Monday, July 16, 2007


My first seduction took place at the tender age of nine, a subtle seduction that set a deep subconscious yearning in motion that would, eventually, result in my becoming an adopted Son of the South.

It was April 1962, and my brother (the other Elisson), my mother, and I were riding the Florida Special from New York to Miami. We had an honest-to-Gawd compartment in a Pullman car, the kind with the fold-down beds and washbasin. Perfect for a twenty-five hour journey.

We had taken the Long Island Rail Road – the fabled LIRR – from our home in Massapequa to New York City’s Pennsylvania Station, where we boarded the Special. And special it was, for although we had often traveled on the LIRR, and occasionally on the New York City subways, riding in a Pullman car was an altogether different experience.

After we had been underway for several hours, it was time for supper – and so the three of us made the trek to the Dining Car. For all I know, most of the menu offerings were absolute shite, but I didn’t care. We were having an adventure, eating dinner in a rolling dining room, the table swaying gently to the muted clickity-clack of the rails beneath.

It was there that I discovered one of the great culinary treasures of the American Southland, a preparation so humble and nondescript, most people pay it no heed, and yet, in its unpretentious way, the model of all that is good about Southern cooking.

I speak, Esteemed Readers, of the Hush Puppy. A simple concoction of corn meal, onions, and grease, magically transmuted by the Fry-Pan into something resembling ambrosia. Whether oblong in shape or spherical, the Hush-Puppy can be, when properly prepared, a transcendent experience.

In this wise, the Hush-Puppy bears more than a passing resemblance to a Matzoh-Ball. For the Matzoh-Ball, like the Hush-Puppy, is another Humble, yet Transcendent Food – and, like the Hush-Puppy, one for which the proper density is all-important. Something between “Insubstantial, Cotton-Candy-Like Fluff” and “White Dwarf Star Matter” is preferred.

Hush-Puppies were the side accompaniment to whatever fried crap I had ordered that fateful evening, and it was love at first taste. Seduction of the innocent. Later that night, as I lay in my fold-down-from-the-wall bed and gazed out as moonlit fields rolled by our compartment window, I marveled at the wonderful new thing I had discovered. I had had nothing like it growing up in the New York ’burbs...but now I knew where to find it. Down South, where, as fate would have it, I would eventually reside...and feel right at home.

Forty-five years later, I don’t eat Hush-Puppies all that often. Face it: most rational adults don’t really need massive infusions of corn meal and grease. And a good Hush-Puppy can be hard to find. All too often, they are dry, bland, overdone. Hock-Puckeys.

But every so often, I luck into the Real Thing. Crisp, golden-brown exterior, moist, oniony interior. And it transports me back to a night in 1962, when dinner was an adventure punctuated by the quiet clickety-clack of the rails under our feet.

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