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An Unspoken History of Hush Puppies

Ok y’all, it’s time to talk hushpuppies. If you’ve never had hush puppies, get to a fish fry pronto! I love hush puppies at all hours of the day. It’s essentially fried corn bread and what’s not to love about that? I try to be mindful of the fried food we eat here at home but this one I just can’t let go of. I will happily give you my hush puppy recipe and not think twice about it, but in the current social climate there’s another reason I want to talk about these delicious little snacks. They were invented by a man who was born into slavery and died a successful entrepreneur. With the release of Self Made on Netflix and the dawning of a new generation of activists it’s important to keep telling the stories of successful people of Color. It’s not enough to say their names after they’ve been gunned down in tragedy.

An Unspoken History of Hush Puppies

His name was Romeo Guvan. He was born into slavery in the Old South sometime around 1845. While enslaved, he worked as a cook and by every surviving account he was a great one. At the time, hush puppies were called Red Horse Bread. For those of us not regularly fishing the major rivers of the East Coast, Red Horse is a species of bottom feeder fish that is absolutely delicious when fried. Think meaty like catfish but without the muddy taste. I think the flavor is much closer to the clean flavors that come with cod or halibut, though Red Horse is a drastically different breed of fish. After Romeo was emancipated, he settled near the Edisto River in South Carolina where Red Horse is prevalent, and he hosted fish fries that built him a stellar reputation and made him enough money to buy the house and surrounding land.

Romeo hosted Senators, Journalists, Governors; basically, anybody who was anybody knew about Romeo’s fish fry spot. One of the fundamental pieces of this original recipe is that the cornmeal mixture be fried in the same oil as the fish. This is commonplace in most restaurants you might patron today because typically most everything is fried in the same oil. However, in small batch cooking that we might do at home, preparing the hush puppies in the same oil after fish had been fried will almost definitely impart more flavor to them. I’m a big fan of this process, but at the same time I won’t limit myself to making hush puppies only when I’m frying fish.

By and large when you ask chefs about frying, they’re going to tell you sunflower seed or canola oils. The reasons they’re going to say that is because they’re cheaper than beef tallow or some other healthier options and because they don’t cause anaphylaxis in the middle of dinner service like peanut oil. When I fry at home I go for grapeseed or peanut. I like these because they have high smoke points and pretty neutral flavors. Also, no one in my family is allergic to peanuts, so that helps. As frying food goes, we obviously can’t go all fried all the time. But fat is one of the necessary essentials for human existence and there are definitely ways to do better for yourself than drive through French fries.

For hush puppies to come out nicely you want your oil between 350 and 375. Anything over 375 and your outsides will burn to black and your insides will still be raw and gooey. No bueno. A while back my fiancé decided to buy a sugar/caramel thermometer and I steal it when I need to fry, and it does a great job monitoring the temperature. It’s also way cheaper than an infrared thermometer, although maybe not as much fun as pretending to be James Bond while checking the temperature of hot oil with a laser.

Another way that you can make your hush puppies healthier is to swap out the flour in a traditional hush puppies’ recipe. When you reduce the amount of gluten in fried food, you reduce the amount of oil that gets absorbed into the food in the frying process. A good rule of thumb is to substitute 75% – 80% of the total flour amount with a non-gluten flour and then the rest of the flour volume with cornstarch. If you’ve ever had Korean fried chicken, that super crispy wonderfulness it has is due, in large part, to the presence of cornstarch in the dredge/batter. You can apply the same idea to hush puppies and still get crispy crunchy hush puppies without as much oil absorbed. I will include the option to have gluten free hush puppies in the recipe below.

So, we talked about the original creation of Red Horse bread but how they came to be called hush puppies is way less concrete. I was always told the fisherman story as a kid. Some gnarly smelly fishermen hauled in their daily catch to be corn battered and fried and with the smells of crispy fish being carried through the air the hounds started whining and wailing wanting to join in on the fish fry. So, to “hush their puppies” fishermen would take some of the excess corn batter around the edges of the pan and toss it to the pups. The real story most likely comes from somewhere between Macon, Georgia and Orlando, Florida. I don’t even try to claim to be an expert in what goes on in those parts. The Macon Telegraph printed references to “hush puppies” as early as 1927, twelve years after Romeo Guvan died. It’s in recipes titled as hush puppies that we start to see the addition of minced onion and even jalapeño. I’m a progressive woman in most ways but when it comes to complicating hush puppies I’ll only go so far. Onion and/or cheddar cheese are good, and jalapeño is fine if I’m in the right mood, but anything beyond that is too far from the truth and I’m not havin’ it.

There is a fundamental difference in the way that I make my hush puppies because when I was in college I found out I’m allergic to egg whites. Without egg whites in the cornmeal batter you need significantly more baking power to get hush puppies that aren’t rock hard. A word of caution when using baking powder and baking soda, its perfectly acceptable in many situations to substitute for egg whites but if you go overboard, your food will end up tasting like old pennies and no one wants that. I imagine egg white allergies were probably not high on the list of concerns when Romeo Guvan started hosting his fish fries but as we change, our food changes with us.

One last important step in making hush puppies is allowing the batter to rest after mixing it but before frying. This allows for gluten in the batter to relax and helps keep your hush puppies from becoming tough. Depending on how much batter you’ve made, ten minutes is usually long enough to rest your batter, but a little longer if you have the time is good too.

Next time you’re barbecuing, a cast iron pan and some high quality oil is all it would take to add hush puppies to the menu. Then you will be a part of the long standing tradition of Red Horse Bread that began with an emancipated slave on the banks of the Edisto River just after the end of the Civil War.

Red Horse Bread, or Hush Puppies Recipe

2 cups Yellow Cornmeal
1 cup AP Flour
2 Tablespoon Sugar
1 Tablespoon Kosher Salt
4 teaspoons Baking Powder
1 cup Buttermilk
¼ cup Butter, melted
¼ teaspoon Hot Sauce
1 ea. Yellow Onion

Mix all dry ingredients together. In a separate bowl, mix all wet ingredients together. Then mix the wet ingredients into the dry mixture until the batter comes together and is completely uniform.

Once the batter is made, let it rest for at let 10 minutes. (A little longer never hurt).

Heat oil in a Dutch oven, cast iron skillet or another pan suitable for frying. The oil should be 375°. Using a portion scoop or a spoon, portion out golf ball sized sections of batter and drop into the hot oil. Fry for 1-2 minutes until golden brown on the outside and cooked through

By: Colleen Blackburn



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