The True Story of Hushpuppies, a Genuine Carolina Treat

No barking dogs required

Hushpuppies are a menu staple at Carolina seafood restaurants, like Locals Oyster Bar in Raleigh
Hushpuppies are a menu staple at Carolina seafood restaurants, like Locals Oyster Bar in Raleigh

By Robert F. Moss

Once a fairly obscure Southern side dish, hushpuppies have become something of a staple in seafood restaurants across the country. At The Fish Box in Seattle, fried halibut, salmon, and catfish dinners include two complimentary golden brown hushpuppies. The Mermaid Inn in New York City offers a side of hushpuppies with corn and chile remoulade for just seven bucks—not bad for Manhattan.

The crisp fried cornmeal orbs are starting to be served in more and more barbecue joints outside the South, too. When I was out in Salt Lake City this summer, I was surprised when I ordered a platter of ribs and brisket at R&R Barbecue and discovered it came with two ping pong ball-sized hushpuppies nestled against the little plastic tub of mac ‘n cheese.

Hushpuppies come alongside the ribs and brisket at R&R Barbecue in Salt Lake City, Utah
Hushpuppies come alongside the ribs and brisket at R&R Barbecue in Salt Lake City, Utah

Of course, here in the Carolinas we’ve been eating hushpuppies alongside fried seafood and barbecue for decades. In fact, the Carolinas can proudly claim to be the birthplace of this now-iconic American food.

A hushpuppy is a simple treat—thick cornmeal batter dropped in spheres (or nuggets or fingers) into hot oil and fried till crisp and brown. But the origin of the name . . . well, that’s where it all goes to the dogs.

What’s in a Name?

Over the years, any number of would-be culinary historians have taken a stab at explaining the origin of the oddly-named hushpuppy. They’ve come up with an array of tales that range from silly to stupid.

The most frequently-repeated story involves fishing expeditions where anglers return to camp and start frying their catch over the fire. The aroma sets their hounds to howling and yapping in anticipation, so the cooks fry up bits of cornmeal batter and toss them to the dogs to hush them. I have no idea why people would take a bunch of hunting dogs on a fishing trip, but that’s how the story goes.

But remember we’re talking about a Southern food here, so many folks feel compelled to link its origins—likely every other dish or recipe in the South—to the Civil War, since that’s the only event of any significance that has happened in these parts. Many learned historians, therefore, have transferred the hushpuppy origin story from fishermen to soldiers.

A band of Confederate troops, the typical story in this line goes, were cooking dinner around a campfire one night when they heard Yankee soldiers approaching. Thinking quickly, they fried up some cornmeal cakes, tossed them to their raucous dogs, and ordered, "hush, puppies!"

Not all Southern food authorities buy this story. A vocal camp insists that all Southern recipes must have their roots not in the Civil War but rather on cotton plantations back in the antebellum days. One account that has been cut-and-pasted onto any number of Internet sites (I can’t figure out who originally wrote it) asserts that thrifty cooks in plantation houses would send excess catfish dredging “down to the slave quarters.” Though cornmeal was in short supply, they apparently had plenty of dairy and other ingredients on hand, for “the women added a little milk, egg and onion and fried it up.”

Pre-Internet variants of this story take the extra step of weaving in a few racist stereotypes. In a 1947 syndicated column, for instance, Clementine Paddleford cited no less of an authority than W. W. Pierson, the dean of the Graduate School at the University of North Carolina. The learned dean explained that when cooks fried cornmeal batter, the aroma led “hungry children and half-starved dogs” to whine for handouts, so “softhearted Mammies would dole out the pones, saying, ‘Hush childies, hush puppies.’”

Hushpuppies are menu fixtures at seafood restaurants like Leon's Oyster Shop in Charleston
Hushpuppies are menu fixtures at seafood restaurants like Leon's Oyster Shop in Charleston

Such explanations doesn’t sit well with Europhiles, who insist that a bunch of Southern bumpkins would never have figured out how to fry cornmeal batter on their own. Instead, they credit the culinary genius of the French, specifically a group of Ursuline nuns who arrived in New Orleans in the 1720s and were forced to make do with cornmeal from the local Native Americans. The women made a batter and hand-shaped it into patties they called croquettes de maise, and the recipe quickly spread across the South—and somehow started being used to hush dogs, the same as in all the other stories.

