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Summer/Fall 2020

Fried Bread Dough: The Endurance of Southern Cooking

Nicole Hylton

            The dough will begin as a smooth, frozen white loaf. Small chips of ice will frost the ends; these ought to be wiped off. Spray a circular pizza pan and a large metal bowl with cooking spray to prevent sticking. Place the frozen block on the pan, and cover with the bowl. Let it sit overnight.

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Growing up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., I’ve encountered no shortage of critics of Southern food. In my experience, these people—who either lack tastebuds or are yuppie cityfolk (or often both)—are quick to categorize the cuisine as too simple, unhealthy, and antiquated. As someone who comes from a long line of proud West Virginian cooks on her father’s side—who, by the way, would not classify themselves as cooks, but as hardworking people who had to keep their families fed—I am just as quick to rebuff them. Maybe your spice rack consists of more than salt, pepper, and some garlic; maybe an entire stick of butter isn’t necessary in every dish; and maybe most of your recipes have measurements other than “a handful of this”, but is the quality of my family’s food lesser as a result? Is meat any less appetizing when simply seasoned? Are cookies quite as rich when margarine, or, as essayist David James Duncan puts it, “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Coagulated Petroleum with Yellow Dye®,” is used instead? And isn’t the recipe’s purest form that which is passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth? No instructions printed on the back of a Lean Cuisine can replace the experience of the young observing the culinary handiwork of the old, and storing away their notes in their own mental recipe box.

            Perhaps I oversimplify. Perhaps we are in need of some specificity. A number of Southern dishes come to mind—chicken and dumplings, sausage gravy, and cream chipped beef, to name a few—but the best representative of my paternal family’s way of cooking is, without a doubt, fried bread dough.

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            In the morning—early, usually while everyone is still asleep—pull away the bowl to reveal—magic!—the thawed dough. It will remain strangely round, still white, but no longer a solid block that could concuss the family dog. The dough will have risen and puffed out—aren’t you glad you sprayed everything? It will look and feel like real dough: sticky and workable, ready to become anything.

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            Bread is, perhaps, one of the most universal foods we have. It is a staple of the American diet—hence the saying “bread and butter” to refer to someone’s means of living—and of our European ancestors’ diet. During the French Revolution, a band of angry women stormed the royal palace at Versailles when they had no bread to feed their families. Any poor urchin or widow, in modern interpretations of historical poverty (like Industrialized Europe), seems to be forever crying, “We have no bread!” when really what they mean is “We have no food!” “Dough” is a slang term for “money,” and the “bread-winner” of a household is the member of the family that makes the most money, and is seen as the biggest provider. Bread is simultaneously the most basic level of nutrition, and also the most essential. Most American restaurants serve a basket of bread before appetizers. To “break bread” with someone is a sign of trust, cooperation, and friendship.

            Bread, perhaps, is a bit like people. It comes in such a wide array of shapes, sizes, colors, textures, tastes, and ingredients that it becomes difficult to define all varieties under one heading. A French baguette—long, thin, and pale with a soft center and crispy crust—and a loaf of rye—short, squat, and dark or swirled with seeds—are both bread, but look quite different. Each culture has its own way of preparing and cooking bread: the tortilla is made of corn, and must be flattened; the loaf is made of wheat and must be allowed to rise. Some bread needs space to do its own thing; some must be worked and pushed and pulled for its own good. And yet, also much like people—who share fundamental characteristics like eyes, skin, feet, and hands—bread shares many common traits with its kin: it is usually made of meal or flour, and is mixed with some kind of moistener to form the dough. So why, given bread’s mass appeal and essentiality, is it met with so many raised eyebrows when fried?

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Flour your hands and a sheet of wax paper. Cut off chunks from the loaf, stretch them out flat, then cut those chunks into smaller pieces between four and six inches long. Shapes are as varied as the coal great-grandpa cut from the mountainside: asymmetrical rhombus, pig ears, and fins along the back of a trout are just some examples.

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            “What is that?”

            The inevitable question comes up any time fried bread dough is presented to someone new, often suburbanite friends or neighbors over for breakfast. I am, somehow, always surprised at this reaction, this kind of curiosity with which one views circus performers and three-legged dogs: interested, with a twinge of apprehension toward something that to the viewer is strange, but to the subject is as routine as sleep. Friends who spend the night and wake up to find a baking pan full of pale pieces of what might be sheep’s wool turn to me, bleary-eyed, and wonder if they are still dreaming—wonder why Aunt Jemima or Captain Crunch aren’t there to greet them at the breakfast table. The inherent irregularity of fried bread dough shapes must seem frightening stuff to someone expecting uniformly-sized pancakes with one-inch squares of butter on top.

“It’s breakfast,” I say, trying to suppress irritation at their skeptical glances as they cautiously take two pieces of fried dough. I remind myself that I must be patient. Like small children recoiling at the sight of vegetables, my friends don’t know any better yet, but they will once they take a bite.

