In the instance of hushpuppies, the tale goes that Confederate soldiers were preparing food around a campfire and heard Union soldiers in the vicinity, so they pitched their yelping dogs some fried cornmeal cakes and ordered them to “hush puppies.”
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 mens 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, Pennsylvanias Harrisburg Sunday Courier ran a travel piece about central Florida, where the author fished at Mr. Joe Browns 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 Boys 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.)”
Red Horse Bread
Southerners have been eating tasty balls of fried cornmeal batter for quite some time, though they didnt 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 wasnt 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 Cannons 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 Cannons 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.
Govans 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.” Thats 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.
Hushpuppy Origin Myths: A Catalogue
Heres 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 isnt 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: Theres 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 youre 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 isnt 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.”
Its 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, heres a recipe!”
And Im not just talking about bloggers or listicle-compilers, from whom you might expect such slapdashery. Im 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, were 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. Theres nothing charming about being wrong. If we blindly accept the folklore about Southern cuisine, were 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, were 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 lets look into where they really came from.
When did Hush puppies originate?