What’s a hushpuppy?
It’s not my noisy dog but a simple, deep-fried cornbread “cake” iconic in southern-style cooking. The name is almost as good as the food.
According to author and editor Jorie Nicole McDonald, when it comes to hushpuppies “It’s all about fried food and a good story.”
There are so many good stories that it’s nearly impossible to separate fact from fiction. Which only proves that this crispy cornbread fritter has delighted our taste buds and imaginations for a very long time.
Let’s begin with Red Horse Bread. Would you eat that?
There’s no red or horse in the bread – only Romeo Govan.
Romeo Govan was a slave freed after the Civil War. He set up house on a small plot of land next to the Edisto River in South Carolina. The river was bursting with Red fish (also known as Red Drum, Channel Bass, and River Red Horse). As a master chef, Govan hosted fish fries and popular events in his “club house.” He was best known for preparing the difficult-to-eat bony River Red Horse Fish. Along with the fish, Govan served Red Horse Bread (what we call hushpuppies).
By 1908 Govan hosted a fish fry almost every day of the season. Guests feasted on his fish and his bread, described by the 1903 Augusta Chronicle, “once eaten, never-to-be-forgotten red horse bread.”
While few remember Red Horse Bread, hushpuppies flourished – along with tall tales.
One of the earliest yarns came from a New Orleans order of French nuns in 1720. French cuisine is delightful but not the source of all culinary specialties. Their claim to hushpuppies is highly questionable. After all, the cultivation of maize (corn) goes back 4,500 years.
Robert Moss in Food History, humorously notes that “the culinary genius of the French [wasn’t needed] to teach Southerners how to fry cornmeal.”
I wonder if the French think they taught southerners how to fry crispy chicken, make creamy grits, and build a po’boy?
Another popular story is about fishermen. They liked to cook their catch as soon as possible – often in campfires on the banks of the river. The aroma was mouthwatering. Dogs howled to get in on the feast – like puppies begging for food from the dinner table. The hounds made so much noise that the only way to hush them was by frying and tossing bits of dough. You know, hush the puppies?
Moss makes an interesting point concerning this story. What were hounds doing on fishing trips?
When it comes to the south there’s always a Civil War version. Confederates were preparing dinner on the campfire when they heard Yankee soldiers approaching. The dogs started barking and . . . well the only way to hush them was to toss fried cornmeal cakes, yelling “hush, puppies”.
Whatever story you prefer, people (and dogs) love crispy, golden hushpuppies. An early columnist for the 1903 Augusta Chronicle reported that Red Horse Bread was called hushpuppies on the Georgia side of the Savannah River. Years later, Moss wrote that “hushpuppies were regularly being served at political gatherings [and rallies]”.
Eventually printed references and recipes were everywhere. Chefs often modified the ingredients, becoming known for their brand of hushpuppies. In 1948, Walter Thompson, took hushpuppies nationwide. He created a “ready mix” and sold it under the name The Hushpuppy Corporation of America.
Today barbecue joints, fish fries, and southern cuisine feature hushpuppies. You can get them sweet or savory, or with added spices and vegetables. The basic recipe remains the same.
In 1958 the casual brand of shoes, Hush Puppies, was introduced. Within five years, one in ten adults owned a pair. Was it the name?
hushpuppies.com invites viewers to “join us in living life on the bright side.” You can buy hushpuppy toys – for kids and dogs – and books, recipes, molds, and pre-made mixes. There’s a National Hushpuppy Day and a line of clothes for both dogs and people.
Savor your barbecue, fish fry, and southern cooking – just don’t forget to hush the puppy.