09 December 2008

Hushpuppies (no, not the shoes)

Yes, Hushpuppies (capital H) are a brand of shoes. But in a large part of the United States, hushpuppies (lowercase H) are a kind of fried cornbread. The unofficial etymology of the term has to do with cooking around a campfire and throwing some of the fried cornbread to the "pups" to keep them quiet. Who knows?

In my home town there is a very big seafood restaurant called, of all names, the Sanitary Fish Market & Restaurant. The restaurant's web site explains the name (but with quite a few typos). My maternal grandfather, who died in 1939, worked with the two men who founded the restaurant. Both of them were still active in the business in the 1960s and 1970s, when I was growing up.

The Sanitary (a.k.a Tony's among local people) is famous for its hushpuppies. Here is the recipe for the restaurant's fried cornbread that you will find on the Sanitary web site.

Tar Heels are people from North Carolina, as Sooners
are from Oklahoma and Hoosiers are from Indiana.

And here is my mother's recipe. It's not very different:

Fantastic Hushpuppies

Mix together:

2 cups coarse cornmeal
1 tsp. salt
1 Tbs. sugar
1 pinch baking soda
1 egg
1 cup buttermilk

Add enough water to the mixture to make a very stiff batter. Cut the batter with a wet spoon and drop in hot oil. Cook the hushpuppies until they're golden brown. Dip the spoon in water each time to keep the batter from sticking to it. Serve the hushpuppies with butter.
Some people who are new to eating hushpuppies have a a hard time understanding that they are a kind of bread. You don't normally eat them with ketchup or tartar sauce. They do not replace a vegetable or French-fried potatoes. They do replace other kinds of bread.

Hushpuppies shaped by hand rather than dropped from a spoon

Hushpuppies surely date back to a time or developed in situations when people didn't have easy access to an oven for bread-baking. You can heat a pan or pot of oil on a campfire, for example, and cook hushpuppies just fine that way. If you are on an overnight fishing trip, you can cook your catch in cornmeal and make hushpuppies to enjoy with the fish.

Some cooks put minced or chopped onion in their hushpuppy batter. Others, like many people in eastern North Carolina, are purists about such things. But personally, I admit that some onion in the hushpuppies can be pretty good. My mother lists adding 1 or 2 tablespoons of finely minced onion as a variation on her recipe.

You can substitute plain yogurt or a 50-50 mixture of milk and yogurt for the buttermilk (buttermilk being hard to find in France). Or you can add a tablespoon of distilled vinegar (vinaigre blanc) to a cup of milk and use that in the place of buttermilk.

Hot hushpuppies

Some recipes might include some amount of wheat flour in the hushpuppy batter. I can't see why you'd want to put that in. Don't use cornmeal that's too coarsely ground, however, like French semoule de maïs, or the batter won't hold its shape. You'll end up with a fryer full of burned crumbs instead of nicely shaped, golden hushpuppies. Use farine de maïs if you're in France.

Some cooks make golf-ball shaped hushpuppies. I think longer, log-shaped hushpuppies, like the ones in the pictures above, are better.

In North Carolina, we eat hushpuppies with fried seafood, but we also eat them with barbecued pork, which is dressed with a vinegar and red pepper sauce. And always hot, with butter. Don't eat too many!

Hushpuppies with fried shrimp

In his book Classical Southern Cooking (1995), Damon Lee Fowler says this about hushpuppies:
These morsels of fried cornmeal batter are something of an enigma. They are so commonplace in Southern cookery nowadays that it seems as if they have always been around. There is even a popular legend, supported by early recipes titled Fried Pone, crediting them to American Indians. However, the earliest recipes I have found that are recognizably like modern hush puppies date no earlier than turn-of-the-century New Orleans. They were called beignets de maïs and were lightly sweetened puffs of cornmeal, egg, and milk, deep-fat fried and dusted with sugar. Only in the second decade of the twentieth century did unsweetened recipes for fried pone and cornmeal fritters begin to appear...

Modern hush puppies know no in-between. When they are good, there is nothing better, and when they are not good, well, nothing is worse.


  1. I grew up going to the Sanitary Fish Market when my family went to the beach in the summer. I remember sitting in their dining room, in a ladder back chair, long rows of tables and paper place mats with illustrations of local history or fishing stories...and having the fried fish platter complete, of course, with hush puppies. My Yankee husband and my daughters don't really understand why I can get starry-eyed about hush puppies. Sounds like you can, though! I'll have to look for the ingredients today when I go to our local LeClerc.

  2. Having grown up in New England and New Jersey, I had NO idea what the heck hushpuppies were when I first saw them on a menu out here in St. Louis. I had also never seen grits, (deep) fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, or onion rings on a menu in a real restaurant (i.e. not KFC).

    What do they call big sandwiches on long rolls down in NC? When I saw them listed as Po' Boys on the school menu, I said, "What??" We called them subs in NJ and grinders in New England.


  3. Bonjour Mme Marron, oui, je suis heureux comme un clam depuis que j'ai trouvé de la farine de maïs au Paris Store de Blois. Maintenant je peux me faire du cornbread ou des tais-toi-petit-chien quand je veux ! Did you live in N.C. or were you from farther afield? How much time did you spend in Carteret County? I get the impression that you live in France now, like me. I grew up on Evans Street in Morehead about 9 blocks west of the Sanitary. I worked at Dee Gee's for several summers when I was in high school and college.

    Bonjour Judy, nous n'avions pas ce genre de sandwich en Caroline du Nord, alors il n'a pas de nom dans mon dialecte. Si ce n'est des "heroes"... What we had was hamburgers, clamburgers, oysterburgers, and shrimpburgers, along with sausage sandwiches (with mayonnaise on them). And BLTs. No subs, no grinders, no heroes even. Po'Boy is a Louisiana term, n'est-ce pas? We also had pimento-cheese and banana-and-mayonnaise samwitches when I was little.

  4. Well I suppose it's better than calling it the Unsanitary Fish Market...!

    Beignets, poffertjes, even doughnuts as we know them in the UK: now I know what sort of territory we're in!

    We have fried bread too, though just a slice of ordinary wheat bread fried flat in a pan. Fried in lard, of course; one needs something substantial to set one up for the day...

  5. Those hushpuppies look perfect. I'm so glad that you have the Paris store in Blois to supply you with cornmeal. I like the idea of a little bit of onion in the pup, plus I suppose that wee bit of sugar is OK.

    My father who was born in 1898 had a diet quite different from ours today. He never liked rice except as a cereal with milk and sugar. He did like oysters, but didn't have shrimp growing up.

    My husband's family preferred rice over potatoes which was quite different from my family's diet of vegetables, chicken and pork mostly. There were always potatoes.

  6. The post was so great and has me wanting to sneak out for cajun at lunch, but did you have to mention Sooners? That is still hard for this Longhorn.

  7. I have learned a lot through this post and its comments.
    I was introduced to both "hushpuppies" and Po'Boys on my first business trip down in New Orleans. Didn't know what they were but did try them. I loved dipping the hushpuppies in Tobasco sauce afterwards.

    Growing up I had fried bread as described by Autolycus ( no lard but oil mixed with butter) on Sunday mornings when my dad made breakfast for the kids. He was a young lad in the British Army in WWII and I guess that's where he got to know it.

    Rice with milk and sugar was our substitute supper when my sister and I did like what was on our dinner plate. Couldn't get away w/o a meal :-)

    It's a small world, isn't it?


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