~This essay was previously published in Zoetrope (2006).
Whenever I hear the commentators on National Public Radio’s “This I Believe” series professing their admirable commitment to honor, family ties, work or poetry or the kindness of strangers, I always think, “This is all very nice and inspiring, but have these people heard of hushpuppies?” While other splendors and necessities improve, adorn and propel the world, the hushpuppy is the sine qua non, the raison d’etre and probably the prime directive in various other languages whose irregular verbs I have never attempted to conjugate. From my personal standpoint, the deep-fried hushpuppy ranks right up there with good health, a loving mate, rewarding work and spiritual fulfillment. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not the kind of zealot who is blind to humanity’s other achievements. I also believe wholeheartedly in the hand brake, the rifled muzzle, the King James Version, vasectomies, single-barrel aging and hybrid roses. Those vital developments notwithstanding, the hushpuppy as conceived and consumed in the rural South is crux and hub and core.
Now I’m not about to define “hushpuppy” in some partisan and proprietary way, though it is kissing cousin to a fritter, neighbor to cornbread and a far cry from a crepe. I’m not even going to dictate how to concoct the ideal knee-knocking, unforgettable, whiplashing-scrumptious hushpuppy, other than to recommend some basic components and say that you’ve got to tickle the oil right up to about 400 degrees, which is also the temperature the mercury will register if you stick a thermometer under the tongue of most anyone in my family when their ire is aroused. Our tribe’s tendency to run hot and express our displeasure in unruly and emphatic fashion should right away clarify a couple of things: the oral method is the only fever measurement method worth trying on us, and don’t stand between us and anything we prize or favor, especially our preferred provender. But don’t get me wrong here; we are neither rabid nor deranged, only enthusiastic.
My family at one time, individually and collectively, knew how to make a hushpuppy so delicious it would make you cut a buck and wing and forswear indoor sports and week-night church. Although we would happily savor them in screen-porch fish camps – from Dowd’s Catfish on the Flint River in
Georgia to the piratical Riverview Inn between Charlotte and
– it was the homemade item directly out of the deep fryer or skillet that hit
the godspot. And of course, being in
such proximity to the source, you’d always snatch up the first one out of the
inferno and burn your tongue; that’s a requisite step in the rite. Try as you might to take the fire in and not
receive a wound – like Isaiah himself with the smoking ember – you’d blister up
and shout to Jesus and fan your mouth faster than a hummingbird’s wings. Meanwhile, you might be consoled by the fact
that there’s a little “bliss” in “blister.”
Then you’d blow on the bitten hushpuppy, shut your eyes in wonder and
take another bite. I used to marvel,
given the abundance of local wonders, that no one has ever claimed to discover
the face of our Savior in the features of a fresh hushpuppy, because we do not
live by bread alone. But who would delay
consumption to conduct a finicky investigation?
What hushpuppy survives long enough to be thus perused and pondered? Now you see it, now you don’t. We may save slices of wedding cake in the
freezer or gallstones in a jelly jar of formaldehyde on the mantel, but the
hushpuppy enjoys less longevity than your average caddis fly. Gastonia