southern cooking (inspired by myandering's monday post)
a few years ago, doug and i took a swing through the south. we flew to tennessee to visit my brother, who was living and teaching there, and then rented a car and headed down the natchez trace to visit our friends katy and mike in new orleans.
this wasn't my first trip to the south--i was born in kentucky, though i don't remember it, and katy and i had criss-crossed tennessee some years before (and had a "deliverance" moment in the eastern mountains, though that's a different story for a different time). since her move to new orleans, i had visited her many times. but it had been a while, and i was looking forward to the food.
southern food is heartier and greasier and more lavish than northern food. grits, and gravy, and catfish, and crawfish, and chicken-fried steak, and sweet tea, and RC cola, and waffle house waffles... meals in the south are a production.
we stopped at a diner in some small alabama town. i ordered fried catfish and hush puppies. the only problem was, i couldn't remember what hush puppies were, and i didn't want to ask; i only remembered that i had had them before and i had liked them. i figured once they were on my plate, i'd know 'em when i saw 'em.
our waiter was a chubby young man. he had a very strong drawl, and he was extremely polite. he called me "ma'am." when he said it, it was a two-syllable word. may-yam.
after a while, the food arrived. my plate held fried catfish, some lettuce and lemon slices, and a small frilled paper cup of tartar sauce. i didn't see any hush puppies, but how could i be sure? i still couldn't remember precisely what they were.
the chubby young man came back with a red plastic bread basket. aha. i folded back the red and white checked napkin; nestled in there appeared to be ordinary dinner rolls, but how could i be sure? maybe they were hush puppies in disguise.
it would really help, i told doug, if i could remember what hush puppies were. he only shrugged. he is not from the south.
the more i thought about it the more i figured the hush puppies must be the same thing as dinner rolls. there just wasn't any other possibility. but doubt nagged at me. when the polite chubby waiter came back, i decided to ask.
"excuse me," i said, holding up a warm yeasty thing from the basket. "is this a hush puppy?"
the waiter furrowed his brow. it was clear that the last thing he wanted to do was be impolite, but it was equally clear that he thought i was an insane northern tourist. "no, may-yam," he finally said slowly, and with great respect. "that there's what you call a roll."
a few minutes later he came out with my forgotten order of hush puppies and set it politely in front of me with an air of what you might call respectful pity.
ah how could i have forgotten? deep-fried cornmeal balls. they were delicious. and i had humble pie for dessert.