BILE THEM HOE CAKES DOWN, BOYS
Daddy holding John in Savannah, GA about 1943. John was perhaps 6 months old.
My latest book, HALLEY, awarded 2015 Jefferson Cup Honor for Historical Fiction, awarded the Moonbeam Silver Medal for Young Adult Fiction, and awarded the 2016 Frank Yerby Award for Fiction. Available at: NewSouth Books: www.newsouthbooks.com/halley and Amazon.
I’m a southern girl, and I’ve heard of hoe cake all my life. And I thought I knew what it was—cornbread baked in a large skillet, right? Wrong! It took my Yankee daughter-in-law to set me straight.
It all started in early January when I decided to cook a special meal for our son David, his wife, Aca, and their three boys ages 4-7. Since they’d all been sick with first one bug and another the entire month of December, I decided to make a good basic beef stew with potatoes and other vegetables and serve it with some of my late mother-in-law’s fried cornbread. The recipe is strange. It calls for boiling water over plain ground cornmeal. It has no egg and no milk and very little oil (or bacon drippings). The batter is fried in a slight amount of fat.
My meal was a hit, and Aca asked for the recipe for the stew and the “hoe cake.” I of course told her that this wasn’t hoe cake—it was fried cornbread. When I told her how it was made, she said, “But isn’t that hoe cake?”
When I looked it up, guess what? It was hoe cake! Google said the legend passed down is that it sometimes was fried on a hoe when no other utensil was available, but that most people think this is just a made-up folktale. I myself doubt that you could keep the grease on a hoe long enough to cook a corn pancake. But what do I know? I only just now learned what hoe cake is!
I recall another simple bread from my childhood. We only got this when my mother was sick or just recovering from childbirth so that she was too disabled to drag herself to the kitchen stove. On these occasions Daddy would say, “Well, I reckon I can cook. They learned me in the army.” They didn’t “learn” him much else—Daddy did a lot of KP duty because of his refusal to conform to military discipline. Probably only VE day saved him from a dishonorable discharge. If Daddy had any money in his pocket on those days when he took over Mama’s job, he would go to the nearest store and buy a couple pounds of bacon. He would throw all of it in the largest iron skillet Mama had and rev up the fire in the stove. While this cooked (stirring with a fork every now and then) he would mix a batter of flour, melted lard, and a can of evaporated milk. There was no recipe, as far as I knew. Then he would pour this into another iron skillet with about a half inch of lard—or bacon grease, if there was enough cooked out of the tangle of bacon slices—and put it on the stove to cook (or “fry” might be a more apt word). To complete the meal, he would break a dozen eggs or more into a bowl and whip them up to scramble in bacon fat. The meal was always good, and, though I’m sure his fried bread wouldn’t hold a shuck to my mother’s biscuits (which were the best bread ever) it tasted mighty good to us kids. But what wouldn’t taste wonderful with four or five slices of crisp bacon?
Another bread from my childhood did not leave such pleasant memories—crackling bread. Cracklins were the crispy bits of pork skin and fat which was cooked down in a wash pot until the fat was rendered. You might not believe it, but fresh, hot, and crispy right out of the pot, a cracklin was a delight better than fried chicken, potato chips, or any other crunchy, fatty junk food you could think of. But, when packed in grease to be stored and later cooked in cornbread through the winter, they were definitely not good. I always liked plain cornbread fine, but when my grandmothers poured in a generous handful of cracklins, the resulting “bread” was heavy, greasy, and, as the winter dragged on, increasingly rancid. I had a stomach of iron in those days, but I drew the line at cracklin bread and the heartburn I knew would follow.
So if you’re having me for a meal, pass the hoe cakes and the bacon—you can keep the cracklins!
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