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Bury St Edmunds award-winning food writer Nicola Miller on hushpuppies - the fried side dish with a back story to celebrate

Any owner will tell you that the way to quieten a barking dog is not through providing high-value snacks (and by high-value, I mean their owner’s food). Doing this is guaranteed to reward the barking instead of quelling it. And that’s how I knew the story of how American hushpuppies came into being was a load of old cobblers even before I got to reading the Southern writer Robert F Moss on the subject. The most popular origin story for this fried side dish sees Confederate soldiers cooking their dinner over a fire when, upon hearing Yankee soldiers approaching, they tossed their yapping dogs little balls of fried cornmeal, commanding them to

“Hush puppies!”

Writing for the website Serious Eats, Moss tells us about Romeo Govan, a Black man born into slavery whose fish fries became famous among prominent members of the white community. Govan blended cornmeal with water, salt and egg and fried spoonfuls of this batter in the hot fat previously used to fry fish. Red horse was a species of fish common to rivers in South Carolina and it was this fish that flavoured the fried morsels of cornmeal that became known as ‘Red Horse Bread’ some time before the name ‘Hushpuppy’ (for a similar preparation) came into common usage.

Hushpuppies - put these on the table and your diners will be delighted
Hushpuppies - put these on the table and your diners will be delighted

“Early accounts of hushpuppies and red horse bread make clear that diners treated this new food not as a cheap substitute but as a luxury worthy of admiration,” Moss writes, concluding that although fried balls of cornmeal were a popular meal in many parts of the USA (and especially the South), the name “was simply a euphemism for stopping the dogs in your stomach from growling”. It is highly unlikely such delicacies would be offered to working dogs.

Hushpuppies come in many permutations. In The Hang Fire Cookbook, Sam Evans and Shauna Guinn use beer in their batter as does James Villas in The Glory of Southern Cooking. Jamie Oliver seasons his hushpuppies with paprika, while Louisiana chef Paul Prudhomme added cayenne, green onions and oregano to his. In contrast, the famous Southern chef and author Edna Lewis gives us a rather more austere recipe flavoured with salt and minced onions only (and they are delicious). Cruise the internet and you’ll find hushpuppies stuffed with crab, crawfish, spiced and minced beef or shrimp, green and red peppers, sweetcorn, okra, dill pickles, or crumbled into salad croutons and served atop charred spring vegetables (from Deep Run Roots by Vivian Howard). These crunchy little mouthfuls of cornmeal-based batter are served with all kinds of dips and accompaniments and a quick scan of my cookbooks yielded treasure: tartare sauce, smokey barbecue, bacon, chili and honey, sriracha mayo, smoked cheese, Creole tomato sauce, bowls of gumbo, and even plain old butter.

I have had memorable encounters with hushpuppies: a café by the Mississippi in New Orleans where they were filled with minced crawfish and served with a sauceboat of beef gravy to dip into; a roadside café in Tennessee that served them with fried catfish, a little bowl of bread and butter pickles and two slices of Texas Toast; and a seafood shack on stilts that loomed over the Gulf of Mexico where they sent out Po-Boys filled with soft-shelled fried crab and hushpuppies. But, if I’m making them at home, I like them best my way – cockle-stuffed with a classic remoulade sauce on the side.

My favourite cockles are Stiffkey Blues from the eponymous Norfolk village. The small blue shell of the Stiffkey (pronounced ‘Stookey’) encapsulates two aspects of coastal North Norfolk. On the one hand you have the locals who live, cook and work alongside the semi-permeable and glaucous maze of marshes, rivers, creeks, channels and marran grass-covered dunes that penetrate deep into coastal Norfolk. Then you have the second-homers and holidaymakers who flood in and pretend they live in an Enid Blyton novel, staying in cottages painted in Stiffkey Blue from Farrow & Ball, a shade match for the cockle shells whose colour derives in part from the anaerobic mud they burrow into.

A few years ago as part of a feature for Locavore Magazine, I spoke to Lawrence Jordan, the former marsh warden at Stiffkey. He recalled a lifetime spent walking and cockling in the mud of the channels that reveal themselves as the tide goes out. Parts of the Norfolk coastline require a licence to gather the seafood there but he offered wise advice to anyone cockle-gathering where it is permitted. “It’s safe with a bit of common sense. So long as you remember that the way you go on (the mud) is the way you go off. Walk over the sands and not the main channel and the main thing is to come back the way you went out. People go out and then they see the tide coming in and they decide to return another way. Sometimes that might not work out too well,” he chuckled drily. “No need to go too far. Respect the place, talk to the locals, get advice.”

