"Mama often made hoecakes for supper, instead of cornbread or biscuits that required a hot oven, which heated up the house. To make hoecakes, Mama measured the ingredients very precisely—a handful of freshly ground cornmeal, a half a handful of flour, a clump of lard, an egg or two, a pinch of salt and baking powder, and just enough fresh cow milk to make the mixture into a batter.

She checked the temperature of the iron skillet by sprinkling a few drops of water in it. When the water danced, she knew it was hot enough. She poured the batter into five separate puddles, cutting off the stream as each puddle spread to three or four inches. In less than a minute, bubbles formed on the surface of the puddles and began to pop, an indication that it was time to flip them. Her hoecakes always turned out brown and crispy on the outside but soft and warm inside..."

Like biscuits and cornbread, hoecakes can be eaten with either savory or sweet accompaniments. At her childhood meals, Susie used them to block out the taste of turnip greens, which she hated. If she managed to get down enough of those dreaded greens, she also got to have hoecakes for dessert, drizzled with cane syrup.

Susie’s mother made her hoecakes from homegrown corn (which her family brought to the mill to be ground into meal) and home-pressed cane syrup. For city girls like me and Luz, this is as strange, exotic, and wondrous as food can possibly get.


Amazingly, I lucked out on my first attempt to re-create Susie’s mother’s recipe. Since Susie is small-boned and petite; I guessed her mother may have been as well, so “a handful” would have been about half a cup at most. To get the combination of crunchiness and softness, the batter would need a lot of fat and tenderizers such as milk and eggs – so I interpreted “a clump” of lard to mean about a quarter of a cup. I’m not sure exactly how close this comes to the original, but it does fit Susie’s description perfectly: the cakes are brittle and crunchy on the outside, soft and almost creamy on the inside. They look like ordinary pancakes, but their texture is distinctly different--and a lot more interesting.

Susie’s Mama’s Hoecakes

½ cup cornmeal

¼ cup all-purpose flour

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon baking powder

¼ cup lard or vegetable shortening

1 egg

¾ cup milk

¼ cup neutral cooking oil. such as canola

1. Mix together the dry ingredients in a medium bowl.
2. Add the shortening and rub it into the cornmeal mixture with your fingers until it is completely incorporated.

3. Add the egg and milk and stir until a smooth batter forms. It should be about the consistency of pancake batter.

4. Heat a heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add the oil when the skillet is hot.

5. When the oil is hot enough to cause a drop of water to sputter on contact, start cooking the hoecakes. For each hoecake, pour a large spoonful of batter into the hot skillet. It should spread into a 3-4 inch round and almost immediately start bubbling. When the top of the hoecake is riddled with bubbles and looks nearly dry, flip it over and cook until the second side is golden brown.

6. Keep the finished hoecakes warm in the oven until all are done. Serve hot as a side dish with supper, or if you’ve been very good, for dessert with syrup.

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