Pennsylvanians Call Thee Mush
As last week’s column noted, cornmeal mush, eaten in a variety of ways, was a staple on the table of most all 19th century households in this area. However, mush was an acquired taste as the cultivation and use of Indian maize for the table was slow to develop. Corn was unknown in Europe, so the immigrants had no cultural history of its use.
Stevenson Fletcher writes in Pennsylvania Agriculture and Country Life 1640-1840, (which incidentally is the best book on early local farm practice): “… the first settlers adopted Indian varieties and cultural methods, including seed testing, planting in wide spaced hills, interplanting with pumpkins, squash and beans, use of a husking pin, corn cribs larger at the bottom and set on posts, and drying seed by hanging up ears by the husks, and such food uses as roasting ears, pone, homney and mush. The Indians had two kinds of field corn, flint and dent, but others soon developed through seed selection. They also had pop corn and sweet corn.”
Although Indian maize was probably grown here in New Hanover by the German immigrants in the 18th century, I have found no mention of it anywhere. Of course, there is almost no documentation about anything else in this region in the early days. The German word “Kann” or corn mentioned in the 1745 school records of the Antes Plantation refers to rye. The Dutchmen called Indian maize “Welschkann” or “wild-corn” (Similarly wild turkeys were called “Welschhanne” or “wild-chickens”).
Since there was no foreign market for maize, hereafter called “corn,” in the 18th century, it was not grown as a field crop around here. Wheat took precedence over all. In colonial Pennsylvania, wheat was bringing seven or eight shillings a bushel which was a lot of money in those days.
I think corn may have first been grown more as a winter fodder crop for cows than for the ears. Before 1800 the common practice was to “blade” the corn and cut “corn-tops.” After the corn had tasseled and pollinated, the farmer went through the fields and cut off the stalks just above the ears and also cut off the leaves or blades. These were allowed to dry as hay and then gathered and stored in the barn for winter fodder. Of course the growth and quality of the ears was severely damaged by the practice.
In the early 19th century, farmers quit corn topping and began cutting the corn at ground level in the early fall and binding the stalks into shocks to dry. After a month or two of drying, the shocks were opened and the now dried ears were snapped from the stalks after which the stalks were restacked into fodder shocks for winter feeding and the ears taken in to the crib.
The early 19th century then is probably the time that cornmeal mush became the ubiquitous staple of most every table, and by that century’s end farm magazines and cook books were filled with every sort of mush recipe.
In a 1963 article in Pennsylvania Folklife magazine, Professor Don Yoder writes that an informant said “Making good mush was not done in a haphazard way. Violent boiling was to be avoided. Nor was it a process of a few minutes. A slow and long simmer before a boil produced the best mush. On our stove the pot was going for an hour or more. A hissing and ‘blub-blub’ sound continued for quite a while.”
Another notes, “Mother cooked ours in a big pot that stood on three legs on top of the stove. Water must be boiling as the cornmeal is sifted or sprinkled slowly into it, and stirred constantly so the mush will be smooth. …
Water and cornmeal were never measured---the iron pot was partly filled with water and enough cornmeal used to make the ‘potstick’ stand up. More water was added as it boiled, if needed.
Making mush was usually an afternoon job. So we could have ‘mush and milk’ for supper. What was left was fried in one-quarter inch slices for breakfast—but we considered mush good food for any meal if we didn’t have company. It was thought too heating to eat in summer so was mainly a winter food.”
As the informant suggests, the mush season ran from fall when corn was harvested in late October until late spring. We don’t find much mention of it in the summer. It was a wintertime favorite of the Dutchmen for two reasons: first they like it; and second, they grew the corn themselves so it didn’t cost anything.
The boiled mush was similar to a pudding in texture and was most commonly eaten with cold milk, but there were many flavorings like butter, molasses, buttermilk and so on that were added. The remainder was poured into a mush pan or bread pans and allowed to set-up or harden over night so that it could be sliced and fried for breakfast the next morning. It kept for quite some time and could be fried for any meal. Molasses was the most common topping for the hot crisp strips, but honey, jelly, and applebutter were also used. Since the big frying pan was already hot, the fried mush was often accompanied by fried scrapple, fried potatoes, fried eggs, fried sausage and fried everything else.
If you want to try to make mush, I’d suggest getting the most coarse cornmeal that you can find. The finely ground cornmeal, similar to corn flour, is more for breads and muffins and will not set up and harden no matter how much it is boiled. An informant tells me that the best commercial brand of Pa Dutch corn meal is Brinser’s. This is the roasted corn meal for boiling mush.