Growing up in the South, we used to head out to the “Catfish House” quite often. Funny that we would fry our own catfish as often as we would go out for it, but probably what kept us going back was not only the convenience of having someone bring you never-ending baskets of freshly fried catfish, but the hush puppies that came with it. When you sat down to order your first batch of catfish (it was usually “all you can eat”) for some odd reason the first batch would always take a long time, while the hush puppies would come out almost immediately. Of course, this wasn’t odd at all. As my uncle would say “That’s how they get ya!” You just could not sit there and not chow down on those irresistible balls of fried corn meal batter, potentially filling up before you “eat all the catfish you can eat.” After the first batch of catfish was consumed, the rest came out like clock-work. Funny how that works.
There is a lot of heated debate, or maybe not so heated, as to which Southern state originated hush puppies. Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky…who knows, and who really cares? All Southerners can lay claim to them, as well as to having the best recipe! As to how they got their name, there is one story that seems to be the most popular.
The Most Common Hush Puppies Naming Story
Men out hunting and fishing would often have a fish fry right by the water, cooking up their fresh caught fish for dinner pretty much as soon as it came out of the water. There is no better way to eat fish than this, whether fresh-water or salt-water. Fish cannot be too fresh. Of course, they would coat the fish in cornmeal to fry it. The hunting-dogs, smelling the fish, would get in a frenzy, whining and making a racket, begging for their share. So, the men would fry up little balls of leftover cornmeal and toss it at the dogs saying “Hush, puppy!” It’s as likely a story as any.
Of course, this story not only attributes the name, but the invention of hush puppies to happenstance and necessity. They were a “toss off,” which, for something that is deemed to be so essential with any fish fry, doesn’t quite sit right. There are other stories as to how, regardless of the name, they came to the South.
One such story attributes them to the original settling of Nouvelle Orléans, which became New Orleans. A group of nuns came there from France, and used cornmeal to make a dish they brought with them, which they called croquettes de maise. The croquettes became popular throughout the South, and the name hush puppy came later. The naming has often been attributed to a slave, who pretty much did the same thing the hunters did in the story above, the difference being that the croquettes were being cooked up to go with fried fish, not just to quiet the dogs.
Cross Creek Cookery, by the Author of The Yearling
Hush puppies have sometimes been attributed to Majorie Kinnan Rawlings, the Pulitzer Prize winning writer of The Yearling. She wrote what is considered one of the most important Southern cookbooks, Cross Creek Cookery, written after she moved to Cross Creek, Florida. She wrote there also Cross Creek, South Moon Under and The Yearling.
In Cross Creek Cookery (1942), Rawlings described the origins of many Southern cooking staples, including hush puppies However, she was describing foods that were already an entrenched part of the South, and she was also telling stories about them that were passed down. The importance of her cookbook may have lent new popularity to these foods, but she did not invent them, of course. In fact, her maid, Idella Parker, can probably take credit for most of the recipes, although the book gives her credit for three. Regardless, below is what Rawlings had to say about hush-puppies, telling the same story as above, except with embellishment.
Hush-puppies [sic] are in a class by themselves. They are concomitant of the hunt, above all of the fishing trip. Fresh-caught fish without hush-puppies are as man without woman, a beautiful woman without kindness, law without policemen. The story goes that they derived their name from old fishing and hunting expeditions, when the white folks ate to repletion, the Negro help ate beyond repletion 1, and the hunting dogs, already fed, smelled the delectable odors of human rations and howled for the things the remaining cornmeal patties to the dogs, calling, “Hush, puppies!” —and the dogs, devouring them, could ask no more of life, and hushed.
Yes, this woman won a Nobel Prize. A bit dramatic but that’s the way folks wrote in those days.
The recipe in Cross Creek Cookery was just standard hush puppies with minced onion. The best ones, to me, have bits of onion, peppers, and maybe even a little tender sweet corn. Some Southerners get all precious about hush puppies and Rawlings did as well. She claimed that you could not add corn (and I presume, anything else) to a hush puppy and still call it a hush puppy, which, is a bit of an odd assertion for something that is called a hush puppy and which is nothing more than a fried corn meal dough ball. To each his or her own, but no one likes a pedant.
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