Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl
Our late friend Bill Borland was from Eudora, Arkansas; he loved to cook gumbos and such and hush puppies. Once, before we were on our way to his home for dinner, my wife asked me what a hush puppy was and I said cornmeal, wheat flour, eggs, salt, baking soda, buttermilk, sometimes corn and peppers and about a half-pound ground salamander.
She was fine with the recipe until the salamander. She forgave my addition and enjoyed her first taste of a wonderful southern dumpling and in fact those small and savory and deep-fried taste-treats are now her addiction. It’s the name (hush puppies) that was giving her trouble, although the food itself is “kin” to corn bread, fritters, johnnycake, and so on.
Johnathon Scott Barrett’s recipe, a must for any fish fry, produces just such flavorful fried nuggets but with a bit of onion, black pepper, and, yes, hot sauce: 1 1/2 cups self-rising white cornmeal; 1/2 cub self-rising flour; 1 tablespoon sugar; 1/2 teaspoon baking soda; 1/4 teaspoon finely ground black pepper; 1 cup finely chopped onion; 1 large egg, beaten; 1 cub whole-milk buttermilk; couple dashes hot sauce or to taste; 3-to 4-cups peanut or good-quality vegetable oil.
Mr. Barrett notes that, rather than using fresh oil, he simply uses the oil left from frying his fish. Next step: “Crisp properly,” a phrase that could be the title to this book review.
Mr. Barrett’s book is half memoir and half cookbook. He’s seventh generation Georgian and, thus, a “cracker.” The term is neither a slur nor pejorative. His kin date to the original pioneer settlers. The memoir stories are tested and tasted and paired with family photographs and take the reader back to Mr. Barrett’s early days in Perry, Georgia, where he received his first exposure to cooking and meal preparation. A late child, he notes, he was the only one around the house except his nanny, Carrie Rumph, who was also the cook for his family. “There were some wonderful afternoons spent together,” he says, “and I learned not only about cooking but life lessons as well. Her mantra was ‘graciousness’ and I hope a bit of it rubbed off on me.”
The fourteen chapters that “crisp” this book, then, are an equal blend of nostalgia and recipes. We learn about his father’s sisters, his father’s time in the Second World War, and, of course, how to make “Aunt Lil’s Apple Tarts,” “Lemon Meringue Pie,” and “Coconut Cake,” a recipe I’ve made (and the results are majestic).
Mr. Barrett’s mother was the last surviving child of “Charles Cleveland Nipper and Eunice Florence Musselwhite,” a family of Scottish descent and a Georgian history dating to the early 1800s. She was born during the Depression. When the war ended, home came a steady stream of soldiers. Her parents, Mr. Barrett’s maternal grandparents, would wait anxiously for their son to return to the
states. He writes how hundreds of returning soldiers would walk by the family farm on US Highway 341. The Nippers always made sure those soldiers passing by were well fed even with simple fare, “such as vegetable soup with a piece of cornbread.” It’s peasant food, of course, what Mr. Barrett calls “comfort food,” but they’re also French favorites that today’s foodies call plats du terroir.
In 1983, to Mr. Barrett’s small-town surprise, as an intern in the Senate working for the Honorable Sam Nunn, he was treated to a bowl of Senate Bean Soup, the ingredients of which were almost identical to those used by his maternal grandmother.
So in reading we learn about Mr. Barrett’s fine family, good people of more than one generation. What we learn is passed down, then, from one generation to another and what’s learned is recorded in this book with reverence and piety.
What the reader should imagine is an old family cookbook of one kind or another, lovingly handled, stained, dog-eared, and packed with small recipe cards, varieties of handwritings and notes-to-self. We begin with the memories of a tow-headed boy and then come forward in memoir-time to Later Years. We learn how to dine on “Ossabaw Buco” (a recipe I recommend, by the way). Then we arrive at a closing of sorts with a final photo of “Mama and Daddy, their last photo together, on our front porch on Ball Street, Perry, Georgia, Thanksgiving afternoon, 1997.”
Mr. Bennett’s cookbook-memoir is a memorial, replete with heirloom stories, photographs, and recipes galore.