Honduran Hoecakes

After noting (somewhat suggestively, I thought) that Mexico is shaped like an on-end cornucopia, one authority I consulted for a reasonable analysis of cultural diffusion with the U.S. degenerated into a diatribe against the North American Free Trade Agreement, but even without his analysis, perhaps even despite of, it’s safe even for a rube like me to say that the influences are profound, that of Mexico on the U.S. embracing such diverse areas as art and architecture, music and literature, not to mention food, a far more significant contribution than that our northern neighbor Canada, which as far as I can tell seems to be restricted to ice hockey and fried potatoes with gravy.

Tomes have been written about Mexican food in the U.S., but with the obvious exception of Texas the discussion of Mexican foods in the American South has just begun. In Mississippi, Delta tamales are certainly the most notable culinary import from south of the border, Mexican cornbread is one you’ll find throughout the state if not most parts of the South. This bread, while Mexican in name, does not like the tamal have its origins in Old Mexico; instead, what we know as Mexican cornbread is almost certainly though not verifiably a Tex-Mex recipe that has been around long enough to become a standard not only in our homes but also in supermarket delis, a certain sign of culinary degeneration.

Though Southerners claim cornbread as our definitive staff of life, Mexico is the home of this ancient staple, though certainly not as we know it now. While researching the history of Mexican cornbread (the U.S. version,), it was somewhat of a discovery to stumble upon our “Southern” cornbread in Mexican cookbooks, unsurprisingly called pan de maiz, which seems to be a recent addition to Central American tables, largely at home in southern Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras. One recipe I found on a Mexican website claims to have come by way of Maine and even employs buttermilk. While such things aren’t inconceivable, I suddenly felt as if the Culinary Improbability Drive had been activated, and I was on the verge of turning into an enormous jalapeno hushpuppy and plunging into a roiling intergalactic catfish pond. I felt much the same way about Malaysian grits.

The origins of what passes as Mexican cornbread in the U.S. are obscured in a cloud of “women’s magazine” articles and speculation. While the dish has all sorts of atrocious variations, the most rudimentary type employs corn, peppers and some sort of cheese. Extreme examples include any number of beans and meats, cacti, seeds and flowers, not to mention that California aberration with blue tofu. For my part, I’ve devised a recipe that is a departure from the customary pan of bread, one that is lighter and at least in spirit closer to the flatbreads more often served on Mexican tables. It reminds me of an early Southern cornmeal staple many consider the ancestor of the cornbread most often made for our tables.

Make cornbread batter, add whole kernel corn, peppers and your choice of cheese in equal proportions. I prefer to use thin-walled mild peppers for the most part with a thinly-sliced jalapeno for kick. Drop batter by spoonfuls into a well-oiled skillet, brown on both sides and place in a single layer on a cookie sheet in a medium oven until done through. You want them crusty, top with salsa, sour cream, guacamole, refried beans, etc. as you would a sope.

 

Delta Red

As the year cools down, hunters up and down the Mississippi flyway flock to the wilds with guns and dogs for game. In the Mississippi Delta, arguably the heart of the flyway itself, men of a certain feather abandon the usual trappings of domesticity for camp, in Irwin Hester’s case his duck camp on Concordia Island in Bolivar County.

“It’s not really an island,” Irwin said. “If anything, it’s a peninsula, since the river makes a tight loop around it.” He looked out the window at the sunset spread out over Arkansas. “You’d think they’d have a special name for a riparian peninsula, but they don’t.”

Irwin retired from what he calls “the oil business” almost a decade ago. He received his degree in geology from Mississippi State in the early 70s and began working with Gulf Oil, stayed with them through the merger, and remained, working his way up the ladder, eventually landing in Pittsburgh at U-PARK. An only child, Irwin never married (“Just too damned busy,” he explained). When he retired in 2012, he came back home to Mississippi, made a home, renewed old friendships, and moved his folks’ old home to the end of a dirt road on Concordia Island. Twice a year, the beginning of duck season and the end, late November and late January, he holds a duck camp and makes chili.

“I make real, Texas-style chili,” Irwin said. “It’s the best, and once you’ve had it, you’ll never call anything else chili. I learned to make it when I lived in Austin. I knew a guy who cooked it at his hunt camp up on the Pedernales River. He said he got his recipe from Lady Bird Johnson herself, and over the years made it his own.”

Irwin’s chili has no beans, no tomatoes, and no onions. He uses a lean cut of beef, usually a top round, cut into large chunks, coats these in a mixture of smoked paprika, crushed leaf oregano, cayenne, and ground cumin, and browns them in a cast iron Dutch oven. For each pound of beef, he soaks, peels and seeds four anchos (dried poblanos). He uses the water from the peppers in the beef, adding more to cover about an inch. He places the heavily-lidded oven in the oven at a low temperature (“Just enough to make it simmer”) in the morning, and by the time the sun begins to go down, the chili must be stirred (“Once is enough”) and returned to the oven until the men return from the field, the fire is blazing, and a bottle and a guitar are being passed around. Salt to taste. He keeps a bottle of Crystal hot sauce available.

“It’s as good a bowl of red as you’re going to get on this side of the Mississippi,” Irwin claims. Believe him.

Lee’s Jezebel Sauce

1 (16-ounce) jar of pineapple preserves, 1 (12-ounce) jar apple jelly, 6 ounces Creole brown mustard, 1 (5-ounce) jar horseradish, 1 teaspoon Coleman’s Mustard, salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Blend all ingredients well with a fork or whip. This sauce keeps well for weeks refrigerated in a sealed container.