The Origin of Hush Puppies

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Hush Puppies: round, savory, deep-fried goodness. A quintessential side to many Southern dishes, the hush puppy is easy to make and even easier to eat. Maybe you know them best as ‘three finger bread’ or as ‘corn dodgers,’ but regardless of the name, the fried ball of cornmeal is a staple of Southern cuisine. 

On the other side of things, the hush puppies’ origin is surprisingly muddled. 

Is it a soup base? Is it really because a dog wouldn’t shut up? Is it just slang for turning a blind-eye? 

No one really knows the exact details about when a little ball of deep-fried cornmeal became such a sensation. It has been shrouded in mystery. 

Luckily for us, there are a number of clues that have been sprinkled throughout America’s complex food history to help us crack the case. Many of these origin stories have reached legendary status, with each one seeming just believable enough. Others, well, are a bit more out there. 

As with any good legend, those of which are relating to the origin of the hush puppy have been a part of one long-running game of telephone. There will be small variations depending on the region, or a completely different story all together. 

Hush puppies – or, at least the colloquial phrase – dates back centuries. Below is an exploration into the origins of hush puppies, what they are, and all of the variations of  fried cornmeal cakes: be ready, there is a lot to unpack here.

What is a Hush Puppy?

Golden-brown, bite-sized, and doughy, a hush puppy is just one of a number of corn cakes with which the South has blessed the world. They are made from a thick cornmeal batter and gently fried in hot oil until the outside becomes crunchy. 

In a way, they are a bit like a savory doughnut-hole. If, that is, a doughnut-hole is served with an array of spicy dipping sauces and alongside smokey barbeques and fish fries.

Contrarily, hush puppies were not originally golden rounds of fried up cornmeal.

Instead, gravy, or pot liquor, was the first to be called hush puppy. Pot liquor – also known by the traditional spelling, ‘potlikker’ – is the remaining liquid that is left over after boiling greens (collard, mustard, or turnip) or beans. It is chocked-full of nutrients and would often be seasoned with salt, pepper, and a handful of smoked meats to make a soup. 

As future Lieutenant Governor of Mississippi Homer Casteel stated at a 1915 rally: pot liquor was called “hush puppy” because it was effective in keeping the “houn’ dawgs from growling.”

It is further worth noting that a hush puppy throughout history has meant much more than mighty good eating. Starting as far back as the 18th century, to ‘hush puppy’ was to silence a person or to cover-up something in a covert manner. The phrase was often used by British soldiers who would turn the blind-eye to smuggling operations at ports. 

Additionally, it was plastered on the covers of numerous 1920s newspapers to speak out about the corrupt bribing of the Harding’s administration’s Teapot Dome Scandal between 1921 and 1923, when officials accepted bribes from oil-companies.

What are Hush Puppies Served With?

Across the American South – or at any authentic Southern food joint – hush puppies are served as a side dish. Generally, hush puppies will be also served with a dipping sauce or with cheesy grits. (No, there is no such thing as ‘too savory’)! They are a compliment to some smokey barbecue or any of the main show-stoppers at a fish fry.  

For example, river fish like catfish and bass are the most common battered and deep-fried fish you would find at a classic Southern fish fry. In the meantime, traditional barbeque is slow-smoked pork or brisket, and you haven’t lived until you have tried it at least once.

What is the Origin Behind Hush Puppies?

The delicious cornbread concoction we have come to call a “hush puppy” has its roots in the Southern United States.  As with many foods identified as belonging to the Southern U.S. (and throughout much of North America, really), hush puppies originated from local Native Americans: having some variation of corn croquettes with other fish fry delicacies was certainly not a new thing. 

After all, corn was one of the vital Three Sister Crops – corn, beans, and squash – that were grown by Natives whose homes and cultures were established around the fertile lands of the Mississippi River System. Meanwhile, the grinding of corn into a fine meal was a long-practiced method of food preparation, as well as using alkaline salt to make hominy. 

Over time, both ancient methods were adopted into the epicenter of today’s Southern food.

It is likely that the above techniques were the inspiration behind the French Ursuline nuns in New France in 1727, who developed a treat that they called croquettes de maise. A croquette is derived from the French word croquer, which means “to crunch,” since the outside was crunchy and the inside remained doughy. 

(Good examples of croquettes include fish sticks and french fried potatoes).

While it is undeniable that there are Native American influences in the hush puppy of today, there is no single person that is really credited with developing the modern side. That is, unless you bring up the inimitable Romeo “Romy” Govan.

Who is Romeo Govan?

Romeo Govan, a famous culinary master known for his “red horse cornbread,” was known to make magic out of local Redfish, also known as Red Drum or Channel Bass, that was found in abundance in South Carolina rivers. He also perfected the art of cooking up notoriously boney River Redhorse, which is what famously gave red horse bread its name. 

Govan was born into slavery in 1845 in Orangeberg County, South Carolina and subsequently freed in 1865 following Union occupation of his county. Sometime in 1870, Govan began catering a myriad of successful events, from hosting a fish fry on the riverbank to catering soirees for government officials: at all events – besides his fried fish and catfish stew – his red horse bread wowed the audience. 