For those of us with no desire to gather our own, but a burning desire to eat them straight from the sea, I recommend Simon Letzer’s The Crab Hut at Brancaster Staithe Harbour. He sells crayfish, whelks, crab, lobster and prawns sold as landed or stuffed into buttered baguettes to eat as you stand there. His cockles are exquisite. Out of their shells they are a tumble of gold and yellow, grey and cream inside the little pots they are served in. Eaten this way, all you need is a pinch of white pepper (never black!), a little salt, and if you are inclined, a dash of malt vinegar.

I remember a poem that describes the cockles essence as having ‘drank the falling of the spray. . . and contained a portion of the sea’. So it seems deeply appropriate that my recipe for hushpuppies, a food so associated with the seaside and fish fries, should be stuffed with cockles and served with a New Orleans-style remoulade sauce, another deeply southern favourite whose tartness particularly suits the cockle and also honours the traditional British way to eat them straight from the pot with vinegar. ‘Perhaps, though men account me small, I might on proof contain it all,’ the poem continues. I agree. This tiny shellfish with its deeply banded shell (from which you can tell its age) deserves more attention. Just don’t feed them to dogs though.

NOTE: Buy hand-gathered cockles rather than those harvested using a suction dredge. Old Bay Seasoning is an American icon now available in the UK. Find it at Morrisons, Ocado, and Amazon. Later this year it will be more widely available. I like smoked chipotle Tabasco in my sauce remoulade for added depth of flavour but feel free to use regular Tabasco if you prefer.

Spicy cockle and corn hushpuppies with sauce remoulade

To make the sauce remoulade:

A few hours before you want to eat, add eight little French cornichons chopped into chunks, two spring onions, coarsely chopped, two teaspoons capers with the salt rinsed off, one tablespoon lemon juice, one tablespoon whole grain mustard, one tablespoon of Dijon smooth mustard and one tablespoon chopped fresh French parsley to the bowl of your food processor and pulse into a thick paste. Now add 130g mayonnaise, ½ teaspoon of sweet smoked paprika and four dashes of smoked chipotle Tabasco, then pulse until smoothly blended. Taste and season with salt and white pepper and store in the fridge for a couple of hours to allow its flavours to deepen.

To make the hushpuppies:

200g fine to medium grind yellow cornmeal

90g self-raising flour

⅓ teaspoon Old Bay seasoning

Pinch salt

300ml buttermilk

1 large egg, lightly whisked

150g fresh cockles, rinsed well and patted dry

80g fresh corn kernels (or use well-drained tinned kernels if fresh corn is out of season)

1 small red Jalapeño chilli, very finely minced (I use a mini-processor to do this)

4 medium spring onions, very finely minced (I use a mini-processor to do this)

Vegetable oil, enough for deep-frying (I prefer to use a neutral sunflower oil)

Sift the cornmeal, flour, Old Bay seasoning and a small pinch of salt into a large mixing bowl. Now, add the egg and the buttermilk and whisk the mixture until it is smoothly combined. Add the cockles, corn kernels, spring onion and chilli and mix them in until they are evenly distributed. At this point you can cover and chill the batter for a couple of hours until needed if you wish. You want a texture that holds its shape as you scoop it up with a tablespoon. Add a little more flour if it is too runny.

Pour 5cm of oil into your saucepan or fryer over a high heat until it reaches 175C. Use a thermometer to monitor its progress if you can. When it is hot enough, ladle the batter in a tablespoonful at a time, making sure you keep each hushpuppy separate from its pan fellows. Ensure the temperature of the oil comes back up between batches of frying too. Turn the hushpuppies with a slotted spoon so they brown evenly as you fry each batch for about 2-3 minutes (watch them carefully – they may not need 3 minutes). When cooked properly, a hushpuppy will be golden in colour and its insides will be steamy and fluffy. Transfer the hushpuppies to a plate lined with kitchen roll and let them drain a few seconds before serving with the sauce remoulade. Don’t let them go cold; these are best eaten straight away.

Makes around 15.

Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale

Winner of the Guild of Food Writers Online Food Writer Award 2020

Fortnum & Mason Cookery Writer of the Year 2022