About three years ago, I was in Pensacola, Florida with my husband visiting his beloved Granddaddy. Although my description of him could never be sufficient, it's safe to say that Granddaddy is a rural Southern man through and through, charming and storied, a soft accent but always strong words. The kind that can, even at 93 years old, discipline small children just by looking at them and fry a chicken in a single bound. And that's just the beginning. Anyway, Granddaddy is a fantastic cook. And everyone, I mean EVERYONE in the family (and other people's families) go bonkers for his hush puppies.
These are not to be confused with the leaden, medium-brown fried hunks of corn bread that so many of us think of when the dish is mentioned. No, these are the anti-hush pups, a light, pillowy, slightly onion-y center encased in a crisp golden shell, more flour than corn meal, no seasoning required. You can eat a dozen in a sitting, easy. They melt in your mouth, giving the illusion that you haven't eaten that many. Southern fried crack. Magic.
I went there with a mission--I was going to learn how to make his famous hush puppies. I had heard the stories of other family members that had tried to learn how to make them and failed, and it remained a mystery as to whether they just didn’t "get it", or if Granddaddy had maybe “accidentally” left out a tip or two so that their hush puppies would never turn out quite like his. For my attempt, I fully intended to just stand by the stove and take mental notes while he made a batch, never expecting that he would actually teach me, a Midwestern girl who had rarely traveled south of Atlanta and a relative by marriage, no less, how to make the golden fried orbs that had become a thing of legend. You see, my own grandfather was Memphis-raised and a phenomenal home cook himself, so I respect a Southern cook's secrets in regards to their specialties.
Now, it may have been because I was like a puppy, practically jumping up on the counter, asking questions, questions, questions. Maybe he was flattered to have some youthful energy in the place treating his secret recipe like a treasure map. Or maybe he was bored and just wanted something to do after watching his morning television programs. But Granddaddy actually agreed to teach me, step-by-step, in great detail, how to make his famous hush puppies. Or in as great of detail as he could given the fact that he has made them so many times over the years that there is no measuring, he just knows when it's right--when the proportion of flour to corn meal is just so, how much buttermilk to add, when the oil is ready, etc. I learned to stop asking "how" and "why" as we hovered over the stove--the answer to these questions from a cook with a legendary recipe is always "you just know".
It became clear very early on that I was going to need serious practice to master the intangibles of this process. It became a joint mission of sorts, for me to get it right. Loosely measuring, chopping, eyeballing the mixture, the oil, the perfect moment to flip the pups. We must have made at least half a dozen batches of hush puppies over three days. I was nervous at first, the significance of these lessons not lost on me for a second. The secrets to an edible family heirloom could very well be in my hands. The more comfortable I got with the process, say, three batches in, I began to relax, needing less and less coaching as he watched over my shoulder, and Granddaddy’s insistent “Don’t mess with ‘em too much, now” gave way to “You’ve got it, that’s right”.
After several batches he was proudly proclaiming that I “had the eye” and that no one before me had really listened to how to get them just right. For someone like me who takes pride in really nailing recipes, I could have died happy right then. But oh, the story gets better.
On the night before my husband and I were set to leave Pensacola, there was a big family dinner. An uncle was added, some aunts and cousins. There was fried chicken, shrimp ready to be peeled and eaten, salad and a pile of hush puppies made by yours truly. We all sat around the table, filling our plates and talking. My husband’s uncle Kevin took a bite of a hot, crispy hush puppy and immediately gave a narrow-eyed nod and a smile of approval as he chewed, nudging Granddaddy as if to say, “you’ve done it once again."
Granddaddy immediately shook his head and pointed across the table at me.
There was a pause as everyone turned to look at me, then back at Kevin before he shouted in his deep Florida Panhandle accent,“The YANKEE?!”