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            Get great-grandma’s cast-iron skillet off the pot rack. Put some newspaper down so the grease won’t ruin the floor. When you make this dish enough times, you will take this precaution anyway, even though there have been grease stains on the floor since two presidents ago. Scoop out a dollop of Crisco shortening the size of a ping pong ball, and let it coat the pan, melt, and sizzle.

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            Maybe, like a dollop of cold grease, my skeptical suburban friends just need more time to warm up to fried bread dough. I suppose I shouldn’t be so quick to judge. Admittedly, it doesn’t look particularly appetizing, or, really, much like food at all. I can see how this would be especially true if you are used to your macaroni and cheese being a radioactive shade of orange, or your chicken tenders coming in dinosaur shapes. The Crisco may prove too much for the untrained stomach, the delicate hands. It is not by any means “low-cal” or “light,” because it was meant to stick to your bones and carry you through another day of toil, be it deep in the Appalachian coal mines, or behind the butcher counter at the local grocery store. The dish has not changed much in the past seventy or so years it’s been in my family, other than the shift by my father from homemade dough to frozen—the only sacrifice made out of the sake of convenience. Otherwise, everything else must remain the same. Traditions may adapt, but they must endure.

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            Coat the dough pieces in flour—you’ll taste it later regardless, so don’t worry about “too much”—then poke each strip with a fork about three times per side, as you would a pie crust. Like dropping a toddler off at daycare, place the dough pieces gently and carefully into the skillet. Also like dropping a toddler off at daycare, step away quickly, because the oil will scream and can bite. You will know you have mastered the recipe when your arms and fingers no longer flinch at the burns. The savory, crisped crust will be worth any temporary pain.

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            Although fried bread dough itself has not changed much in the time it’s existed, the world around it has changed quite a bit. Outhouses have moved in-house. Technology has evolved from putting a man on the moon to putting supercomputers in our pockets. However, the age of this family dish has also allowed it to oversee a number of celebrations. Fried bread dough has been the starting gun at every major holiday in my family. It has kicked off Super Bowl Sundays, opened season on Turkey Day, and been the first present awaiting eager children on Christmas morning. It has commemorated homecomings from long trips, birthdays, and graduations. It has seen itself abandoned only once, over the news of a family death. It is the single occasion I have ever had no appetite with fried bread dough on the table. The only tears I have ever seen my father shed—over the death of his brother—upset my stomach like swallowing a mouthful of old grease.

Breakfast that morning was left to grow cold and soggy on the table, alone. There was no excited talk of the day to come, no chatter popping between us like bubbles of hot oil in great-grandma’s skillet. Just silence and murmurs of “I’m done,” followed by approvals of requested excusals from the table. Heads pounding with hunger and urgent grief, both demanding our attention. A vast emptiness filled us. We would come back, eventually. We always did. And we still do.

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            Let the pieces fry, flipping them over with a fork or tongs when the dough begins to inflate and resemble a crispier version of its former self. The pieces ought to be golden brown on the edges, especially the puffy parts. The rest may still appear white—who knows what that bread is made out of that makes it keep its color the way it does.

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            Fried bread dough is a dish of endurance. Poor, rural West Virginians who could not afford special treats for their families had to invent their own. They took the everyday (bread) and made it extraordinary by frying it up. These people were put through hell—my great-grandfather and his brothers worked as coal miners from the time they were preteens until well past average retirement age. (Suffice to say they had no Roth IRA waiting for them at sixty-five.) My great-grandfather lost one of his lungs to coal dust, and his son, my great-uncle, is currently living with black lung. There is much to be said for the “simple” life of cooking things slowly and with care, but it was not a lifestyle that was at all easy. Resourcefulness in coordinating a meal was not something that was clever or cute in the way that Martha Stewart can make a cake that’s low-calorie, tasty, and affordable. Resourcefulness was just that: a skill born of necessity. My great-grandmother had to budget and scrimp and pool what my great-grandfather brought home to feed their seven children something that would be filling enough to last all day.

            By contrast, these days, fried bread dough has become a luxury rather than a staple. Whenever I come home to visit, my family always makes it a point to have Sunday breakfast together, which means, of course, fried bread dough. My father, a chronic insomniac, is the first one up and prepping, followed by my mother, who assists when he doesn’t shoo her out of the kitchen. “If you’re gonna do something,” he is often fond of saying, parroting advice from his own father, “you either do it right, or you don’t do it at all.” He rises early to repeat the steps of his parents and grandparents, a meditation on perfection spent mostly alone in the kitchen, but with a twist. People do not exist in isolation, but we do have agency. My immediate family’s situation is quite different than my great-grandparents’—our first floor is probably bigger than their whole house—but we can still appreciate everything they did to get us to where we are today. At the very least, we can appreciate their cooking with every crispy bite of fried bread dough we take on Sunday mornings.

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            Scramble up some eggs from the chickens in the backyard and fry some thick-cut bacon. Serve, together, with fried bread dough and a side of maple syrup for dipping. Clink your coffee mugs and juice glasses together to celebrate what brought you here, to this table: a birthday, a holiday, or maybe just making it through another week with only a couple of oil burns and grease stains.

 

 

[Check out Nicole Hylton’s back porch interview]