The Real History of Hushpuppies

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roboppy, Flickr

If you're eating a fried catfish or shrimp dinner at a seafood restaurant in the South (or, increasingly, anywhere else in the country), odds are it will be accompanied by the golden brown nuggets known as hushpuppies. Made from a thick cornmeal batter, they're dropped in balls, fingers, or even long squiggly strands into a deep fryer and cooked till crisp on the outside and soft and chewy in the middle. They're delicious, they're iconic, and no one seems to have a clue where they came from.

Which isn't to say that people haven't tried to explain the origin of hushpuppies. Plenty have. The problem is that no one has really tried hard enough.

Hushpuppy Origin Myths: A Catalogue

Here's a quick rundown of the various versions of the hushpuppy origin story that now permeate books, magazines, and the Sargasso Sea of knowledge that is the Internet:

Shut Up, Dog!: The most common explanation is that people on fishing trips would begin cooking their catch, and their hounds would howl and yap in anticipation. Why they had hound dogs with them on a fishing trip isn't explained, but the cooks would fry bits of dough in the fryer and throw them to the puppies to hush them.

It Was Back in 'de Wah: There's a enduring impulse when writing about Southern food to connect everything to the Civil War (boiled peanuts, for instance). In the case of hushpuppies, the story goes, Confederate soldiers making dinner around a campfire heard Yankee soldiers approaching, so they tossed their yapping dogs some fried cornmeal cakes and ordered them to "hush, puppies!"

How About an Old Mammy?: As long as you're making up stuff about the South, why not throw in a few offensive African American stereotypes? One persistent tale claims the dredgings left over after battering and frying catfish were sent down to the slave quarters, where, as one account puts it, "the women added a little milk, egg, and onion and fried it up." (Apparently they had to scrimp on cornmeal but had plenty of milk and eggs lying around.) The fragrance of frying batter drew hungry children and half-starved dogs, who whined for hand-outs, so, "soft-hearted Mammies would dole out the pones, saying, 'Hush childies, hush puppies.'"

Get Thee to a Nunnery: In this version, it took the culinary genius of the French to teach Southerners how to fry cornmeal batter. In the 1720s, French Ursuline nuns newly arrived in New Orleans adopted cornmeal from the local Native Americans and made hand-shaped patties they called croquettes de maise (that is, corn croquettes). From there they spread across the South, though how and when that happened isn't detailed, and one of the many "hush, dog" stories usually gets appended to explain how the French name was lost.

Leaping Lizards: This is perhaps the most bizarre. Cajuns in Southern Louisiana, the story goes, used to take a salamander that they called a "mud puppy," batter it, and deep fry it. "Since eating salamanders ranked low on the social scale," one account explains. "The eaters kept hush about it."

It's downright distressing the extent to which food writers blithely repeat these stories without any effort to determine their veracity. They rattle them off, chuckle a little, then just shrug their shoulders and say, "Oh, well, here's a recipe!"

And I'm not just talking about bloggers or listicle-compilers, from whom you might expect such slapdashery. I'm talking about academic press authors and writers for supposedly serious periodicals like The Atlantic, for whom Regina Charboneau directly abjured any need to dig into the matter. "When it comes to the history of Southern food," she writes, "it is often difficult to separate fact from fiction, but with many Southern dishes the separating is not worth it, since the folklore adds a lot of charm and allure."

"If we blindly accept the folklore about Southern cuisine, we're missing out on real stories that are so much more interesting than a bunch of made-up nonsense."

Balderdash. Separating the fact from the fiction is inherently worth it. There's nothing charming about being wrong. If we blindly accept the folklore about Southern cuisine, we're missing out on real stories that are so much more interesting than a bunch of made-up nonsense. In cases like the old mammy story, we're perpetuating damaging stereotypes, even if we do excise the dialect and other offensive trappings.

Hushpuppies are a fine example of this intellectual laziness in action. So let's look into where they really came from.

Red Horse Bread

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roboppy, Flickr

Southerners have been eating tasty balls of fried cornmeal batter for quite some time, though they didn't call them hushpuppies at first. At least two decades before "hushpuppy" appeared in print, South Carolinians were enjoying what they called "red horse bread." It wasn't red in color, and it had nothing to do with horses. Red horse was one of the common species of fish (along with bream, catfish, and trout) that were caught in South Carolina rivers and served at fish frys along the banks.

Red horse bread was part of the repertoire of Romeo Govan, whom the Augusta Chronicle described in 1903 as "a famous cook of the old regime." Govan lived on the banks of the Edisto River near Cannon's Bridge, about five miles from the town of Bamberg. There he operated his "club house," a frame structure with a neatly swept yard where guests came almost every day during fishing season to feast on "fish of every kind, prepared in every way...and the once eaten, never-to-be-forgotten 'red horse bread.'"

