It’s summertime, and that means fishing. Not the deep sea kind, where you stand around getting sick, and hope something bites. We’re talkin’ lake and stream: a battle of wits between those cold-blooded creatures of the deep and us sonar-weilding, motorboat driving homosapiens. Of course, once you land a fish (maybe from one of those stocked ponds ringed by sunburnt dudes in trucker hats drinking beer) you’ve got to figure out how to eat the thing. There are millions of recipes for cooking bass, but not so many for the real delicacy of the rural South: hushpupies. There is, in fact, an art to fried balls of dough.
This recipe comes from Complete Book of Bass Fishing (1966) by Grits Gresham. That’s right, Grits. As soon as I saw the author’s name, I knew this book was for me. Plus the dust jacket looks great. Grits Gresham (1922-2008) was a world renowned fisherman, hunter, journalist and TV show host. His articles appeared in Sports Illustrated and GQ magazines, and he hosted American Sportsman on ABC and later Shooting Sports America on ESPN. He often took celebrities like Bing Crosby, Burt Reynolds and Bruce Jenner on hunting and fishing expeditions. Grits’ affinity for shooting things began at an early age, where he slept with his air rifle and took his first shot of the day out his bedroom window. (no, I’m not making this up)
Bass fishing holds a special place in American culture. Since the mid-1800’s, folks have been catching bass for sport and sustenance. The fish is known for it’s power, speed and smarts, making it a great sporting fish, and it’s flesh is white, firm and sweet. Modern bass fishing has become a multi-billion dollar industry, and the fish have been stocked in ponds and lakes far beyond their native habitat.
All this talk is making me hungry. Squirreled away in this thick book of tips and tricks is a chapter about cooking fish titled “From Pond to Platter.” Platter? I don’t know about you but I always thought the proper bass-eating etiquette was to use paper plates. Anyway, this chapter is where Grits shares with us not one, but two ways of filleting a bass, and this recipe for hushpuppies created by his wife, Mary.
Origins of the hushpuppy are not entirely known, but legend has it that they get their names from one of several scenarios, all having to do with keeping dogs from barking (i.e. “hush the puppies”). Some say it was escaping slaves who fed the master’s dogs so they wouldn’t get caught, others say it was fed to hounds by Confederate soldiers so that they wouldn’t get spotted by Union troops. Or simply that hunters were eating, and cooked the leftover batter used for deep frying their food to shut those damn dogs up. Whatever the case, we’re lucky to have deep fried anything, especially this Southern take on the fritter.
Mary Gresham’s Hushpuppies
2 cups sifted corn meal
1/2 cup flour
1 cup diced onions
1/2 teaspoon soda
3 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
buttermilk and beer (half and half)
Mix dry ingredients. Stir in beaten egg. Add onions to the batter. Mix with buttermilk and beer until thick. Drop batter, 1 tablespoon at a time, in deep fat in which fish has been fried.
I’m not sure what he means by “soda” in the ingredients, but my guess is that it’s baking soda, although soda water might be something to experiment with. Take your pick of frying fat: lard, shortening or something “healthy” like canola oil. Let me know what your preference is for deep fat frying.
“For unusual flavor,” writes Gresham “chop a raw bass fillet up into very fine pieces–almost grated–and add to the hush puppy batter. Drain the hush puppies on absorbent paper just as you do the fish, and cook twice as many as you think you’ll need.”
By the way, Grits gets his nickname not from the starchy side-dish cooked by the gallon in Southern kitchens. It comes from his dad, a professional baseball player nicknamed “Grit” for his determination.
So after a long day on the lake fishing, wash off that mosquito repellant, fry some fish and hushpuppies, and wash it all down with a jar of sweetened tea or a can of Budweiser. Cheers!