by Gene Owens
If you're Down South and want to start a conversation, you can't miss if you bring up dogs, pick-up trucks, football, religion, or food.
Of these, the one least likely to get you into a fight is food. We cherish the image of Mama'n'em cooking grits, fatback and red-eye gravy on a wood-burning stove. We don't like to involve Mama'n'em in our fisticuffs unless it's to defend her against some insult, such as "Yo' mama wouldn't know a hoecake from a cow pie."
Funny you should mention hoecakes. Around 20 years ago, I moderated a region-wide donnybrook over the question of whether hoecakes were made from wheat flour baked in an oven or corn meal cooked on the stove top. I held out for the wheat-flour variety, because that's the kind my mama made. I won, mainly because I was the one doing the writing. But I entertained opinions from readers from Virginia to Louisiana.
Jerry Love of Aiken, S.C., grew up in LA -- the native term for Lower Alabama -- and he knows what a genuine hoecake is.
"In case my mother ran out of biscuits, she baked a hoecake," he said. It was the same thing as a biscuit, except that she didn't cut it into individual patties but baked it as a whole cake.
I revisit the subject because mine and Jerry's kind of hoecake is the only kind you can reasonably use to make soaky bread (and, as Jerry notes, it's also great for sopping cane syrup and sausage gravy).
Cousin Tom Miller of Clover, S.C., started the conversation about soaky bread, and when I devoted a column to the subject it awakened fond gastronomic memories among readers across the South.
Soaky bread is Tom's name for it. I just called it "soak." Others have different names, and some called it by no special name at all, but they remember the dish.
"Soaky bread is a very adequate wording," wrote John Pearce of McColl, S.C., and I think he speaks for us all.
Soaky bread consists of biscuits (or authentic hoecakes) crumbled into coffee. The bread soaks up the coffee and assumes the texture of mush or pudding. I've had it for breakfast a couple of times since Tom brought it up, and it's dad-gum good.
The language of Southern eating varies slightly from family to family and from state to state. Some readers were unfamiliar with my names for "striped gravy" or "streaked gravy," but they properly assumed that it was the poor man's version of red-eye gravy.
I was also gratified by letters saying "amen" to my hymn of praise for cornbread and buttermilk. On too-rare occasions, Miss Peggy blends pork cracklings into her cornbread batter. She uses an electric food processor, which is something Mama'n'em never had, and I hate to admit it but the gadget takes crackling cornbread to a new level of divinity.
"My grandmother loved soaky bread," wrote Susie McMath Oakes from somewhere in North Carolina. "She even fed it to me when I was a baby." Susie's grandparents also introduced her to cornmeal mush, "creasy greens from the field by the creek."
"And my grandpa loved 'possum," she said. Grandpa would pen up a possum and feed it decent food for a while, until the bugs and vermin that had been its woodland diet had been purged from its system. Then they would kill it, skin it, clean it and parboil it.
"That turned me off," Susie said. "It looked like a boiled cat." But then Grandma would cut it up and fry it.
Alita DeBerry, a writer who grew up in Mississippi, remembers the biscuits baked by her mother-in-law from Lower Alabama. Mama DeBerry's biscuits were thinner than the classic Southern biscuit and consisted mostly of crust, which is the way Alita liked them. Her husband, the late Horace DeBerry, loved to add them to his coffee along with a healthy complement of sugar. He called it "soaking crust."
Soaky bread never made it to the menu in Mississippi, Alita said. Brown gravy, made with flour and water in the bacon or fatback grease, was the standard additive to biscuits at breakfast time. "But often for supper, Mama would make tomato gravy, substituting canned tomatoes for the water or milk. Horace's mother made milk gravy, which I never developed a taste for."
Jean Hargis of Kingsport, Tenn., was driving home from Sunday worship with her daughter Melanie.
"I was telling Melanie about some cousins in Georgia who ate biscuits in coffee for breakfast," she said. "When I arrived home, I immediately grabbed your column, and to my delight you were talking about soaky bread. I never heard a name put to it, so thanks."
You're welcome, Jean. You and Melanie give it a try, y'hear?
As I contemplate the pleasures of Mama'n'em's po' folks cuisine, I wonder what tales of childhood culinary delights the Gen X and Gen Y kids will pass on to their grandchildren:
"My mama's hamburger helper and ground beef was to die for."
"We were so poor we had to buy our pizza from Wal-Mart."
"I loved it when Mama served Froot Loops and Pepsi Cola for breakfast."
Gimme soaky bread with grits and gravy for breakfast, pinto beans with ham hocks for dinner and cracklin' cornbread in buttermilk for supper and you'll have yourself a happy man.
Gene Owens has been around the Southern journalistic scene for 48 years. He has been senior associate editor of The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., and editorial-page editor of the Roanoke Times in Roanoke, Va.
As senior editor for Creative Services, a management consulting firm in High Point, N. C., he ghosted more than a dozen published books for professional clients. For the past nine years he has been assistant managing editor, political editor and columnist for the Mobile Register. Register readers named him their favorite local columnist, and readers of the independent regional magazine, Bay Weekly, agreed. He was runner-up in the regional Green Eyeshades competition among writers of humor columns.
He has been on the board of directors of the National Conference of Editorial Writers and was editor of The Masthead, the NCEW’s national quarterly. He is in semi-retirement in Anderson, S. C.
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Write Gene Owens at 315 Lakeforest Circle, Anderson, SC 29625 or e-mail him at WadesDixieCo@aol.com
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