Roy Exum: The Second-Best Meal

Friday, November 27, 2020 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Just in the nick of time comes a prudent health advisory for this holiday weekend: If you happen to see 15-to-20 cars gather at one house in your neighborhood, immediately rush to your refrigerator and drink a large glass of milk as fast as you can get it down. You’ll be able to sense the cold milk with your teeth, which is why drinking milk is one of the best things you can do for your teeth. Better still, this will remind you of another healthy thing you can do for your teeth … mind your own business. Fortified by the simple milk lesson, you can go back to your recliner with the hope everybody at your neighbor’s gathering has a swell time, and you can also pray no one who shares in the happiness of being grateful gets sick.

This weekend also carries the possibility of the second-best meal of the year – and “on the field of opportunity, it’s plowing time again.” Because the COVID pandemic played havoc with our traditional gatherings, there is an abundance of leftovers to be shared with neighbors and following today’s generous portions of sliced turkey sandwiches, this afternoon is when the sweetest meat from the bird, that closest to the bone, is pulled from the carcass for what some feel is the greatest delicacy yet to be had – Southern Turkey Hash.

Some make fresh turkey soup, replete with fresh vegetables and what are called “hoe cakes” (I’ll get to them in a moment) but traditionally in the Deep South it is the hash that commands center stage.

It is easy to make, as you’ll soon see, and depending on whether you were raised in the Carolinas, the south Georgia bird-shooting plantations, or the “black belt” that starts in Alabama and moves up into Mississippi’s rich delta lands, tradition holds turkey hash is good any time of the day.

Towards the east, especially on the South Carolina coast, it is most often a breakfast dish, served over a huge portion of either white or wild rice. There are two or three fried eggs then put on top of the pile and in Charleston, or throughout the low country, the good cooks are liable to put some fish roe to accent the eggs, fresh sausage patties (mild, as if not to overpower the turkey), and chilled slices of fresh “love apple,” a saying for tomatoes.

In the black belt of the central South, so named for the rich black dirt of the land – race has never had anything to do with it -- the hash is most often served atop a buttered piece of regular toast in a late lunch. They’ll pile a huge scoop of cheddar grits to the side, sausage balls, some cranberry sauce, a heaping spoon of sweet pickles, or sweet relish, and some of those tiny custard tarts on the plate. There was one year in memory when Bill Lumpkin, then the much-beloved sports editor of the old Birmingham Post-Herald, hosted a gaggle of the South’s top out-of-town sports writers for turkey hash and Bloody Marys several hours before the Alabama-Auburn game at Legion Field.

That year’s Iron Bowl was a thriller but everyone who had been to the Lumpkins was fighting like the dickens to stay awake. That turkey has something in it that makes a man desperate for sleep, and the Bloody Marys have something in them where all you want to do is relish the moment. Whew, it was the best Iron Bowl ever.

Towards Mississippi the Saturday turkey hash was equally famous but the habits were different. In Mississippi there is no lunch. The mid-day meal is called “dinner” and the evening meal is “supper.” Dinner is historically the day’s big meal and ‘supper’ has always been next-to-nothing, so you’ll sleep better. At our house growing up, the turkey hash would come in a “reverse brunch” of sorts … the sit-down being a bit after 4 o’clock.

All us boys worked the day after Thanksgiving. The world didn’t stop, and neither did we on that Friday every year. When we gathered, the hash would be stand-alone on the plate, usually with a ladle of lady-peas or well-soaked pinto beans with chutney and a few rings of fresh onion. There would be sausage or bacon, an ample bowl of cold-water grits and butter and then, glory oh glory, stacks of hoecakes with a small side dish of thick beef vegetable soup.

The hoecakes were the meal’s focus and in the years long before slavery (I’m thinking Biblical Egypt and long before) hoecakes were a staple of centuries past. So help me, hoecakes are so named because field workers would cook them on the blade of a field hoe. Honor bright! Here’s the way hoecakes are made:

* * *

HOECAKES COME FROM SOUTHERN COTTON FIELDS

Sift two cups of white cornmeal into a bowl and add one teaspoon of salt. Have the water boiling, rolling boiling. Pour the bubbling water into a bowl with the corn meal and beat with a spoon. (The cornmeal will absorb the water and get stiff.) Add more boiling water until you have a batter like pancake batter.

Get a Lodge cast-iron skillet … coat the surface with heavy butter and pour the batter into 2-inch to 4-inch rounds. Brown the hoecake first on one side. Add butter. Flip as needed. Your desired effort is crispy ends and a soft middle. Anoint each one with a heavy butter until you have got a perfect sublime way of life that will last until you die. Use salt, pepper and hot sauce accordingly but never jelly or fruit preserves. Honor history. Remember Jimmy Kelley’s steakhouse in Nashville? These are the hoecakes you swore you would never forget.

* * *

SOUTHERN TURKEY HASH

Here’s what you’ll need …

4 thick-cut bacon slices, crumbled after room temp, or fine-chopped sausage links

1-pound Yukon Gold potatoes, unpeeled, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 3 cups)

2 tablespoons virgin olive oil, but substitute butter when you can.

½ cup fine-chopped yellow onion (we substitute fine-chopped celery)

½ cup chopped red or green bell pepper

1 teaspoon chopped garlic (this is optional)

1 ½ to 2 ½ cups of torn (not chopped) cooked turkey (1/2-inch pieces or smaller)

NOTE: If you add more turkey, add equal potatoes

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon kosher salt, or more per taste

1 teaspoon coarse-group black pepper

OPTIONAL: Two or three grated hard-boiled eggs, 1 cup cheddar cheese, 2 cups diced fresh tomatoes.

- - -

HERE IS HOW SIMPLE THIS IS TO COOK

* -- Cook bacon in a large cast-iron skillet over medium, turning often, until crispy, about 10 minutes. Transfer bacon to a plate lined with paper towels, reserving 2 tablespoons drippings in skillet. Crumble bacon and set aside. Leave the hot grease in the skillet.

* -- Add potatoes and oil (or butter) to hot drippings in skillet. Cook over medium, stirring occasionally, until potatoes are lightly browned and softened, 10 to 12 minutes. Add onion, or celery and bell pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until mixture is tender, about 10 minutes. Stir in garlic; cook, now stirring constantly, 1 minute. Add turkey, vinegar, salt, and black pepper; toss to combine. Cook, stirring occasionally, until turkey is warmed through, about 2 minutes.

* -- Top mixture with crumbled bacon. (Grated egg, fresh tomatoes, grated cheese.)

* * *

I promise you. At the end of every Thanksgiving Day meal, Southern boys in the know would let the feast settle on Friday, because Saturday’s hash would be the second-best meal of the year.

I know, as one who has been there for most of my life.

royexum@aol.com


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