It’s a shame that none of the writers who blithely repeat these tales see fit to dig into the historical record and try to substantiate them—say, by finding a single instance of a source in the 19th century that calls fried corn bread “hushpuppies”. The standard procedure is to rattle off two or three conflicting stories, shrug the shoulders, and say, “I guess we’ll never know . . . but here’s a recipe!”

The real story is out there, and it’s is far more interesting and informative than a bunch of silliness about soldiers, nuns, and barking dogs. And it all starts along the banks of the Edisto River in the Midlands of South Carolina.

Romeo Govan and Red Horse Bread

Sometime around the turn of the 20th century, guests at South Carolina fish fries were introduced to a brand new delicacy called red horse bread.

No, it wasn’t red in color, and nobody was feeding it to horses to shut them up. The name refers to a type of fish, for in the early 20th century red horse was one of the many species of river fish—like catfish, bream, black bass, and shad—that were caught by South Carolinians and cooked at big fish frys on the banks.

In the early years of the 20th century, the undisputed king of the Edisto fish fry was an African American man named Romeo Govan. Born into slavery in the 1840s, Govan married a woman named Sylvia (or Silvy) Jennings shortly after Emancipation, and they settled on a plot of land near Cannon’s Bridge on the banks of the Edisto River, about five miles east of Bamberg. They lived there the rest of their lives.

Initially, Govan leased the land and farmed it, but he soon began supplementing his income by staging fish fries for local civic clubs and political organizations. By the turn of the 20th century, he had constructed what he called his “club house,” a frame structure with a neatly swept yard where guests could come feast on “fish of every kind, prepared in every way.” As an accompaniment, he served what the Augusta Chronicle described in 1903 as “the once eaten, never-to-be-forgotten ‘red horse bread.’”

Red horse bread first wowed diners along the banks of the Edisto River in South Carolina
Red horse bread first wowed diners along the banks of the Edisto River in South Carolina (mogollon_1 via Flikr under CC BY 2.0)

A few years later, a correspondent for the Bamberg Herald noted that Govan’s famous bread 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.” The ingredients may have been simple, but the accounts of Govan’s red horse bread make clear that his guests along the riverside found them a remarkable delicacy, and one that was new to them, too.

“Ye gods and little fishes!” the Bamberg Herald’s correspondent declared. “This was a new bread to the writer, and so delicious, that I beg lovers of the finny tribe to try some.” By 1908, Govan was hosting fish fries almost every day of fishing season, and the State newspaper described his guests as “ranging from governors, attorney generals, bishops, down to the candidates for coroner, etcetera.” Though he never directly asked for payment, the gratuities he received for these events allowed him to purchase the land outright by 1910.

Romeo Govan died of Bright’s Disease in 1915, but his talents as a cook left a substantial legacy to his family. His wife Sylvia sold part of their land along the Edisto river in 1918 for $2,500. Though the couple never had children, Sylvia left another 50 acres along the river to her grandnephew, Paul Rickenbacker, when she died in 1924.

Red horse bread lived on after Romeo Govan and became a fixture at South Carolina fish fries. It’s quite possible that Govan himself was the one who coined the name, since its earliest appearances in print are almost all connected with one of his fish fries. By the 1920s, though, accounts of fish fries throughout Bamberg, Orangeburg, and Dorchester counties mention the presence of red horse bread. The fried cornmeal orbs made it as far west as Greenwood by World War II, and you can still find a few old timers in the middle part of South Carolina who call hushpuppies “red horse bread” to this day.