That red horse bread, one newspaper captured, was made by "simply mixing cornmeal with water, salt, and egg, and dropped by spoonfuls in the hot lard in which fish have been fried." Govans may well have originated the name "red horse bread," since its earliest appearances in print are almost always in descriptions of a fish fry that he cooked.

"Romy" Govans, as he was familiarly known, was an African American man born into slavery around 1845. At the end of the Civil War, he settled on a plot of land close to Cannon's Bridge, where he remained the rest of his life. He hosted fish frys and other entertainments that were attended by the most prominent members of the white community, and the tips he earned enabled him to buy the house and surrounding land.

Govan's talents made him, to use the words of one newspaper, "known to every sportsman worthy of the name in South Carolina, he who has entertained governors, senators, and statesmen along these famous banks." That's a little different story than a kindly mammy taking Big House hand-me-downs and using them to quell dogs' hunger pangs.

Romeo Govan died in 1915, but the red horse bread he made famous lived on, and it eventually spread throughout most of South Carolina as the standard accompaniment for a fried fish supper.

From Red Horse to Hush Puppy

The Palmetto State was not the only place where Southerners were frying gobs of cornmeal batter. In 1940, Earl DeLoach, the fishing columnist for the Augusta Chronicle, noted that "'Red Horse' cornbread is often called 'Hush Puppies' on the Georgia side of the Savannah River." They had been calling it that since at least 1927, when the Macon Telegraph reported that the men's bible class of First Methodist Church was holding a fish fry where chairman Roscoe Rouse would "cook the fish and the 'hushpuppies' and make the coffee."

Hush puppies first got national attention thanks to a bunch of tourists fishing down in Florida. In 1934, Pennsylvania's Harrisburg Sunday Courier ran a travel piece about central Florida, where the author fished at Mr. Joe Brown's camp on Lake Harris near Orlando. "Brown can cook," the writer declared, and his menu included fried fish, French fried potatoes, "and a delicious cornbread concoction which Brown called 'Hush Puppies'."

Before long, hushpuppies were popping up in American Cookery, American Legion Magazine, and Boy's Life, where National Scout Commission Dan Beard devoted one of his monthly columns to his fishing trip to Key West. He published the "famous recipe" of Mrs. J. G. Cooper, "an expert on hush-puppies." It called for one quart of white water-ground cornmeal, two eggs, three teaspoons of baking powder, and one teaspoon of salt, which were mixed into a batter and cooked in the same pan as the fish.

As we have seen with other Southern food origin myths, like that of chicken and dumplings, the cutesy tales often undersell the quality of old Southern dishes, treating them as examples of cooks taking inexpensive, humble ingredients and making the best of them. But early accounts of hushpuppies and red horse bread make clear that diners treated this new food not as a cheap substitute but rather as a luxury worthy of admiration.

One reporter who penned an account of the red horse bread at a Romeo Govan fish fry commented, "This was a new bread to the writer, and so delicious, that I beg lovers of the finny tribe to try some." When a correspondent for Modern Beekeeping visited a fish fry, he noted, "Every visiting lady was soon busy with pencil and paper taking down the recipe. (The men were too.)"

Delving into Derivations

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roboppy, Flickr

Let's poke at that term hushpuppy a little and see if we can figure out where it came from. The many explanations of the word's origin seem to start with the name itself and extrapolate a story from there. Some even take it one step further and use the "shut up, dog" tale to explain not only the name but the invention of the food itself. A 1939 article in the Capital Times of Madison, Wisconsin, for instance, attributes the creation to a Florida cook who was tired of hearing the dogs whine when they smelled frying fish. "In desperation to hush the puppies," the writer claims, "she stirred up a batch of corn cakes to feed the hounds, and, sampling them, found them mighty good eating herself."

Sure she did. As we've already seen, deep-fried cornbread is older than the term hushpuppy. And, curiously enough, the term "hushpuppy" is also older than the fried cornmeal treat.

As far back as the 18th century, the phrase was used as a term for silencing someone or covering something up. An 1738 account describes crooked British officials who, when ordered to board and search a vessel suspected of smuggling, "played the Game of Hush-Puppy," delaying several hours to listen to music in the captain's cabin before conducting their search, by which point the crew had hidden the contraband beneath the ship's ballast.

The term jumped the pond to America at some point, and the denotations of cover-up persisted until the early 20th century. Several newspaper accounts of the Teapot Dome scandal in 1924, for instance, noted "we hope the Republicans won't be able to hush puppy the oil deal as easily," and decried the Harding administration's "hush-puppy methods of permitting this scandal to breed and flourish."

