When you hear the term “hush puppies” there may be two things that come to mind. If you like singing along with Jimmy Buffet on “Come Monday”, it could be a pair of shoes with the Basset Hound, but if you’re from the south and you’re hungry, it’s that sweet, fried cornmeal ball of golden perfection. It’s the fish fry’s carb of choice and plate partner to oysters, shrimp, scallops or just about any sea creature from the southern coast that can be battered and fried. Whether you’re eating at the oyster bar at Sorry Charlie’s or in a booth at Carry Hilliard’s, it isn’t unusual for someone to say, “Why the heck do they call these breaded balls Hush Puppies?” We’ve done some digging and found out that there’s quite a debate about the origin.
It starts with maize (that’s Native American for corn in case you never saw those cooking oil commercials). Several tribes across the Southeast introduced corn to southern cooking. Some say hush puppies could have begun with their cornbread dumpling, and that’s where the debate begins. The most common folklore about the hush puppy name is based on feeding the fritter to dogs so they stop barking. The debate continues to whom was doing the feeding. Some say it was Confederate soldiers who did not want Yankees to find them. Others claim it started with hunters who didn’t want the dog barking to scare away their prey. Insert name here for anyone who wants their hound to shut-up.
Then there’s the Cajun tale that claims to take the name from a mudpuppy, that’s a salamander from southern Louisiana. Since the river lizard wasn’t too tasty, they fried it with cornmeal. Since no one wanted to admit they have dipped so low on the social scale to have resorted to eating fried mudpuppies, they were referred to as hush puppies.
Another debate divides the Lowcountry like the Savannah River. Southern Food writer, Robert Moss says South Carolina lays claim to the culinary home of fried cornmeal, but on that side of the river they called it, “red horse bread.” Redhorse is a type of river fish. According to Moss’s research, cook Romeo Govan, who lived on the banks of the Edisto River, was well-known for serving fried redhorse fish with the fried cornmeal side, red horse bread. Mister Govan’s fish frys received rave reviews and was written up in the Augusta Chronicle in 1903 for his “never-to-be-forgotten red horse bread.”
Maybe the oldest claim of the fried cornmeal delicacy goes all the way back to the 1720’s when New Orleans was a French settlement named Nouvell Orleans. That’s when a group of Ursuline Nuns turned cornmeal into “croquettes de maise.” Then it’s that familiar story, but this time it was a Cajun chef who wanted to keep his dogs quiet.
Now let’s get back to those shoes with the Basset Hound. Here’s a name origin story that we know is true. In 1958, Wolverine Shoe salesman Jim Muir was at a customer’s fish fry in Tennessee. When he asked why those fried corn dough balls are called “Hush Puppies”, his customer replied, “the fried dough was used by farmers to keep their barking dogs quiet.” At the time in 1958, tired feet were known as “barking dogs”. It was then that Mr. Muir thought Hush Puppies would be an excellent name for their new shoes to keep feet comfortable.
Now you have lots to talk about the next time you order hush puppies.