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Stretch Cooking: The technique for thangs

I made corn bread thangs earlier this week for the first time in a long time, and it was a good reminder of how the simplest cooking techniques require practice, care, and, preferably, frequent repetition. Yes, Virginia, cooking a good corn bread thang IS like using a computer, or playing a piano. You don't want to let the principles gather dust, and the technique get rusty.

Hence a thang conundrum. I don't make thangs regularly, like I used to, because I can't eat them regularly, like I used to. Thirty years ago, a nice plate would be meat, pinto beans, sliced tomatoes and red onion, and six corn bread thangs. Those were the days, and I miss them. The other night, I had two thangs, with some leftover carnitas, some beans, and the famous black gravy. I could have gone a third, I guess, but it's just not a good habit.

I call them "thangs" because that's what my grandmother Susie called them. They are the essence of stretch cooking, going to the heart of survival, which during the Depression could be long stretches of beans, meal, and grit. All you needed then was water and a fire. I was not born until 1943, but growing up in Abilene, four blocks from the Texas & Pacific tracks, I would see hungry men all the time. I vividly remember seeing a man with a paper sack, and in the sack he had potatoes, some flour, and lard, and he was happy as a king. Other men would come to our back door – our house was "marked" by the hoboes – and Susie would always have something for them.

Inside, at our own table, I simply thought this crispy, savory corn bread was one of the best things I could put in my mouth. And it was great for pushing around beans, greens, and pot liquor, and slowly the pot liquor would seep into the dense, moist, mealy centers. I will be frank with you: you either like corn bread thangs, or you don't. They are like hoecakes, or pone, only denser, and crispier on the outside. One rule: you have to eat all the thangs as they come out of the skillet. If they get cold, you cannot successfully reheat them. You could freeze them and throw them at burglars, but that's about it.

Here is the technique. Put a cup or two of cornmeal in a bowl and season with salt and pepper, and some garlic powder if you like. Bring to a boil – really boiling – a pan of water. When you're ready, pour some of the water – not too much – into the cornmeal and stir with a fork. The meal will start to bind. Keep adding water, a little at a time, until the mix loses its graininess and forms into a thick, steaming mush.

Pour out the hot water and replace it with cold. Dip your hands into the cold water, then fork up a fat palmful of mush. Form it into a patty about three-quarters of an inch thick and about three inches across. Then, with your hands at right angles, press finger marks into either side of the thang. The ridges will then get crispy in the fat, and the hollows in between will be more tender, and not let the melted butter run off.

Make as many patties as you have mush, dipping your hands, and actually rinsing them, each time in the cold water. It keeps your fingers cool and slick, so the mush will handle easily and not be sticky. When the patties are made, using a fork, slip them into a half-inch of hot oil in a skillet. Don't crowd them. When the edges are golden and crispy, carefully turn them over. Fry the second side for a minute or two, lifting them with a fork to check for the golden, crispy look. Drain on paper towels or newspaper and serve immediately.

My two turned out okay, but did not have the exact crunchiness that a good thang always has. I left the mush a bit too grainy, but didn't have the old confidence, being out of practice, to add another splash of hot water. If you add too much water, the mush gets too thin and won't hold a shape. At that point, you have to start over, or serve the mush as polenta. It's the same thing.


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  • I am a journalist, educator, writing consultant and author, living in La Mesa, CA. I am a native of Texas, which shows in most of my work. I believe that anything is possible. When I was 35, I realized that the ideal life would be to have the imagination of a six-year-old, and the wisdom of a 65-year-old. I can still get to the imagination (as you can, simply by cutting away all the data you’ve learned from first grade on) and I now possess the wisdom of a 65-year-old. Being 65 can be unsettling – too late to plant trees and enjoy the shade – but the wisdom that comes with it is terrific compensation. I learned in 50th grade that, no matter how bad things get, there is always compensation. Now I am in the 60th grade, and I am learning things that I didn’t know in 59th. This September, I’ll start 61st grade, and learn things I don’t know now. To find what grade you’re in, start with the year you started 12th grade, and count up. My newest book is “Warbirds – How They Played the Game.” My new company is The Write Outsource, quality media writing on deadline, at www.writeoutsource.com. I am working on a book about the media, and I am about to revise my cookbook about home cooking on a tight budget, such as so many of us face at this time.
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