Saturday, February 16, 2013

Hushpuppy exposé

In 1957 a wooden ketch was being battered in a gale and started taking on water from a split hull seam. It quickly came about and ran hard due east towards the Florida coastline.  The eastward turn was fortuitous, and the vessel started to run a bit ahead of the storm. A pass was seen, and used, although at that point with several feet of water sloshing in the cabin, a beach would have been acceptable.

The pass was Egmont Key, and the vessel hooked to the south seeking the lee side of Anna Maria Island. The boat was bailed down as much as practical, and the family fled to shore. The storm followed them into the coast, roiled overnight, broke the anchor chain and drove the ketch onto a sandbar. 

In the morning a tug attempts to pull the boat off the bar, but to no avail, A plan is hatched to remove one of the running backstays and use the tug to heel over the full keeled vessel. It starts to shift, and then with a horrific crack, the mainmast splintered, and crashed into the water. In 1957 dollars $9000 dollars of rigging was now floating in the water.

Like the pioneers who built the sod hut where the wagon wheel broke, the demasted vessel became the first Florida home for the small family. After hull repairs, the boat lived at small inexpensive docks on the local barrier islands. A very rare treat in those days was to go out to eat. What was close, and inexpensive, were the local mom and pop seafood restaurants. The hushpuppies were always my favorite menu choice. Remember this is 1957, and from my five year old perspective, all seafood was fried, and vegetables come out of cans. 

I'm not a gourmand, but I do have an affinity for good food, or I as I like to say it, I've finally reached that station in life where I can afford the high end $5.00 a pound hot dogs. But when it comes to hushpuppies, I'm am very particular. There are only two types of hushpuppies, real ones which are now a very endangered species, or the frozen machine extruded ball like versions now so sadly ubiquitous to most seafood restaurants. 

Pictured above are real hushpuppies. Their distinctive shape comes from a batter being rolled off of a large spoon into the oil giving them an irregular shape. I know to most they're not recognizable, and many are going to say, "This guy is some sort of an elitist, where I live hushpuppies are roundish, and I like them. They're gooey inside and seem to have some wet like onion sort of bits in them."

Now, let's take a look under the hood at a real hushpuppy. When you break it open, it's actually fully cooked inside, and fluffy like the inside of a piece of cornbread. It's also speckled with small bits of chef added mojo.

Behold the machine extruded hushpuppies. They are about the same everywhere. In reality, the ingredients are nearly identical to real hushpuppies, but they have to be smaller to actually cook the frozen interior. Since the mojo added to the batter has been frozen, things like onion tend to be mushy. Try freezing an onion, thawing it, slice it, and put it on a salad. It's not good eats.

When you break open the machine extruded cooked product, you can see the interior is a bit mushy inside, and I'm being kind. If you blow up the picture you can see the less than a tasty ring of grease just under the crusty layer.

Here is another example. Eight little balls lost in a big basket. The order came out lukewarm in just a couple of minutes. No doubt a really big batch had been fried up and then left to languish under a heat lamp.

The good news is that it was cooked all the way through. The bad news was no mojo, and it was johnny cake sweet. By no mojo, I mean no onion, pepper, garlic, jalapeno, chilies, celery, chives, scallions, corn, hot sauce or the millions of other things you could add to them. These were just tepid balls of cornmeal and flour fried up, rattling around in a large basket.

Without regard to my personal health, and as a public service for all I have randomly visited about seven or eight of our local seafood establishments. I ordered hush puppies and a beer for lunch. The Beer? Yep Yuengling, you can't properly divine the exquisite taste and textures of this fried food by washing it down with a glass of skim milk.

Only one in the lot actually made their own hushpuppies, and unfortunately, all the rest served me various versions of the frozen oil-bathed balls. This is amazing, the recipe is stupidly simple, and I don't mind if you use a dry mix to make the batter, as long as you add good mojo. So when you go to a seafood restaurant and want to order hushpuppies, ask to see some first. If they look like jawbreakers, large marbles, wonky ball bearings, cojones, or tiny billiard balls, do yourself a favor, and just say, "Sorry, what a shame, I wanted real hushpuppies, not your deep fried  extruded balls, even if you say they are tasty."

For the record, not a single soul said a word to me as I sat there taking pictures, and eviscerating their food. Walt's Seafood restaurant in Sarasota is the only one I have found to date that makes real hushpuppies. I'm not mentioning the ones who serve the ersatz ones. There must be some more, and when I find them I will add them to this now very shortlist. You're not a real seafood restaurant if you don't serve real hushpuppies.