The Forgotten History of the Hushpuppy
Fried corn batter was the cornerstone of Muskogean cuisine in the same sense as tortillas are the cornerstone of Mexican cuisine. Whereas Mexican cuisine has in recent years been absorbed into the mainstream of North American diets, hushpuppies have been relegated to being tasteless balls of corn-flavored wood pulp and soy protein, served as side items in fast food fish restaurants. You will be surprised how diverse and TASTY the original hushpuppies made by our ancestors were.
First we go to Wikipedia to see what the public thinks hushpuppies are. In order to increase the salaries and vacation times of their executives, most other online references have eliminated their employees and just copy Wikipedia.
“A hushpuppy (or cornbread ball) is a savory food made from cornmeal batter that is deep fried or baked rolled as a small ball or occasionally other shapes. Hushpuppies are frequently served as a side dish.”
“To a far greater degree than anyone realizes, several of the most important food dishes that the Southeastern Indians live on today is the “soul food” eaten by both black and white Southerners.”
The Irreverent Observations of Bubba Mythbuster
Season 1 – Episode 10
Actually, in this case, the Wikipedia article is accurate to a point. Much of the article was originally written by Charles Hudson, who graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He inferred that all indigenous peoples in Southeastern North America fried hushpuppies and made grits. Grits and deep fat frying were NOT long time traditions of the Northern tribes, such as Cherokee and Midwestern Shawnee, although some may have learned to like such foods during the late 1700s, when the tribes ceased fighting each other. The Southern Shawnee, commonly known as the Savano, probably did share many customs with their Muskogean and Uchee neighbors.
The name “hushpuppy” is probably from the Antebellum Period in the Southeast. Dogs hanging around barbecue pits were tossed balls of fried corn batter to keep them out of the meats.
“French-frying” foods in a cornmeal batter was invented by the Muskogeans long before French chefs or Southerners got the credit. It is not a traditional method of food preparation in other parts of the Americas. Neither are grits and hominy. Eating corn on the cob is also primarily a North American tradition.
Deep fat frying was also not a custom that was brought from Mexico or South America when corn and bean cultivation was introduced. Two of the future major divisions of the Creek Confederacy, the Tamaule/Tamaulte (NE Mexico) and Itzate (Chiapas Highlands) were fond of tamales. Itza is the Maya word for “corn tamale.”
Tamales are made by wrapping a mixture of corn batter and other things such as beans or bits of meat with corn husks and then steaming them. The Tamaulte (now called Tamulte) are still fond of tamales as opposed to tortillas, but also the only indigenous people in Mexico, who eat corn on the cob.
Mesoamerican peoples chemically processed their corn meal with lime. Muskogeans chemically processed their corn with lye. They may have also used lime in the past, but this practice was not common in the 1700s. One can only make grits and hominy with lye.
Something very similar to the Mexican tamale was eaten by many tribes in eastern North America after they began cultivating corn. However, rather than being treated with lime, the corn meal was mixed with pumpkin in order to make the particles bond together densely. They also did not mix chili peppers with the batter, as is often done in Mexico. As a result, North American indigenous tamales are sweeter and not picante.
Deep fat frying probably evolved from fondue
Fish and some meats such as possums, groundhog, frogs, turtles and birds would be tender after being smoked or slow cooked over coals. However, cuts from larger game such as deer, buffalo and elk could be extremely tough, even after cooking.
Some innovative Native American lady, at some point in time long in the past, discovered that cooking small pieces of meat in the boiling oil, rendered from animal fat, would be tender . . . and also add needed fat to the diet. There was a drawback though. Animal grease and oil will quickly go rancid due to bacterial activity, unless constantly kept above 140 degrees. Animal oils turn brown, if overheated and can explode into flames, almost like gasoline, if directly exposed to flames.
Somewhere back in time, someone discovered that nut oils were vastly superior for use as cooking oils. The hickory nut oil industry was born.
Also, at some point in time within the past 1200 years, when corn cultivation became more widespread, some innovative Native American lady either intentionally or accidently dropped a tamale into her venison and turtle fondue. If the oil or lard was hot enough, the corn batter fried to a crispy brown on the outside, but remanded soft on the inside.
Why did the Muskogeans eat so many fried foods?
Several anthropological texts, written by academicians, who have never even been in the home of a Native American, state, “The Creeks fried foods in order to compensate for the lack of fats in their diet.” If that was the case, then why didn’t all the indigenous peoples of the Americas fry foods? Actually, the two favorite fish of the Creeks were shad and catfish, both are classified as “oily fish.”
Possum and sweet potatoes was a favorite dish of Creeks for eons. There is so much fat on a possum that you have to parboil the meat first, to keep it from being excessively greasy when baked. Bear meat was so fatty just before hibernation that it also had to be parboiled to be edible.
My mother, many years ago, unknowingly provided the most logical explanation. She said that when working in the fields, they normally did not come back to the house for lunch. In cool weather, they carried the leftovers from the previous evening’s supper, along with one of my grandmother’s 4 inch diameter sourdough biscuits in a lunch pail.
However, in the hot, humid summers of the Southern Piedmont, such fare could easily spoil and cause one to die of food poisoning the next day. Therefore, in warmer weather, my grandmother would briefly fry previously baked wheat flour biscuits with a slab of salty country ham in them. The other part of the lunch would be large corn fritters with bits of ham/bacon/sausage, nibblet corn, beans and spring onions inside. The hard shell of the fried corn batter kept the smoked pork and vegetables from being infected with bacteria that cause food poisoning.
That seems to be the answer. Coating foods with corn meal batter and then frying them in hickory oil protected the items from bacterial contamination, plus extended the period that they would be edible. Also, the nutty flavor of hickory nut oil enhanced the flavor of the corn bread.
There are numerous accounts of the Creeks in the 1700s and early 1800s, carrying bags of hushpuppies with them on long journeys. Evidently, these hushpuppies also contained bits of smoked meat and beans so that they would be more balanced nutrition.
My grandmother also sometimes made “dessert fritters.” These would contain some pumpkin, which gave them a texture and sweetness more like pancakes. She would mix fresh or dried fruit and sometimes crushed pecans in the batter. We would sop the hushpuppies in either sorghum syrup or honey. I have read accounts of 18th century Creek women also serving sweet, fried corn cakes, containing dried fruit and nuts as desert, so evidently this is an old custom.
The cooking oil
The preferred cooking oil used by the Creeks was processed from hickory nuts. It contained zero cholesterol and did not turn brown, when heated. The De Soto Chronicles state that the great town of Kusa cultivated large orchards of hickory trees, from which hickory nut oil and butter were processed. The oil and butter was the primary export product of the town.
To make hickory nut oil, the nuts are crushed and boiled in water. As soon as the hulls float to the top, they are quickly scooped off with a sieve so they will not impart a bitter flavor. When the mixture cools, the oil and solid vegetable fat separate from the water. If the weather is cool enough, the fat (nut butter) congeals on the surface and is a beige color. It can be scooped off. The vegetative oil floats on the water and can be poured off. The byproducts of hickory nuts do not separate well if the air temperature is above 60° F.
If hickory nut oil was unavailable, the hushpuppies were fried in oil rendered from possum, groundhog or bear fat. However, the Muskogeans preferred nut oil, since animal oils scorched and were soaked up by the cooked corn bread. It is likely that tribes located south of where hickory trees grew either imported the oil or made oil from sub-tropical nut.
Who knows? Maybe someday, not too long in the future, fancy hush puppies and corn fritters will be the new fast food and hickory nut oil production will be the Southern Highlands’ new growth industry.
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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history.Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.
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