Pennsylvanians Call Thee Mush
These words of the title appear in New Englander Joel Barlow’s 1793 satiric poem “The Hasty Pudding.” Indeed, corn meal mush was called “hasty pudding” in New England, “suppawn” in New York, and was a most common dish in all thirteen original colonies and later into the western frontier. Throughout the 19th century in Pennsylvania Dutchdom, mush was a universal staple on the table.
Again and again we find references to mush such as this one by a Chester County writer describing the food eaten around 1800: “Mush and milk constituted the common everyday supper for the farmers’ families; the mush was made about the middle of the afternoon so as to boil it thoroughly, and then the pot was raised a few links higher to keep it warm until suppertime.”
Wilmer Atkinson (1840-1920), a Bucks County Quaker who founded the Farm Journal magazine, penned this paean to mush in his autobiography: “A sack of corn was taken from the crib, a bag of wheat from the bin, carried to the mill, often on horseback, and ground into meal for mush and bread. In return for grinding, the miller would retain part of the grist, some thought a little too much at times. The meal was made into mush and from this we got much of our sustenance. Mother knew how to prepare and serve the mush, now one of the lost arts. She put it on the fire to cook at noon, or it may have been in the morning, and kept it there all the remainder of the day. I can almost fancy I hear it puffing and bubbling now. When thoroughly boiled in this slow way, allowed to get cool and fried, it made with molasses or gravy a delicious breakfast dish which went to the right spot and stayed there until the next meal. Few of this generation know what a wholesome and appetizing dish fried mush can be…” This writer doesn’t see how cooking mush was a “lost” art as my family ate a lot of mush---fried and otherwise.
According to the late Professor Don Yoder, the dean of Pennsylvania German folk-life studies, “mush” is an Americanism for “porridge” and the first documented use of the term is in1671. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests the term is “apparently an onomatopoeic alteration of the word “mash” meaning to crush, pulverize or crumble. In any case, so pervasive was mush in the folk diet, that Professor Yoder in a Pennsylvania Folklife article has assembled a sort of “mush dictionary”: mush and milk, mush-and-molasses; fried-mush; mush-soup and so on with a dozen more terms.
Mush-meal, of course, is just ordinary field corn ground at the mill into a course, yellow flour. Flint corn which, indeed, has a hard flinty kernel was preferred over common dent corn, but either one would do. It seems that exclusively in Southeastern Pennsylvania the corn was commonly roasted or parched before it was taken to the mill. This is perhaps because every house in this Germanic region had a European style bake oven which other regions generally lacked. The bake oven was heated as it might have been for baking bread and then the fire raked out. Several bushels of ear corn were “spritzed” with water and put inside and the door closed until the next day. The residual heat parched the corn which was then shelled from the cob to be taken to the mill. Before the invention of the barn corn-sheller, shelling the kernels from the cob was a good job for children. When Professor Yoder asked one of his Center County informants how to make mush, “she burst out, ‘First have a lot of children to shell the corn.’” When they were finished, the corn cobs made excellent “logs” for boys to make play log houses.
The seasons for grinding mush meal were fall, winter, and early spring. This is supported by notes taken from the diary of John Landis (1866-1906) who lived in the Dublin area of Bucks County. A small sampling of his many diary entries about mush meal:
“Dec. 3, 1870 Went to King’s Mill with corn for mush meal-brought some home.
Dec. 13, 1872 Went to Point Pleasant after cornmeal. Did not have any so I went to Lumberton to Paxton’s.
Feb 17, 1874 Went to Henry Stoners for cornmeal within two miles of Frenchtown got 804 pounds for myself and 582 for Samuel at $1.40 [per hundred weight]. Got there at noon and home at sunset.
Dec. 2, 1874 Went to Seller’s Mill for cornmeal.
Feb. 26, 1874 Got ready to go to the river for cornmeal…loaded 535 pounds at $1.50 [per hundred].
Sept. 29, 1876 Put some corn in oven to dry for mushmeal [this was a Friday, so the oven was heated from baking].
Oct. 12, 1878 Had new mush for supper.”
There’s no record of cornmeal being ground at home. If a mill had two sets of stones, as many of them did, one set was reserved for corn grinding the other for flour. Good flour stones called “French burr stones” were, indeed, imported from France and were then used exclusively for wheat and rye flour. They made a very fine grind. The miller, incidentally, practiced a highly complex craft. The runner stone (the top one) spun at about 100 RPM and was separated from the bottom stone, the bed stone, by about the thickness of a piece of paper. They must not touch or they would get hot and ruin the flour as well as the stones themselves. Corn meal was ground on the more coarse feed grinding stones cut from local quarries. At many mills feed grinding continued into the twentieth century grinding cob chop---cobs and kernels together---for animal feed.
If the mill had only one set of stones grinding corn meal was reserved for one special day of the week after the stones were cleaned of the residue of other grinding and the separation distance reset.
Thanks to Don Yoder’s excellent articles in Pennsylvania Folklife from which some information was drawn.
Next, part 2
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