Thursday, October 30, 2008

From hoecakes to hope

Have you ever had a hoecake? Last Saturday, I found myself in Oxford, Mississippi and that’s what I had for breakfast—hoecakes.

I was attending the 11th Annual Southern Foodways Symposium. This year, the theme was drinkways and true to form, that morning there were on offer cool jugs of thick, tart buttermilk dotted with flecks of butter. But it was the hoecakes that held my attention and left me craving more.

Hoecakes, at least where I’m from, aren’t that common. My great-grandma Blanche used to make them, but she was the last one in my family to prepare them on a regular basis. In Oxford, we were eating them for breakfast, smothered in sweet sorghum syrup, but my great-grandma used to serve them instead at lunch and dinner in place of cornbread.

It’s said they are named hoecakes because field workers cooked them on their hoes hovered over an open flame. They’re also known as Johnnycakes, ashcakes or hot-water cornbread, as my great-grandmother called them. But no matter what you say, cornmeal is the key to hoecakes. There are countless recipes for hoecakes, but at their most basic they are made with just cornmeal, hot water and salt.

Hoecakes are crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. Sometimes, they come stuffed with chewy cracklin’s, as were the ones I ate in Oxford. I’ve also heard stories of people adding green onions, corn or chiles to their hoecakes. I, however, prefer mine plain topped with a spread of sweet butter and a sprinkle of salt.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Are you familiar with wacky cake?

Recently, I was perusing my photocopies of old family recipes in search of inspiration. I was hoping to find a casserole since it’s officially turn-on-the-oven weather, but instead I came across something even better: a delightful dessert called wacky cake.

I remember when my grandmother had given me that recipe. We had spent the afternoon in her dining room at the farm with boxes and books of her recipe cards strewn about the table. With each recipe she saw, a story followed—both long and short. And when she found this one, she was thrilled as she had forgotten about it. “Oh, wacky cake!” she said. “I used to make this with your mom and uncles. This is the best cake. It's a keeper!”

Wacky cake is so named because if you look at the recipe you’ll scratch your head when confronted by the absence of eggs, butter and milk. (At least that is my theory, if you have a better explanation, please, by all means share!)

Likewise, the method of mixing is surprisingly simple: you just throw all the dry ingredients together in the baking pan and then make three holes to add the remaining liquid ingredients. The reaction of the vinegar with the baking soda makes the batter bubble and froth and provides all the leavening this cake needs.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Making corny dogs at home

corn dog corny dog
Football, cooler weather, and chili cook offs all signify that it’s autumn in Texas. But no October is complete without a trip to the State Fair of Texas.

Held in Big D, our fair boasts a 52-foot talking statue named Big Tex (whose signature phrase is “Howdy folks, I’m Big Tex!”), racing pigs, the Texas Star Ferris wheel, and the most impressive array of fried foods ever seen.

It’s become an unofficial annual competition to see what crazy concoctions the vendors will create: fried Coca-Cola, fried jelly beans, fried strawberry waffle balls, fried moon pies and fried guacamole are just a few of the fried foods on offer this year. And while I love fried foods as much as anyone, I have to admit that despite the fair’s bounty, I still prefer the original State Fair fried food—Fletcher’s Corny Dogs—most of all.

corn dog corny dog
Carl and Neil Fletcher started selling their corny dogs—deep-fried hot dogs dipped in corn-bread batter—at the Fair in 1942. It has not been proven if they are the inventor of this treat, but I do believe they were the first to call it a corny dog as opposed to a corn dog, as it’s more commonly known. What makes a Fletcher dog so special is its crunch; theirs are the best corny dogs you’ll ever eat.

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Tuesday, October 07, 2008

In search of West Texas asado

Have you ever had asado? Nope, not carne asada. Asado. You haven’t? Don’t worry; I hadn’t either until a couple of months ago. But I don’t think it’s too farfetched for me to say it’s now one of my favorite dishes. Here’s how I learned about it.

Last year, I was dashing through the Times Square subway station during the morning rush hour and I saw a man wearing an Austin College T-shirt. Austin College, my alma mater, is such a small school that you seldom see people sporting kangaroo pride. So even though I was late, I had to stop and chat with him.

It turned out he was my year and yet I couldn’t place him until he said where he was from. “Of course!” I said. “You’re the guy from Gun Barrel City!” And then my memories of him all fell into place. I mean, when someone comes from a place with a name like Gun Barrel City, how could you ever forget him?

He was only in town for a few days, but when he returned to his home in Odessa, Texas we started an occasional correspondence. When I decided this summer to fly into Midland—the sister city to Odessa—I contacted him and he graciously offered to take me to dinner.

I arrived on a Sunday and since the area has a large Catholic population, most places were closed. After much research on his part, he finally settled on Ajuua’s. I was delighted to see that the restaurant was packed with Mexican families and most of the men were wearing cowboy hats and boots. This was going to be good.

“You should get the asado,” he said.

“Carne asada?” I said.

“No, asado,” he said. “It’s a local specialty.”

He then explained that asado is pork slow cooked in a red-chile sauce. It’s similar to New Mexico’s carne adovada, except adovada is made with New Mexican red chiles and asado is made with anchos.

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