From Horse to Puppy

South Carolinians were not the only ones to discover the glories of frying cornmeal batter in fish grease. Similar creations could be found in various parts of Georgia and Florida, but they were called by a different name. Fishing columnist Earl DeLoach observed in the Augusta Chronicle in 1940 that “‘Red Horse’ cornbread is often called ‘Hush Puppies’ on the Georgia side of the Savannah River.”

That rival term emerged sometime in the 1920s, a good two decades after Romeo Govan gained fame for his red horse bread along the Edisto. In 1927, the men’s bible class of First Methodist Church in Macon staged a fish fry, and the Macon Telegraph noted that chairman Roscoe Rouse would “cook the fish and the ‘hushpuppies’ and make the coffee.” By the early 1930, hushpuppies were regularly being served at political gatherings near Tallahassee, including a rally in May 1931 at Wakulla Springs where the spread consisted of “several hundred pounds of mullet, fresh from the gulf, and other fish fry delicacies, including ‘hush-puppies.’”

The term appears in quotation marks in those accounts, indicating that it wasn’t yet widely know. The funny name soon caught the ear of tourists from up North visiting Florida on fishing excursions. The author of a 1934 travel feature for the Harrisburg Sunday Courier stopped by Joe Brown’s fishing camp on Lake Harris near Orlando and was treated to a spread of fried fish, French fried potatoes, “and a delicious cornbread concoction which Brown called ‘Hush Puppies’.”

Soon recipes for hushpuppies were appearing in the pages of magazines like American Cookery and Boy’s Life, in which National Boy Scout Commissioner Dan Beard published the “famous recipe” of “an expert on hush-puppies,” Mrs. J. G. Cooper, whom he met during a fishing trip to Key West. Cooper’s recipe called for white stone-ground cornmeal, eggs, baking powder, and salt mixed into a batter and fried in the same pan as the fish.

The Absurd Conjecture

There is an entire category of food origin myths that I like to call “absurd conjectures.” I borrowed the phrase from the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary. Its entry on “barbecue” notes a popular story that claims the word derives from the French barbe-a-queue, or “beard to tail”—a reference to the early practice of cooking whole pigs. The editors curtly dismiss this notion as “an absurd conjecture suggested merely by the sound of the word.”

The same can be said about the many supposed derivations of hushpuppy. Most explanations seem to have started with the name itself and from there spun a tale of how the food might have come to be called that.

The earliest effort in this line that I can find appeared in 1933 in an Associated Press story on the arrival of the cotton harvest in Mississippi. The writer catalogs the chants and songs of African American laborers then closes by describing a post-harvest meal of fried fish, baked yams, and “hushpuppies.” These, the writer explains are “a step-child to a corn pone. Years ago when the hounds and the puppies would whine for food, the folks would toss them a bit of home-cook bread. The puppies would hush, so they called the bread ‘hushpuppies.’”

Other writers took this fairly mundane explanation and punched it up a little. In 1939 a reporter for the Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin, attributed the hushpuppy’s invention to the improvisations of a Florida cook made frantic by the whining of dogs while she fried a batch of fish. “In desperation to hush the puppies,” the story asserts, “she stirred up a batch of corn cakes to feed the hounds, and, sampling them, found them mighty good eating herself.” From there it was only natural that others would work in a few Civil War soldiers or plantation mammies to give the tale a suitable Southern twang.

But here’s the catch: not only were people deep frying cornmeal batter long before they called it a hushpuppy, they were also using the word for other things long before it arrived at the fish fry.

Originally, “hush puppy” was a slang term for silencing someone or covering up misdeeds. A 1738 account in a London magazine described crooked British port officials boarding a smuggler’s ship in colonial Ontario, where they “played the Game of Hush-Puppy” by stopping off at the captain’s cabin to be “serenaded several Hours with the Captain’s Musick” while the crew hid the contraband beneath the ship’s ballast.

The term was used in a similar context until well into the 20th century. Newspaper accounts of the Teapot Dome scandal in the 1920s expressed outrage at the Harding administration’s “hush-puppy methods of permitting this scandal to breed and flourish” and insisted that “the Republicans won’t be able to hush puppy the oil deal.”

