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South Carolina’s Hush Puppy Love Runs Deep

Libby Wiersema Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.
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Warm, crusty hush puppies are, hands down, the best two bites of any meal. Break them in half and smear them with honey butter, drizzle with a little crema or dip them in tartar or cocktail sauce for a decadent little accompaniment at your next fish fry. Even if the fish falls flat, your guests are bound to think highly of those toothsome little bites. Aside from burning them, it’s hard to mess up a hush puppy.

Sorting myth from reality is tricky business when it comes to the origins of the hush puppy, though it seems likely its forebears date back to Mesoamerican food customs. It is well known that indigenous cultures from Mexico and Central America boiled and ground corn for the making of tortillas and other breads. While that doesn’t add up to the hush puppy as we know it, it may have set the stage for its evolution from a cornmeal paste baked over wood fires to a cornmeal batter dropped by the spoonful into hot grease and fried until golden brown.

Among the many theories floating about are various accounts of Civil War soldiers silencing yapping dogs by tossing them fried bits of cornbread, and enslaved West Africans making use of scrap ingredients passed along to them by plantation owners. A less appetizing version refers to a Louisiana tale of Cajuns battering and deep-frying salamanders, aka “mud puppies”—a habit so revolting, they were compelled to keep “hush” about it.

The truth is probably far less amusing, but worthy of our interest, nonetheless. Extensive digging by Southern food writer Robert Moss suggests that hush puppies were a South Carolina dish known as “red horse bread.” “Red horse” was a type of fish common in rivers across the state. It often showed up in the mix at fish frys hosted by a West African man named Romeo Govan, who lived on the Edisto River and offered his house as a gathering place during the fishing season.

Alongside the fish, he was known for serving fried cornmeal nuggets he called “red horse bread.” More than 100 years after his death, “red horse bread” remains a fish fry tradition, though under a different moniker.

The origins of the term “hush puppy” are a lot more blurred, with the word popping up in historical accounts, journals and newspapers throughout the 1900s. While it was once a British term that inferred the silencing of someone, hush puppy could also be synonymous with ham gravy and pot-liquor (also said to be fed to quiet yowling dogs). Moss’s research also shows that the word became popular in the 1940s along the coastal areas of the Carolinas on down to Florida, and just stuck. Hush puppy mix was introduced on grocery store shelves during that time as well, which in all probability solidified the name as part of our culinary lexicon. Its descendant still exists under the brand House-Autry, of North Carolina.

You can make your own from a mix, follow a recipe or just enjoy your hush puppies at most any South Carolina fish house, barbecue joint or restaurant with a hush puppy penchant. Some chefs spike them with spices, corn kernels, onion, hot peppers and other ingredients to give them a little more pizazz, and/or pair them with tangy dips and creamy sauces. And then there are the hush puppy purists who understand the simple allure of a fresh-from-the-fryer cornbread nugget—no embellishments needed. One thing is guaranteed: You won’t be hard-pressed to find some hush puppy love when dining in South Carolina. Here are a few restaurants that will have you howling for more.

Captain Steve’s, Fort Mill
A hint of onion makes these light and moist hush puppies a savory appetizer. They arrive first thing when you take your seat, so roll up your sleeves and start popping these puppies into your mouth.

DeShawn’s Seafood and Chicken, North Augusta
Delish! The best! Amazing! These are some of the accolades racked up by DeShawn’s hush puppies. No pretensions here—it’s hot and crunchy for the win.

Flower’s Seafood Company, Edisto Island
Belly up to the Flower’s food truck next to this little seafood market and eat like the locals. Fresh shrimp, crab and more served up with a helping of light, corn-studded puffs of fried cornmeal batter will satisfy your appetite as well as your expectations for something filling and delicious.

Hyman’s Seafood, Charleston
Join the line on Meeting Street in front of this local institution for a complimentary taste of their famous hush puppies while you wait. A favorite of Charleston visitors, Hyman’s knows a good thing when they taste it and the happy crowds agree: This is a hotspot of hush puppy happiness.

Lee’s Inlet Kitchen, Murrells Inlet
While the fresh, local seafood is a definite draw, the appeal of Lee’s hot, crusty cornmeal balls won’t be lost on you. Spread them with a bit of honey butter and crush a few. Bet you can’t stop at one.

Little Pigs Barbecue, Columbia
It’s hard to do, but these hush puppies manage to distinguish themselves on a hot bar brimming with barbecue and all the trimmings. Move over mac ’n’ cheese—these pups are hot on your heels at this tempting buffet.

Monkey Wrench Smokehouse, Travelers Rest
Word has it that some folks come here just to nosh on the hush puppies. These babies have a smoky, jalapeño vibe that delivers a tantalizing flavor punch. Of course, it’s hard to resist the other menu offerings, but there’s always room for compromise. Pair hush puppies with a cup of Brunswick stew or just enjoy them as is with the accompanying scoop of salted honey butter.

Old Oyster Factory, Hilton Head Island
Crispy on the outside, tender on the inside—that contrast is what makes this restaurant famous for its hush puppies. Pass the butter and swoon.

See Wee Restaurant, Awendaw
This rustic little eatery is a locals’ favorite serving up fresh local seafood, glorious Southern cooking and, best of all, hot hush puppies on the house. Go ahead and see how many you can eat, but save room for your dinner.

Vintage Twelve, Myrtle Beach
Hush puppies served in a waterfront dining venue deserve an elevated touch. Vintage 12 presents them with a pot of creamy pimento cheese fondue. A brief dip, and these puppies ascend to a higher pedigree.

Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.