You may already know one of the many (likely apocryphal) hushpuppy origin stories, in some form or another. A familiar one has an old-timey Deep South cook (possibly a slave, depending on the storyteller's willingness to acknowledge the foundational crime of American history) preparing food for some form of large, outdoor gathering: a hunting party or a Civil War encampment. According to this myth, the party's dogs were barking and howling; annoyed, our intrepid cook quickly prepared some cornmeal nuggets, flung them to the noisy hounds, and yelled, "Hush, puppies!" and the dogs, enjoying their snack, piped down.
And then, uh, later on, I guess the dogs told their dog friends about it or whatever, and eventually a wised-up talkin'-ass dog convinced a person to try some of these puppy-hushing meal-wads—"With these, our forebears were silenced, and so shall you silence your grumbling tummies, now and forevermore, bark"—and now they're in every basket of fried seafood in North America. Yeah, I don't really buy that story, either.
Still, wherever they got their dumb name, and whether they originated as dog food or not, hushpuppies are a preposterously satisfying foodstuff: sweet and savory, crispy and cakey, and (when well-made) just larger than bite-size, so that you don't simply fire them down unconsidered and unappreciated like popcorn kernels, but bite through each, and chew, and taste, and look at the bit-through hushpuppy in your hand and go, Damn, this is so good, and then finish that one and have another. This is more important than where hushpuppies came from.
Also more important than where hushpuppies come from is where hushpuppies are going: into your face. Yes. Let's make some hushpuppies.
The first thing to do is to mix some dry stuff in a large bowl. A cup and a half each of self-rising cornmeal and self-rising flour, for starters. (If you can't find the self-rising stuff, or if a misbegotten sense of culinary propriety forbids you from using dry baking ingredients that already include leavening agents, you can use regular cornmeal and all-purpose flour, here, and add, oh, a couple tablespoons of baking powder and a tablespoon of baking soda. Does that seem needlessly complicated to you? Mmm-hmm. Get the self-rising stuff.)
A note on the cornmeal. There are many kinds of cornmeal: yellow and white and coarse and fine and so on. Probably they do not all yield the exact same result; certainly they will all turn out a pretty tasty hushpuppy, which people have been happy to eat while thinking of it as appropriated dog food for over a century, so maybe let's not sweat it too much.
Add a big tablespoon of regular granulated sugar to the cornmeal and flour, and a generous pinch of salt. That's the dry stuff. Now, add some other stuff to the bowl. Two eggs that you beat beforehand in a separate bowl; a big sweet (or Vidalia) onion that you chopped as finely as you could manage; the kernels from a single cob of corn that you cooked in whatever particular way you like to cook corn-on-the-cob (boiling it for, oh, 10 minutes is fine); and a cup-and-a-half of buttermilk. We discussed the whole buttermilk/leavening agents thing back when you made pancakes; in short, the acid of the buttermilk both activates baking soda and neutralizes its base-y flavor, so that you get a fluffy, leavened final product that tastes like neither acidic ass nor basic ass.
The reason why you beat the eggs before adding them to the bowl is that you don't want to mess with these ingredients any more than necessary. If you stir the hell out of this bowl of stuff, you'll get dense, gummy, lousy hushpuppies; instead, with a fork, stir this stuff juuuuuuust enough to combine the liquids and solids, and no more.
That's it. That's hushpuppy batter. It's not even all that batter-y, is it? More like hushpuppy spackling paste, areurite? Ha, good one. You'll want to leave your hushpuppy batter alone for a while—at least 20 minutes, up to an hour—so that the buttermilk and the leavening agents in the self-rising cornmeal and flour that you wisely used may have some time to do Mystical Culinary Shit toward the production of fluffy, perfect, outrageously wonderful food.
While your hushpuppy cement is having its alone time, heat up a pot of oil on the stove. You'll need, oh, three or four inches of oil, here—enough for a glob of uncooked hushpuppy to sink and then bob back to the surface without smacking too hard on the bottom of the pot. Use a sturdy frying oil, here; peanut, canola, vegetable, and corn oil are fine; olive oil is not; melted crayons are not going to do it. Your oil is hot enough for cooking when it passes the Wooden Spoon Test: When you dip a wooden spoon into the oil and small bubbles form on it as though it is cooking.
A note on that. One development that is an awful bummer is when you bite into a freshly-made hushpuppy and discover a pocket of uncooked goo at its core. This can happen when you cook your hushpuppies in oil that is too hot, or when your hushpuppies are so large that their exteriors cook to doneness before their centers have warmed up much at all. A way to avoid having to make hushpuppies the size of salt granules is to err on the side of cooler oil when you cook them, to ensure that their outsides don't burn during the time their insides require to cook through.
If you happen to possess a deep-fry thermometer (nerd!), don't let your oil get hotter than 350 degrees; if you do not possess a deep-fry thermometer, that is very sensible of you, and you'll want to look for a mild bubbling reaction on your wooden spoon. (Or you could just drop a small glob of hushpuppy dough in there and see what happens.)
In any case, at some point your oil will be ready for use. Cook a buncha friggin' hushpuppies in it. The way to do this is to drop a few tablespoon-sized globs of batter into the oil (from just above the surface, so they don't splash oil outside of the pot) at a time. Be patient, here: Work a few hushpuppies at a time, so they're not bumping together too much in the pot, and so they don't lower the temperature of the oil too dramatically, and so you can pay attention to them. They might need to be rolled over in the oil, so that they'll cook evenly; you'll know this is the case if their tops are lighter-colored than the submerged rest of them.
Give your hushpuppies, oh, what, maybe four or five minutes in the oil, each, until they're golden-brown all over, then haul 'em out of the oil to some kind of elevated drying rack (an oven rack or grill grate with soup cans under its corners will do the trick, if its gaps are small enough to keep the hushpuppies from falling through), or, failing that, a paper towel, or, failing that, the concavity formed by holding the bottom of your collectible commemorative 1990 Nelson After the Rain World Tour t-shirt out in front of you, you beautiful doomed wreck of a person.
Repeat until you've used up all the batter.
Your hushpuppies are core-of-the-sun hot on the inside, still; you want to eat them, but you mustn't, or they will cause your face to become charcoal. Give them five minutes to cool while you make some kind of dipping substance for them. Many people like tartar sauce with hushpuppies; if that's what you want, mix some mayonnaise, sour cream, and sweet relish in a bowl with maybe a tiny little bit of brown mustard or horseradish, and that'll be lovely. Other people like cocktail sauce with hushpuppies; if that's more your speed, stir together some regular-ass ketchup with some prepared horseradish and a dash of your favorite hot sauce. Other people like to make other people believe that they like silly, elaborate remoulades and mignonettes and shit with their hushpuppies; they'll be down in the comments, earning derision. Suit yourself. Truthfully, your hushpuppies don't need any of this stuff, but the familiar sauces complement them nicely, and it's just kinda fun to dip stuff in other stuff and eat it.
Hey, it's time to eat some hushpuppies.
Your hushpuppies will work quite nicely as just a bowl of some tasty snacks in the middle of a table of hungry people and cold beer. Or, they will prompt your brain to flip open your cranium like a jet cockpit lid and pump its little brain-fists in ecstasy if you pair them with some fried fish, or fried shrimp, or fried fish and fried shrimp and fried clams and fried oysters and cold beer and seagulls and lapping foam and kites and just doing this all the time forever. Something in the combination of the briny seafood and the hushpuppies, crispy and fluffy and sweet, savory and just so slightly oniony, hearty and substantial but also small and mild and unassuming ... hey, that dog was OK, man. He really knows what he's talking about.
Image by Sam Woolley.