In fact, Govan was so in-demand that he would host at the club house on his residence at the bank of the Edisto River nearly every day throughout the year’s fishing season.

Essentially hush puppies by a different name, Govan’s red horse bread became a sensation in South Carolina. Other similar delicacies could be found in Georgia and Florida, though by 1927 they were known popularly as hush puppies. In an 1940 edition of the Augusta Chronicle, fishing columnist Earl DeLoach notes that South Carolina’s adored red horse bread “is often called hushpuppies on the Georgia side of the Savannah River.”

As the father of South Carolina’s fish fry scene and the creator of red horse bread, Romeo Govan is credited with being the the brain behind the hush puppies of today. The ingredients and steps are nearly identical: “cornmeal with water, salt, and egg, and dropped by spoonfuls in the hot lard in which fish have been fried.” 

As a matter of fact, the largest separation between the recipes comes when frying cornmeal batter today, since most hush puppy recipes call for peanut oil or vegetable oil instead of using the leftover fish grease in the same frying pan.

How did Hush Puppies get their Name?

Hush puppies may be fun to say, but it is worth wondering just how the fried cornmeal batter got its name! Which, as it turns out, is a hot topic. 

There is variation with who did what, where and when everything exactly took place, but one thing is certain: somebody really wanted some dogs to hush up – and quick. 

Basically, when push comes to shove, what is better to quiet howling dogs than to give them some piping-hot, fried hush puppies?

Scrambling Confederate Soldiers

This story is one of the handful of legends surrounding the hush puppy legacy, and it reportedly took place during the American Civil War (1861-1865). 

After four years of conflict, the Southern economy was in shambles and left many searching for an inexpensive way to get food on the table. Cornbread – in all of its many forms – was relatively cheap and versatile and became a Southern staple during and after the war.

So, one night, a group of Confederate soldiers making dinner around a fire noticed the sound of Union soldiers fast approaching. To quiet their barking dogs, the men tossed the peeved pups some of their fried cornmeal batter and instructed them to “Hush puppies!”

What happened after that is up to the imagination. It can be speculated that at least some men lived to tell the tale: that the Rebels successfully hushed their yapping dogs and escaped notice of the incoming Yankee soldiers. 

After all, who else would have made it out and thought to tell the world the new name for the spherical corn cake?

A Risky Distraction

According to an Antebellum-era legend (1812-1860), hush puppies may have gotten their name when individuals attempting to escape slavery needed to keep any lingering watchdogs silent. Cornmeal batter would be fried and, when needed, tossed to the dogs as a distraction.

As of the 1860 census – the final one taken before the onslaught of the Civil War – there were an estimated 3,953,760 people enslaved across 15 slaveholding states. 

Thanks to a Fishing Trip

As fate would have it, one of the most well-known origin stories of hush puppies comes from fishermen. When those who returned from their fishing trips started to fry up their latest catch, their accompanying dogs would be doing what dogs love to do: beg for table-food.

So, to quiet down their hungry dogs, the fishermen would fry up corn batter droplets to satiate the pups. 

For a clever explanation as to why hush puppies are frequently served as a side at fish fries, this totally makes sense. The only real question crops up when one starts to wonder why there were dogs on a fishing trip in the first place. 

All for Some Quiet Hunting

Akin to the tale above, this next origin story has to do with some variation of an outdoor sport. Instead of fishing this time around, we’ll be focusing on some old fashioned hunting, hounds and all. 

As the story goes, hunters would lug around these fried fritters and give them to their hunting dogs when they needed them to be quiet. This would generally be the case in particularly tense situations, like when taking aim or when stalking – can’t have man’s best friend throwing you off your A-game, after all.

Oh, and of course: they ordered the pooches to “Hush puppies.”

Might as well be Mud Puppies

This story specifically originates out of Southern Louisiana where there is a salamander affectionately known as a mud puppy; similarly, they are also known as a water dog. These funky aquatic creatures hide beneath stones and debris, and are actually one of the few salamanders that are capable of producing audible sound. 

Although they do not bark, they do grunt!

Apparently, these mud puppies would be captured, battered, and fried. Such lowly food was not meant to be talked about amongst the neighbors, granting them the charming moniker, ‘hush puppies.’

Half-Starved Dogs and Good Ol’ Cookin’

This story is straight from Georgia, where a cook grew tired of the whining persistence of hungry dogs seeking out her fried fish and croquettes. So, the sweet lady gave the dogs some of her cornmeal cakes and bid them to “Hush puppies.” Talk about some Southern hospitality!

A similar story is found a bit further south, as a Florida cook wanted to quiet some hungry dogs begging for her frying fish. She whipped up a basic cornmeal mixture and fried up some cakes to give to the pouting pooches.

Rumbling Stomachs

The final tale of many comes from a collection of hungry children, bothering their mothers (or nannies, in some tellings) for a meal before dinner was finished. As anyone would, the caregiver decided to fry cornmeal batter up into a crunchy croquette to keep the children at bay until dinnertime finally wheeled around.

Here, the idea is that ‘puppy’ is a term of endearment for small children and that hushing them would stop them from pestering their parent – for enough time for them to get dinner wrapped up, at least.

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