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A hush puppy is fried cornmeal cake or bread, which very likely originated in Southern cuisine in the United States. These cakes are usually fried until golden brown, and have a crunchy exterior and a soft center. They’re often made in small, round shapes, about the size of a golf ball.
There are interesting stories on the origin of the hush puppy in Southern cuisine. One story is that Southerners would occasionally eat a kind of salamander called a mud puppy, and that this wasn’t the proudest culinary ingredient. Hence the “hush” could mean to refrain from talking about using mud puppies in your food. To better disguise them, they might be coated in cornmeal before they were fried. This story is charming but unlikely.
Probably a more credible story for origin of the hush puppy is that people would give some of these cakes to barking dogs to quiet them. This may have been something Civil War soldiers did, but more likely, it was a simple action in Southern homes. Alternately, people keeping dogs to search for runaway slaves may have fed their dogs hush puppies to make them stay quiet on the trail. In either case, it seems most recipes for hush puppies emerged around the time of the Civil War.
Recipes for hush puppy cakes today usually include things like corn meal, flour, eggs and baking soda. This makes them similar to corn muffins, but they may have additional ingredients like peppers or kernels of corn, which can flavor them and give them more interesting texture. Instead of baking hush puppies as you would muffins, dollops of the batter are deep-fried for a few minutes.
Though most associated with the American South, you can find hush puppies at a lot of chain restaurant. They are especially popular in chain restaurants that serve fried chicken or fried fish, and such restaurants like Popeyes® and Long John Silvers® certainly exist in many places throughout the US. This has made the hush puppy familiar to most Americans and not just those who live in the South.
In the South, serving hush puppies with fried fish is a common choice. They can make an excellent side dish for other foods too, like barbecued meats, especially pork. Given that they are deep-fried, these simple cakes won’t win many awards for nutritional value. They are filling though, and many people love the corn taste and crisp exterior.
I was told another version of how hush puppies came to be. It did originate in the southern states and was that most plantations had summer kitchens (a separate building detached from the main structure to keep the heat and odor of cooking from inside the main residence). The story goes that the cooks transferring the fried fish or other foods from the summer kitchen to the main residence would give a small golf ball sized ball of fried cornmeal to the barking dogs to quiet them while moving between the two building hence inventing the term hush puppies.