I often wonder what my ancestors ate before the ships sailing from the New World unloaded sacks of peppers, potatoes, beans, and corn on the shores of the European continent, knowing that they pretty much describe the essence of Balkan cuisine. Parts of Europe cultivated rice, but the lack of fast and reliable transportation prevented it from becoming a staple. Italians might have enjoyed copious amounts of pasta, but noodles did not appear on Serbian tables until the middle of the twentieth century. Growing wheat was expensive, and only the rich consumed breads made from it.
There was buckwheat, barley, and oats, which the poor shared with their farm animals. We learned about all these different cereals in school, but I had never tasted buckwheat nor oats until I moved to the U.S. I cannot count how many times at parties we sang a Serbian folk song about a girl harvesting barley without thinking of its role in human consumption.
I shudder to think that the majority of people relied on turnips to carry them through the cold and barren winter months. Last fall, I roasted turnips with potatoes, carrots, onions, mushrooms, and brussels sprouts. We love the caramelized and sweet taste of roasted vegetables and to prove it, the pan returned empty to the kitchen. Or almost empty. There were turnips left on it. I did not care for them. Neither did the Beasties, Husband, nor Father, who should have embraced the taste of this humble root, only to justify the stories he tells about his deprived childhood. Maybe there is a recipe out there which can make me into a convert, but for now, I’ll avoid the turnips on my shopping trips.
Other people can have their turnips. I’ll gladly keep the cabbage that fed us for hundreds of years, not asking for much in its low-maintenance, but versatile ways. And I’ll be eternally grateful for all those sacks filled with peppers, potatoes, beans, and corn that reached far into the continent and became the foundation of our culinary culture. They adapted, assimilated, and became not only equal to the local foods, but in many cases even more beloved.
There is no farm or large garden in Serbia that does not have at least a row of corn planted somewhere along the fence. These lovingly cultivated grasses are not for commercial use – there are fields in Vojvodina in the north that can feed Europe with corn. Even a few stalks can produce enough ears to make it into children’s hands in the summertime, cooked and sprinkled with coarse salt, eaten piping hot outside with juices carelessly running down the chin and onto a shirt.
A lot of small farmers in Serbia still take their corn to old-fashioned water-wheel mills where it’s stone ground into cornmeal. Baggage restrictions are the only thing that prevents me from packing a suitcase full of 1kg bags of Serbian cornmeal and transporting it to my California home. I try to stretch the bag or two Father manages to pack next to slivovitz, local honey, dried bay leaves from my Aunt’s and Uncle’s Mediterranean laurel bush, Mother’s homemade preserves and beautifully knitted sweaters, books and CDs from my friends, and numerous other items not available in the states.
I make the traditional breakfast cornmeal porridge for my girls. It’s simmered slowly for several minutes, and served runny, with crumbled Feta and a dollop of cream cheese instead of kajmak. Whenever I make any dish with brined cabbage, I make Serbian crunchy corn bread in the cast iron skillet. College Kritter loves the sweet Northern American version, and she makes it to accompany chili. In the past several years, I have become obsessed with polenta and grits, and any time I braise a hunk of beef or lamb shanks, I reach for the bag of stone ground grits and prepare it as a side. On our trip to the Yucatan last spring, I bought a tortilla press in a small shop in Valladolid, after I fell in love with the taste of small corn tortillas made on the premises by short, Mexican abuelas wearing their traditional huipil dresses.
I keep my Serbian mill-ground cornmeal in the fridge. In my pantry you can find at any time a standard box of yellow cornmeal, a box of Masa Harina, a bag of stone-ground grits and another bag of finely ground corn flour. If I run out of one of those, I feel insecure until I replenish it. When there is corn, there is food.
For several years I worked at Key Largo, a restaurant in a western suburb of Detroit. It featured the cuisines of Louisiana, Florida, and the Caribbean. We had a calypso or a still drum band every Friday and Saturday playing on the deck looking over the Walled Lake. Our fish arrived daily flash-frozen, always a surprise by our distributor. Our signature dessert was Key Lime Pie. Our signature appetizers were Conch Chowder, Conch Fritters, and Hot Puppies, a sweet and spicy take on the Southern side.
In so many instances I am like Pavlov’s dog, reacting impulsively to smells, songs, and sounds. Our front door was open yesterday to let in the abundant California sunshine. All of a sudden, a Harry Belafonte song started playing from our summer playlist, and my mind was flooded with memories. As it was time to make lunch, I started craving those Hot Puppies (I’d go for conch anything, but this is California, and I felt deprived). I explored the Internet for the basic recipes, remembering the taste of those delectable pieces of fried cornmeal. Husband was a bit skeptical, claiming the rights to Southern cuisine not only by being born in Atlanta, but residing in Georgia and Louisiana for much of his life before the age of Enlightement (i.e. meeting me 🙂 )
The corn fritters were ridiculously easy to make. I complicated the process by adding chopped roasted jalapeño peppers and corn kernels to the dough. I was contemplating making only half of the recipe, but Zoe needs some serious fattening up and the Hush Puppies seemed like her kind of snack. I was not wrong: I barely saved several to photograph before they disappeared, dunked in homemade mayonnaise (the girls convinced me they needed it, and after I gave them all the ingredients, tools, and instructions needed, they made it themselves in no time).
I don’t know why Husband still holds a certain dose of skepticism when it comes to my cooking. I will rock his Southern boat every time I enter the kitchen. Some of his ancestors might have chased the herds of bison all over the American prairie land, but mine taught me how to respect the food and take it to the highest level possible. Somewhat reluctantly he proclaimed my hush puppies the best he ever tasted. I tried to avoid showing him my most annoyingly sweet I-told-you-so smile. I dunked one of the spicy crunchy corn balls into mayo and wondered for a second why there was no Serbian version of it. Knowing the Balkan palates, this dish would be a favorite.
HUSH PUPPIES (as remembered by Key Largo’s Hot Puppies)
- 2 cups cornmeal
- 1 cup all purpose flour
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 Tbsp sugar (optional)
- 1 tsp baking powder
- ½ tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp cayenne (optional)
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup buttermilk*
- 1 Tbsp melted lard, bacon grease, or oil
- ½ cup cooked corn kernels (optional)
- ½ cup chopped roasted and peeled hot peppers (optional)
- sunflower oil for frying
*If you don’t have buttermilk, you can use plain yogurt diluted with some milk or club soda to a runnier consistency. If you want to make your own buttermilk on the fly, just add 1 Tbsp of lemon juice to 1 cup of milk, let it sit for 5-10 minute, stir and use.
Mix all dry ingredients together. Add the eggs, buttermilk, grease, corn, and jalapeños, if using. Stir to combine. Heat the oil in a deep skillet to 350 F. Spoon a walnut size of batter into the hot oil and fry several at the same time, without crowding, until golden brown and crispy, about 3-4 minutes. Drain on paper towels. Serve with honey butter or homemade mayonnaise.