Fried cornbread wasn’t the first food to be called “hush puppy,” either. The term was used as a nickname for gravy or pot liquor as early as 1879, when the San Antonio Herald noted that the breakfast campfire of a band of Texas Rangers included a pan of “‘hush puppy’ gravy.” In 1899, a soldier in the Spanish-American war described the troops’ breakfast fare as “scouse, slumgullion, hushpuppy, dope without milk, and all sorts of things.” A 1912 story in the Washington Evening Post described a western cowboy cook named Frosty who “could cook frijoles and hush-puppy, and make sinkers, or moss agates, or death balls, or whatever you call biscuits, as good as the best.”

Nobody claimed this gravy was given to dogs to hush them, but it was said to quiet dogs of a different sort. In 1915, Senator H. H. Casteel of Mississippi explained in a speech that “‘pot-liquor’ in his section was known as ‘hush-puppy’ because it kept the ‘houn’ dawgs’ from growling.” The hounds in this case seem to be the metaphorical ones growling in a diner’s stomach, a much smarter use of pot liquor than throwing it to the dogs.

Balls of fried cornmeal batter would quiet the dogs in your stomach, too, especially while waiting for the fish to fry. It seems far more likely to me that “hush puppy” originated as a clever euphemism for stopping a growling stomach than it did for pacifying actual dogs. That’s still a conjecture, but it’s not totally absurd.

Going Deep

We should note that Southerners had been frying corn meal batter in any number of forms since the colonial days—corn pone, johnny cakes, hoe cakes, corn dodgers. The 20th century innovation called red horse bread or hushpuppies was something new, though.

The older forms were pan fried—that is, cooked over a fire in a frying pan with a shallow layer of fat or grease in the bottom. The newer creations that so wowed guests at river-side fish fries were deep fried, meaning cooked in a vessel filled with enough hot oil or melted fat so that the orbs would float in the liquid and, effectively, be cooked on all sides at once.

Deep-fat frying had increased in popularity toward the end of the 19th century, as deep cast iron pans became widely available and mass-produced lard and lard substitutes (like peanut oil and the early shortening brand Cottolene) made frying fats more affordable.

Orbs of deep-fried cornmeal batter were given other nicknames in the early days—“wampus” in Florida, “red devils” and “three finger bread” in Georgia—but hushpuppy was the term that stuck, and after World War II it eclipsed red horse bread as the primary name in the Carolinas, too.

By the 1940s, hushpuppies had crossed over from outdoor fish fries and become staples at the “fish houses” that served fried fish and steamed oysters up and down the Carolina coast. These operations catered to beachgoers at ocean resorts and tourists heading to Florida down U.S. Highway 17. Further inland, they became staples at “fish camps” along the rivers of the Piedmont, where mill workers and their families would fish in the afternoons and pay to have their catch cleaned and fried for dinner.

From there, hushpuppies crossed over to barbecue restaurants to become a staple Piedmont North Carolina barbecue side. The legendary Warner Stamey, who taught an entire generation of Piedmont restaurateurs the Lexington style of barbecue, helped popularize the new menu item. “My dad was great friends with the fellow who ran a fish camp called the Friendly Road Inn here in Greensboro,” Keith Stamey told John T. Edge for Southern Belly: A Food Lovers Companion (2002). “And I’m pretty sure he picked up on it there. . . . I wouldn’t say my dad was the first, but I would say he was one of the first.”

Inspired by a local fish camp, Warner Stamey helped popularize hushpuppies as a barbecue side item
Inspired by a local fish camp, Warner Stamey helped popularize hushpuppies as a barbecue side item

Indeed, Kennedy’s Barbecue in Greensboro began advertising “Barbecue, Brunswick stew, slaw and hush puppies” in 1949, some two years before the Friendly Road Inn opened. Regardless who first put the two items together, though, North Carolinians quickly discovered that a basket of hushpuppies were the perfect accompaniment for a tray of chopped barbecue and ketchup-laced red slaw.

