Last month I put the dynamic duo of hushpuppies and red slaw at the top of my list of the most iconic regional barbecue sides, and I’ve been thinking about hushpuppies ever since. Slaw is eaten alongside barbecue in plenty of places—a Memphis-style pork sandwich, for instance, wouldn’t be complete without it—but hushpuppies are much more localized to North Carolina.
Hushpuppies started out as a side dish for fish, being served at big outdoor fish-frys in a region stretching from the Carolinas down to central Florida. By the 1940s they had become a staple of fried seafood restaurants, which in the Carolinas were often called “fish houses” or “fish camps.” Shortly after World War II, barbecue restaurateurs in the Piedmont region of North Carolina picked up on the crisp, deep fried orbs and decided they would go quite nicely with barbecue, too.
Warner Stamey, the legendary barbecue cook who mentored an entire generation of Piedmont restaurateurs, has been credited with popularizing the hushpuppy as a side dish after he began serving them in his restaurants.
“My dad was great friends with the fellow who ran a fish camp called the Friendly Road Inn here in Greensboro,” Keith Stamey told John T. Edge for his book Southern Belly (2002). “And I’m pretty sure he picked up on it there.”
“I wouldn’t say my dad was the first,” Stamey added, “but I would say he was one of the first.” Indeed, Kennedy’s Barbecue in Greensboro was advertising “Barbecue, Brunswick stew, slaw and hush puppies” in 1949, a good two years before the Friendly Road Inn opened.
Regardless of who served them first, once North Carolinians sampled barbecue and hushpuppies together, the combination spread rapidly. By the early 1960s, hushpuppies were being served in barbecue joints all across the Piedmont of North Carolina—at Vic’s Barbecue in High Point and at Hursey’s in Burlington, where they sold a small barbecue tray with slaw and hushpuppies for 95 cents. They made their way as far east as Goldsboro, where by 1960 Adam Scott was serving them at the barbecue restaurant he had built as an annex to his home.
These days the hushpuppy is almost universal in barbecue joints in the Piedmont section of the state, and they are quite common in the eastern part, too. Most recipes are pretty simple: a basic batter made from cornmeal, egg, and milk that’s shaped into spheres or oblong fingers and deep fried in oil or hot fat until golden brown. Some cooks put minced onions in their batter, and the really creatives ones might stir in some diced jalapeños or whole corn kernels. Most barbecue joints, though, don’t bother with such fanciness.
What differs most from one joint to the next is the size and shape of the hushpuppies. At the Barbecue Center in Lexington, they still shape the cornmeal batter by hand, cutting it with a spatula and dropping it into the hot oil in thin, irregular fingers that fry up brown and crisp. Just across town, the crisp, dark-brown hushpuppies at Lexington Barbecue are classic examples of the cylindrical style, while a little further south at Cook’s Barbecue they are tiny orbs the size of shooter marbles
Spherical, golfball-sized hushpuppies like those served at Carolina Bar-B-Q in Statesville are one of the most common forms. Perhaps most unique are the ones found at Fuzzy’s Bar-B-Q in Madison, where you get only one hushpuppy on your plate. But what a hushpuppy it is! Cornmeal batter is squeezed into the hot oil funnel cake-style and allowed to twist and fold into a long, golden brown squiggle that’s perfectly crisp on the outside and chewy in the middle.
There may be no clear consensus across North Carolina on the proper size and shape for hushpuppies, but there is indeed agreement on this: no plate or tray of chopped pork barbecue would be complete without them.