The word "hushpuppy" was actually applied to a different type of food before cornbread: gravy or pot liquor. The first usage I've found of it in this context is downright disturbing. An 1879 account in the San Antonio Herald describes a man named Jim Gillet of Lampass Springs, who covered his revolver holster with a human scalp. He had taken it as a trophy after he and a band of Texas Rangers killed eight Native Americans in "a short fight of Winchester rifles against wooden arrows." Some months later, Gillet was "bending over a frying pan at breakfast" when "he trailed the long hair into the 'hush puppy' gravy." He promptly tossed the scalp into the fire and burned it.

'Hush puppy' appears in an only slightly less disgusting context in an 1899 Spanish-American War narrative, in which a soldier comments, "Had breakfast hours ago, you know, and a prime one it was. Scouse, slumgullion, hushpuppy, dope without milk, and all sorts of things." As late as 1939, the journal American Speech defined "hush-puppy" as "Ham gravy," giving as a sample usage, 'I sop my bread with hush-puppy.'"

That usage was also linked to keeping dogs quiet. In 1915, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Senator H. H. Casteel of Mississippi saying that "'pot-liquor' in his section was known as 'hush-puppy' because it kept the 'houn' dawgs' from growling." Whether he meant actual dogs or was referring to a person's stomach isn't exactly clear, but it seems unlikely people would pour bowls of pot liquor for their pets to drink, considering its many uses in the kitchen.

Were actual balls of fried cornmeal batter ever thrown to real dogs to shut them up? I doubt it, especially considering the high esteem in which early eaters of hushpuppies seemed to hold the treat, and you'd have to be an especially generous dog owner to let the hound enjoy such a luxury. It seems far more likely that "hush puppy" was simply a euphemism for stopping the dogs in your stomach from growling.

Hushpuppies Take America

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Dennis Toupin, Flickr

Besides "red horse bread," Southerners had several of other names for what we now call hushpuppies, like "wampus" in Florida, and "red devils" and "three finger bread" in Georgia. But hushpuppy was the term that stuck. By the 1940s, the word had spread up the Carolina coast, and hushpuppies were being served alongside fried fish and steamed oysters at seafood joints catering to beachgoers and tourists heading down U.S. 17 toward Florida.

In 1948, an entrepreneur named Walter Thompson from the tiny coastal town of Swansboro, North Carolina, decided to take hushpuppies nationwide. He concocted a ready-mix blend of cornmeal, flour, and seasoning, packaged it in pasteboard tubes, and branded it Thompson's Fireside Hushpuppy Mix. "Just add water," the label promised. "A delightfully different Southern hot bread." It sold for 30 cents a can.

Thompson ambitiously named his company "The Hushpuppy Corporation of America." He struck deals with distributors throughout the South, but his big score was landing John R. Marple & Co. of Westfield N.J., which became the national distributor for Thompson's Fireside Hushpuppy Mix and promoted it through a series of newspaper and radio ads.

Thompson got out of the business just a year after launching it, selling the Hushpuppy Corporation of America to several investors, who moved it to the larger town of Jacksonville, North Carolina. They kept Thompson's Fireside Hushpuppy Mix on the market for at least two more decades. The Hushpuppy Corporation of America was purchased around 1970 by House-Autry Mills of Four Oaks, North Carolina, which still sells two varieties today: Original Hushpuppy Mix and Hushpuppy Mix with Onion.

And what about those famous hushpuppy shoes? Yes, they were actually named for the Southern fish fry side dish. After World War II, the Wolverine Shoe and Tanning Corporation developed a new method for making brushed pigskin, which they used to make a casual men's shoe with a soft rubber-crepe sole. According to the company's history, one of its salesmen was dining on fried catfish and hushpuppies on a sales trip down South and was told the (supposed) story of the fried fritter's origin. He thought it the perfect name for a casual shoe, which would "quiet your barking dogs." Released in 1957, Hush Puppies were America's first non-athletic casual shoes, and by 1963 one in ten Americans were said to own a pair.

But I would much rather eat a hushpuppy than wear one. These days, no-nonsense hushpuppies can be found as far as Mel's Fish Shack in Los Angeles and Snappy's Shrimp in Chicago. Chefs, as they are wont to do, are cheffing them up, too. At the Early Girl Eatery in Asheville, NC, John Stehling serves broccoli cheddar hushpuppies with creamy garlic dressing, while at the upscale Vintage Twelve in North Myrtle Beach, you can nosh on roasted corn hushpuppies with pimento cheese fondue.

And that's just fine with me. This versatile Southern icon can stand up to any amount of augmentation and fancification. I wouldn't even mind if restaurateurs started calling them "red horse bread" again, just for old time's' sake.

But if you try to tell me that a bunch of nuns or Confederate soldiers invented them, I'm going to tell you to hush.