Hush puppies are a deep-fried or baked delicacy from the American South made with cornmeal, egg, butter, baking soda and other spices. But how did they get their name? The internet has many theories, including one popular one that claims escaping slaves in the South used to throw them at tracking dogs in order to quieten them down.
A widely shared Facebook post from July 28, 2023, for example, states: “Escaping slaves used to throw balls of fried cornmeal out to distract the hounds from tracking them. The hounds stopped barking and tracking thanks to the cornmeal which later adapted the name “hush puppies.””
This is not the only supposed origin story for the dish. Another theory put forward by chef Regina Charboneau in a 2010 story in The Atlantic linked the food to the Civil War. In addition to the story of the slaves, she heard that Confederate soldiers used it to “hush their dogs” when Union troops were nearby.
Charboneau also noted that if slaves were indeed behind the dish, it was likely derived from the South African fried cornmeal dish called "mealie pap." She emphasized that numerous Southern states took credit for the food, with Louisiana claiming that Ursuline nuns who came to New Orleans in the 1700s made this dish using local ingredients to create "croquettes de maise," or corn croquettes.
Britannica also echoed these stories: “One possible explanation for the name is that a simple version of the dish was first made by various people—such as Union soldiers during the Civil War, fishermen, or runaway slaves—to quiet howling dogs.”
The fishermen's story, according to Robert F. Moss, a food writer and scholar, supposedly involved anglers who returned from fishing expeditions to fry their catch over fires. Their dogs would begin barking and yapping from the aroma, so to quieten them down, the fishermen fried up bits of cornmeal and threw it at the dogs.
Moss, however, wrote a denial of the barking dogs theory on his personal website, along with many of the aforementioned “origin stories.” He argued that the hush puppy was originally a South Carolina delicacy called "red horse bread." Moss wrote:
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.’”
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.
“Red horse” referred to a type of fish that was caught by South Carolinians and fried, according to Moss. Moss argued that it is “quite possible that Govan himself was the one who coined the name [red horse bread], since its earliest appearances in print are almost all connected with one of his fish fries.”
Moss found that in 1940, a columnist in the Augusta Chronicle observed that, “‘Red Horse’ cornbread is often called ‘Hush Puppies’ on the Georgia side of the Savannah River.”
An early mention of "hush puppies," Moss found, occurred in the 1920s at a men’s Bible class fish fry in Macon, Georgia, and even those appeared in quotation marks, indicating that the name was not widely known. And by the 1930s, the term was being used to refer to the delicacy being served at political gatherings in Tallahassee.
Early mentions of the term “hush puppies” in American newspapers from 1936 also express confusion about its origins. A response to a letter to the editor of The Atlanta Journal asking about the origins of hush puppies reached no definitive conclusion. With the title “Why are Hush Puppies?” the article posited a number of theories, including the ones we shared above but with an additional story that carries racist references to Black people:
Still others insist that “hush puppies” is the veriest corruption. The proper name is puffles—because they are dough fried in deep fat. Since they are made of corn meal they were correctly called mush-puffles, and the best the early darkies could do with this was “hush puppies.”
Moss found one of the earliest conjectures regarding the name in a 1933 article from The Associated Press 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.’”
Subsequent writers, he added, "took this fairly mundane explanation and punched it up a little." He noted that the word “hush puppy” was used long before it was attached to the deep fried cornmeal batter, the same way the dish was popular long before the name “hush puppy” was attached to it:
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.
In a separate article for Serious Eats, Moss described the use of the term in a more disturbing context, expanding on the usage he found in the 1879 San Antonio Herald story:
An 1879 account in the San Antonio Herald describes a man named Jim Gillet of Lampass Springs, who covered his revolver holster with a human scalp he had taken from a Native American he had helped murder. Some months later, Gillet was "bending over a frying pan at breakfast" when "he trailed the long hair into the 'hush puppy' gravy."
Culinary historian Michael Twitty also disputed the connection to escaping slaves, writing on X in 2022: “As a historical interpreter of enslaved lives, this is social media disinformation. Hush puppies are a fritter with roots in Indigenous American and African Atlantic foodways. They were not known to be used by freedom seekers. [...] If you saw those dogs it was too late. Getting a day or two ahead was your only hope.”
There is no definitive answer about the origins of hush puppies, though many scholars have disputed its connection to the stories of escaping slaves. Moss points out that such stories emerge from “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.”