The True Origin Of Hushpuppies

If foods evolved in Darwinian fashion, it might be easy to guess the origins of the hushpuppy species. Those delectable deep-fried balls of cornmeal would have probably evolved from the coat of a quiet breed of corn dog. Presumably, that breed would be the Basenji corn dog, named for the famed "Barkless Dog" that hunts in silence and mostly yodels instead of barks. Would that theory imply that hushpuppies are sentient balls of corn dog "fur?" Maybe. Does it pass the smell test? No, but it would ace a taste test. Besides, there are plenty of other unsupported origin stories that people actually seem to believe, which prompted Serious Eats to make a stink about it.

A different breed of bogus backstory that was apparently circulated in earnest asserts that the term "hushpuppy" comes from Cajuns in Louisiana who enjoyed battering and deep-frying a type of salamander dubbed a "mud puppy" but didn't enjoy others knowing about it. Allegedly, the breaded amphibians signaled low social status, so "eaters kept hush about [them]."

Other apocryphal accounts are more on the nose. One explanation claims that during the Civil War, alleging that Confederate soldiers tossed cornmeal to their loudmouthed dogs and uttered, "Hush, puppies!" when they heard Union troops coming. A different version alleges that when people on fishing trips cooked their catch, they plied their excited pups with fried dough so they would pipe down. All of these stories are fishy, but the truth might be the fishiest tale of all.

Hushpuppies evolved from red horses

Turns out hushpuppies started off as a whole different animal. Initially known as "red horse bread," these fried cornmeal balls took their name from the Red Horse fish found in South Carolina rivers. These fried delights have long been a fixture of Southern fish frys. While no originator is named, the dish is closely associated with renowned 19th-century cook Romeo Govan, who may have named it red horse bread. A former slave who gained his freedom after the Civil War, Govan had a framed structure called the "club house," which served as a hub for feasts during fishing season. His "never-to-be-forgotten 'red horse bread'" consisted of salt, egg, and cornmeal cooked in the same lard used to fry the fish.

Apparently, one state's equine is another's canine because South Carolina's "red horse bread" became Georgia's "hushpuppy." Georgians had applied "hushpuppies" to fried cornmeal balls since 1927 or earlier. But the word is much older. In the 18th century, the British used "hushpuppy" to describe silencing someone or concealing something. Before it referred to fried cornmeal in America, it meant pot liquor or gravy. Serious Eats cites a 1915 San Francisco Chronicle article in which a Mississippi Senator said "'pot-liquor' in his section was known as 'hush-puppy' because it kept the 'houn' dawgs' from growling." That may have been a metaphor for tummy rumbling. So maybe "hushpuppies" describes food that shuts up hungry stomachs.