My father's family, and my memories of my father's family, are deeply rooted in Southern American cuisine. Growing up, all the classics Southern cuisine were present at the tables of my great, great Aunts Allie Mae and Ruth: grits in the morning with scrambled eggs mixed in, greens cooked with ham hock, field peas (pried from their shells by hand, of course), cornbread... the list goes on.
But my memories and experiences with Southern food extended beyond the landlocked kitchens of my Aunts and Uncles in the panhandle of Florida. A few hours away, along the Gulf of Mexico, is the small, vibrant town Apalachicola. Once a great port for shipping and distribution, it's where my father was born, and where he spent much of his time as a teenager. Apalachicola - or Apalach, as my father calls it - is a hub of some of the best seafood you can get from the Gulf of Mexico, slowly rebuilding after the BP oil spill ravaged the Emerald Coast.
While it's recovering, you can still sometimes get lucky to snag some of the most delicious oysters you can find in the southeast. Oysters from the Apalachicola Bay are wild, not farmed the same way as the oysters are here in NY. They have a less briney flavor, but are perfectly sweet and small. I can polish off 5 dozen in one sitting, always with a side of saltine crackers and Crystal Hot Sauce. Gulf shrimp are really the only shrimp that can satisfy a girl who grew up eating all of the seafood she could get her hands on. Fried was the choice of my childhood - and still is whenever I'm back home. Eating shrimp and fries out of a shrimp boat shaped from tin foil at Boss' Oyster in Apalach, looking out over the bay as the sun set - it's easy to understand why I'm so taken by the memory of the place.
I still make my parents stop for fried seafood every time we head out to Apalachicola for a day trip. The newer family favorite is Hutton's Seafood, whose food is pictured throughout this post. While Boss' Oyster fell out of favor with my family, Hutton's is now the only place we go for fried goodness. It was a random discovery by me and my best friend Henry after stopping off on the way to the beach one day for boiled peanuts at the roadside stand next door.
The Hutton's small trailer, maybe the size of my teeny tiny NYC kitchen (which should really give you an idea of the size of the place), is a family obsession. We don't make the trip to the beach unless Hutton's is open that day. We call ahead just to make sure they haven't run out of our favorites. It's the only place I can think of where my sister Victoria actually orders seafood, fried seafood at that (she's a healthy eater). My father always gets his favorite fish: fried mullet, with a side of cheese grits and a side of french fries or slaw. My mother, who loves seafood but rarely eats slaw always gets the same thing, as well: fried soft shell crab (and they give you 2 to 3 depending on the size), slaw and cheese grits. My sister and I share a half shrimp, half oyster dinner. It's always fried, with the same sides as my parents. The grits are creamy, cheesy and stone ground to perfection. The slaw is vinegar laced and tangy, never too much mayo. The seafood is always fresh, always local, perfectly dusted with cornmeal and fried to your specification: light, medium, or extra crispy. We all choose light. The women who make your food are friendly and work quickly, but take time to say hello and get your name - always taking care of everyone as if they were a regular. And every single platter comes with delicious hush puppies.
This idea of a real Fish Fry - what these women at Hutton's produce everyday: fried fish, with sides of coleslaw and cheese grits - is something that I will always associate with my father's father. Usually, while I'm home visiting for the Christmas or Thanksgiving holidays we'll have one fish fry with the family. A get together where everyone pitches in.
My Grandpa Barney is the one who always provides the fish at our family fish fries. He catches brim, a fresh water fish with white flesh, from O'Cheesy Pond near Mariana, Florida - a pond my father has memories of swimming in (read: jumping off of platforms they built into/swinging from ropes into) when he was growing up. Grandpa Barney is also the one who showed me how to mix the proper amount of cornmeal and flour in a brown paper bag and toss the fish fillets in them, until they were perfectly coated for frying, and the first to show me how to make one of my favorite sides for the fish fry - hushpuppies.
Hushpuppies, fluffy, golden balls of fried cornmeal dreams, are usually Grandpa Barney's domain at any fish fry preparation. It was he would taught me how to eyeball the amounts of each ingredient and to not over mix the batter. And it was he would taught me the right ratio of sweet Vidalia onions to chop and mix into the batter to give them just the right amount of bite and added sweetness. Funnily enough, years later when I would move to DC for college and meet my now-boyfriend Nick, I was able to introduce someone new to hushpuppies myself. Nick would order an entire take out box full of the hushpuppies whenever we'd venture down to the waterfront for fresh blue crabs. They'd always be almost gone before we got home. They're some of his favorites now, too.
It's this trickle down of family recipes that I cherish. I've learned from my parents, aunts, grandparents and they've learned from generations before them. Now I'm able to pass that knowledge to friends and family that I'm only meeting now, and to those younger than me. It's these recipes that thread through the generations, teaching me that I've come from people who are close to the earth, and that simplicity in a recipe shouldn't be confused with a lack of flavor or lack of imagination. I can reach back through the years by plopping a scoop of cornmeal into hot peanut oil, and taste the same flavors that my great, great, great grandmother tasted so many years ago.
Sweet Vidalia Onion Hushpuppies
Serves 6 to 8 people as a side dish.
2 1/2 Cups of Fine Ground White Cornmeal
1/2 Cup of All Purpose Flour
1 Tbsp. Baking Powder
1/2 Tbsp. of Black Pepper
1/2 Tbsp. of Salt
3/4 Tsp. of Baking Soda
1/2 of 1 Large Sweet Vidalia Onion, diced
1 1/2 Cups of Milk
Peanut Oil for Frying
- In a large Dutch Oven or stockpot heat at least 6 inches of peanut oil to between 350 and 360 degrees. While oil is heating, mix together wet and dry ingredients until they just come together. Overmixing will ruin the hushpuppies, giving them a rough, rather than fluffy, texture.
- Drop scoops of the mixture into the hot oil using large soup or measuring spoons sprayed with cooking spray, carefully as to not splatter the oil. Using a mesh strainer or tongs, roll the hushpuppies around in the hot oil as they begin to float, until all sides are light golden brown and the raised bumps on the hushpuppies are a darker golden brown. You may think they need more time, but most only take about 60 seconds to fry.
- Serve immediately with all the fish fry fixin's.