On the importance of free hushpuppies

Some of you may remember in a recent post that I extolled the joy of eating hot and crispy hushpuppies at Captain Stanley’s – an old-school seafood joint in Raleigh (though, I think it’s really Garner). To elaborate:
Only my fellow Southerners will appreciate why one of my statements caused shock and outrage by my fellow Southern friends the other dady. A group of us – both Southern and non-Southern –  met up for coffee.  I was telling them about a new seafood joint I recently tried:

Angela: the fried shrimp were good, but Y’AWL, they were charging for hushpuppies. Called them an “APPETIZER.”

My Southern friends gasped and looked stricken, incredulous.

Southern friend 1: whaaaaa!?!? Nuhuh

SF2: Girl, you lyin’ STOP

SF3: Woman, stop playin’

SF1: Are they crazy?!

The non-Southerners are confused by the ire my comment roused.

Non-Southern friend: Why are you guys so mad? What’s the big deal?

SF1: Fool, hushpuppies come to the table as soon as you sit down. In a big red plastic basket. Hot. With butter and ketchup and hot sauce on the side. AND FREE and all you want. Like iced tea refills.”

All the other Southerners cross their arms and nod in staunch and austere agreement.

Folks, free hushpuppies in a plastic basket matter down here.

One more point about the conversation with friends. Now, many of you know that when it comes to grits, I am usually a purist – nothing but water, salt, pepper, butter, and sometimes cheese. One Southern friend told us he puts smoked Gouda and Velveeta in his grits. A couple of people made retching sounds and uttered “GROSS!” I, however, think that sounds really good – I might have to try that one. 
But WHY do free hushpuppies matter? I liken the expectation to the expectation of tortilla chips and salsa when you go to a Mexican restaurant. It’s so firmly entrenched as a part of the meal – a free fried starch with a sauce or spread of some kind – that it is jarring when you see it listed as an appetizer that you pay extra for. I personally haven’t made commercial amounts of hushpuppies or chips but I imagine that the prep is not that labor intensive once the mix is made. And high volume seafood restaurants down South can crank out batches of hushpuppies that never have a chance to sit around and get cold and soggy – they just fly out of the kitchen to the diners’ tables. I think part of the “jarringness” of paying for hushpuppies is that they are tied to nostalgia, a routine associated with eating Calabash style in a seafood restaurant.
I will note that while I absolutely cannot stand hushpuppies or biscuits or cornbread that have sugar added, I am not averse to adding things to any of the three. I love pork cracklings in biscuits and cornbread and I love onions and/or diced jalapenjo added to any cornmeal-based breads, particularly unleavened breads.

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