Friday, March 7, 2014
The second I walked in the door at Salvage BBQ & Smokehouse, I knew Jay Villani had my number.
Villani, owner of the new spot at 919 Congress St., saw me arrive for the restaurant’s opening party Saturday night, grinned and said “I’ve got some hush puppies for you.”
I had made no secret of the fact that other than the pulled pork, the thing I was most looking forward to trying was the hush puppies. These deep-fried balls of cormeal are a southern treat traditionally served with a plate of fried catfish, and it’s tough to find “real” ones these days.
(You know you’re in trouble when they start selling “hush puppy mix,” a mass-manufactured product that results in bland, dry or doughy balls that taste like bad cornbread. There’s a special place in hell for the inventor of hush puppy mix, and he or she will be sharing it with the doofus who came up with instant grits.)
I thought Jay was just joking, but a couple of minutes later he emerged from the kitchen carrying a tray of food he jokingly called a “North Carolina sampler.” (Villani and his staff traveled to North Carolina to do research for their menu.) There were containers filled with (below, from top left) hush puppies, collard greens, baked beans, cole slaw, potato salad and - last, but certainly not least - tender, juicy pulled pork.
Can I hear an amen?!
The hush puppies had obviously just come out of the fryer, so while I waited for them to cool down enough to handle I stole a bite of the barbecue and lawd have mercy…..Portland finally has some decent, southern-style pulled pork! No more abominations forced upon us like pulled pork sandwiches covered with slices of tomato and onion! That’s just so, so wrong.
The pulled pork at Salvage was moist without being fatty, and full of flavor. Although Jay later explained to me the process they went through smoking it, he didn’t have to – you can tell by the way it tastes that they’re doing it right. Good barbecue takes patience, and they obviously didn’t try to rush things.
There were bottles of sauce on the table, one that looked vinegary and one that looked more like Memphis-style barbecue sauce. I grew up on Memphis barbecue, so I’m partial to the sweeter sauce. The Salvage sauce was excellent and not too sweet, but seriously, the pulled pork really doesn’t need it. Just eat it plain, and enjoy the natural flavors.
Back to the hush puppies. They are made, basically, of corn meal, egg, buttermilk, flour, salt and baking soda. They’re best if they have bits of onion mixed in - real onion, chunks of it, not that diced stuff they put in onion rings these days. Some people use spring onions, which is also a good choice.
My favorite memory of hush puppies is from a diner-style, roadside restaurant that we always stopped at on the way to visit my grandparents at their farm in Haywood Hollow, a middle-of-nowhere place outside Columbia that was named after my relatives, after some county official decided the gravel roads had to be named. Driving up late on a Friday night after my father got off work in Memphis, we were always good and hungry by the time we reached the “Hot Fish” restaurant. That was its only name, and it flashed in neon on a big freestanding sign shaped like a catfish. The sign winked constantly at the side of the road, luring weary travelers into its delicious trap. It was kind of a reversal of the order of nature.
My brother, sister and I watched closely for the Hot Fish sign after we crossed the Tennessee River (the source of the catfish) because we knew if we nodded off and woke up around Hohenwald, that meant my parents had decided to drive straight through to the farm. (I used to pray my father had not eaten any afternoon snacks to stave off rumblings of hunger.)
Pulling into the diner’s gravel parking lot was exciting because it meant stretching our legs and digging into baskets of hot, fresh catfish and sides of hush puppies filled with chunks of onion so big they still had a little bite to them. This was the only time we kids said no to French fries. We dipped our hush puppies in a little ketchup instead.
The hush puppies at the diner were misshapen and rustic looking, like they’d been shaped by hand and thrown into the fryer, the way they’re supposed to be. Hush puppies were created, the story goes, by a cook who was trying to get a batch of catfish fried. But the hound dogs nearby were whining with hunger, so she took a little catfish batter and threw it into the oil, then tossed it to the dogs, saying “Hush, puppies!”
Another story links the cornmeal balls to Confederate soldiers trying to keep their dogs quiet around the campfire at night.
No matter their origin, they are a treat for me that brings up pleasant childhood memories. So I order them whenever I see them on a menu, a rare occasion over the past two or three decades I’ve lived outside the south. I’m always disappointed when I bite into a hush puppy and it just tastes like cornbread mix.
Villani’s version was not quite like what I remember, but it was very good. The Salvage hush puppies were crunchy outside but still moist inside, and they were flecked with small bits of onion that, I confess, I wish were just a little bit bigger. But that’s the kid in me talking, not the adult who understands how easy it might be to overdo the onion.
Villani’s hush puppies had something my childhood dish did not – a little heat, an addition that I think almost elevated them to another level. Who knew that a touch of cayenne could take something so simple and turn it into a side that you just know northerners who have never heard of hush puppies will love?
Try them yourself at Salvage, along with some pulled pork, a side of collards, and some smoky, but not-too-sweet baked beans.
Now all we need in Portland is a good catfish joint…..
Meredith Goad has harvested oysters on the Chesapeake Bay, eaten reindeer in Finland and sipped hot chai in the Himalayas. She writes the weekly Soup to Nuts column and enjoys a good cocktail.