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Puppy Love 

Deconstructing pimento cheese hush puppies

Too many chefs, in the rush to y'allify their cookery, will take a totemic Southern ingredient like pimento cheese and create a fusion-y abomination, the likes of which might turn Chick Corea's nose.

Oxford, Miss.'s John Currence, Louisiana-bred and North Carolina-trained (Bill Neal's famed Crook's Corner and Aurora, both located in Carrboro/Chapel Hill, N.C.), looks instead for the through-line with the foods he serves at his famed City Grocery, the underlying narrative thread which, while linking his ingredients in a tangible, tastable form, might also reconcile their histories as well, and perhaps in the process create one anew.

As such, the bandanna'ed bad boy is able to take a humble sidekick for fried catfish and barbecue, the hush puppy, dress it up with a dose of tangy "rat cheese" (hoop cheese to some) and mayo, and make it seem not only intriguing but also even more so natural -- the kind of eats so simple and savory that they inspire head-slapping (your own, for not thinking of it first) as well as lip-smacking. More hot cuisine than haute cuisine, there's nothing fancy about these humble corn dodgers -- save perhaps the homemade pimento cheese and better oil -- that sets them apart. Which is one of the man's greatest strengths, you see.

But Currence's real secret, it seems, is in his not giving a whit as to whether his finished dishes are indeed capital-S "Southern" or not. The "Southern" part of his cooking comes from his loyal usage of local and regional ingredients, and from boiling down the traditions of those who came (and cooked) before him until everything's reduced to his own liking.

In other words, it's cookery firmly placed in the Southern tradition -- a tradition that, unlike today, was more often than not forced upon generations past whether they liked it or not. One had no choice but to use local ingredients in days past, before the advent of the modern day mega-grocery. Pre-Internet and glossy food magazines, one had no choice but to follow the recipes left him, updating as he went along or leaving well enough alone, as the case may be.

Not that hush puppies even need much of a recipe, per se. Various stories exist as to the origin of their name -- slaves (or, in another version, Confederate soldiers) fed them to their dogs to quiet them; Ursuline nuns in New Orleans dreamed them up to stretch dwindling foodstuffs, calling them "croquettes de mais" -- but the general construct is pretty much the same: cornmeal, plus (variously) flour, baking soda salt, eggs, milk and/or water, and maybe some minced onions and pepper. Or, in this case, pimentos.

All that said, don't be surprised if your pups don't taste quite the same as Currence's -- mine didn't either, though I've put in a few trial runs. Put another way, just because you know all the chords to a song doesn't mean you're going to be able to play it just like the band who wrote it. But don't be dismayed. Like countless folks before him, Currence learned -- and learns -- the very same way.

It's nothing approaching Currence's, but here's my take on the sauce-sopping side, sans the pimento cheese. (Experiments, I'm sad to report, have been more or less fruitless.)

4 cups peanut oil

2 cups yellow cornmeal (I like House-Autry)

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 egg, beaten

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1 3/4 cups milk

1 cup water

good shaking of dehydrated onions

generous dash of cayenne pepper

dash of kosher salt

2 Tbsp. fresh-ground pepper (I like 'em spicy)

In a skillet over medium-high heat, heat peanut oil to 350° F or until batter sizzles and floats. Combine cornmeal, salt, egg. flour, baking soda, milk, onions, pepper and water. Mix until batter is smooth. Batter should be stiff to your spoon.

Drop batter into hot oil (370° F, approximately). Fry for approximately 5 minutes or until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Makes 20-25 pups.

Timothy C. Davis is an associate editor with Gravy, the official newsletter of the Southern Foodways Alliance. His food writing has appeared in Gastronomica, Saveur, The Christian Science Monitor, and the food Web site, among other publications.

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