Going Big Time

These days, hushpuppies can be found far beyond the borders of the Carolinas, and we can thank an enterprising North Carolinian for that.

Just after World War II, Walter M. Thompson Jr. was operating Thompson’s Fireside, a fish house and tourist camp near the tiny coastal town of Swansboro. He advertised his restaurant as “The Home of the World’s Finest Shore Dinner,” and soon he started selling a ready-mix version of his hushpuppy batter that blended cornmeal, flour, and seasoning. “Just add water,” the label for Thompson’s Fireside Hushpuppy Mixture declared. “A delightfully different Southern hot bread.” It sold for 30 cents a can.

Thompson had big ambitions for his hushpuppy mix. In 1947, he put his Thompson’s Fireside restaurant up for sale, advertising that he would “sacrifice to secure more finances for Hushpuppy Industry.” He gave his company a grand name—The Hushpuppy Corporation of America—and quickly inked distribution deals throughout the South.

Thompson’s big coup came in 1948, when he signed on New Jersey-based John R. Marple & Co. to be the national distributor for his Fireside Hushpuppy Mix. Soon Marple & Co. was advertising the product on radio and in newspapers across the country. And, yes, this being the 1940s, the label of the can featured a drawing of an African American woman in a red headscarf. You can’t sell Southern food without an old mammy.

Advertisement for Thompson's Fireside Hushpuppy Mix
Advertisement for Thompson's Fireside Hushpuppy Mix (Richmond Times Dispatch, May 6, 1949)

Back in the Carolinas, local newspapers were amused that anyone could make money selling something so simple as hushpuppy mix to a bunch of Yankees. The Anderson Daily Mail declared, “We have just never thought of Carolina hushpuppies . . . as being commercial propositions” but lauded the “enterprising gentleman” from Swansboro who “puts a mixture of white cornmeal and other ingredients in a pasteboard tube, slaps a trucky label on it and sells it in New York to city folk.” The Greensboro Daily News joined in the fun, relating the story of the Hushpuppy Corporation of America and asking, “Why didn’t we think of that?”

By 1949 the Wilmington Star-News was reporting that Thompson’s Fireside Hushpuppy Mix was being sold in every state in the union and had been shipped to numerous countries overseas, including a package that was mailed by request to the U. S. ambassador at the American Embassy in Norway.

Thompson cashed in that year and sold the Hushpuppy Corporation of America to a group of investors from nearby Jacksonville, North Carolina, who promptly moved the manufacturing facility there and expanded its capacity. Their pioneering hushpuppy mix remained on the market until around 1970, when the Hushpuppy Corporation of America was purchased by House-Autry Mills. Now operating out of Four Oaks, North Carolina, House-Autry still sells its Original Recipe Hushpuppy Mix with Onion in grocery stories across the country.

Back on the Horse

And so there you have. It may not be as cute and dramatic as panicked soldiers or desperate plantation cooks trying to silence a pack of dogs, but the true story of hushpuppies has more than enough twists and turns to be compelling.

It’s also an example of the lasting damage caused by the reflexive instinct of food writers in the 20th century to cast every tale of Southern food in the Old South tropes of plantations or the Civil War. Hushpuppies are a creation of a later era, and it’s a shame that the name of the person who popularized them with Carolinians—an enterprising man who drew upon his talents as a cook and a host to achieve prosperity and independence for his family—was almost lost to history.

I hereby appeal to the restaurateurs of the Carolinas to reclaim the legacy of Romeo Govan and start calling hushpuppies by their proper name: the once eaten, never-to-be-forgotten red horse bread.

This story is part of our “Carolina Icons” series, which traces the history of the signature dishes of North and South Carolina

About the Author

Robert F. Moss

Robert F. Moss is the Contributing Barbecue Editor for Southern Living magazine, Restaurant Critic for the Post & Courier, and the author of numerous books on Southern food and drink, including The Lost Southern Chefs, Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Southern Spirits: 400 Years of Drinking in the American South, and Barbecue Lovers: The Carolinas. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina.