Monday, April 30, 2012

Corn Meal Mush


Recently Addie Broyles, food writer for the Austin American-Statesman, did a blog post for the Austin Food Blogger Alliance (AFBA) to inspire members to submit recipes to the first AFBA community cookbook. She used a Texas-Czech community cookbook from a neighbor as an example  - Czech Reflections: Recipes, Memories and History - and wrote in her post “Community cookbooks like this one capture so many things about a society, including aspirational and traditional dishes that people might not actually cook any more but that are important to understanding how we came to eat the way we do now.” Addie’s post is a nice tribute to the book and, what I’m sure was, very hard work that went into creating it.

The post prompted me to pull out my copy of the book and look through it for recipes to test, including what I think is a perfect representation of Addie’s quote… corn meal mush. I assume this dish was made mostly by rural Texas Czechs and those of slim means (and most likely rural people of any ethnicity since cornmeal was a staple food.) In the book Krasna Amerika, Clinton Machann and James Mendl wrote “Of course, during times of great hardship such as the first years of settlement and, especially, during the Civil War years, the Texas Czechs – like everyone else – ate whatever was available, perhaps little other than corn bread.” (pg. 141)


In fact when I asked my mother about whether she remembers my grandmother making corn meal mush, she said “Oh, yes… for the dogs.” She remembers coming home from school and always being able to tell when her mother was making it because the house smelled so good… like bacon fat and little bits of leftover meat. “Can I have some?” she would ask and get “Sure, but I’m making it for the DOGS,” my grandmother would reply. Though my grandmother did grow up on farms, my mother grew up in a town (Hallettsville.) For humans, my grandmother would make cornbread.

I don’t remember my mother making anything with cornmeal except cornbread. Of course, when I was an adult and started cooking on my own, I discovered that fancy Italian dish called polenta. Coming full circle, the corn meal mush dish in the Czech Reflections cookbook is nothing more than corn meal, water and salt brought to a boil and then cooled to firm it, sliced and pan fried.

I found a reference to corn meal mush in the great book We’re Czechs by sociologist Robert L. Skrabanek (a native of Snook, Texas) written in 1988. In a chapter talking about farm work in the 1920s and 30s, Mr. Skrabanek described the many ways his family used the corn they grew, from burning the cobs in the wood heater to mulching the stalks. He wrote “We also carried shelled corn in a sack to the gin, where it was ground into cornmeal. We used lots of cornmeal, especially for making cornbread, and mama made a real fine corn mush.” (pg. 61) He doesn’t explain what it was exactly, how it was made, what the ingredients were, what it was eaten with or when… all things I would love to know. I wonder if the mush recipe in Czech Reflections is anything similar.

I have not found any reference to corn or cornmeal yet in the little information I have in English about 19th century foodways in the lands that make up present day Czech Republic. In fact, in her book To Reap a Bountiful Harvest: Czech Immigration Beyond the Mississippi, 1850-1990, Stepanka Korytova-Magstadt writes flat out that Texas Czechs "had no experience growing either cotton or corn." (pg. 100) That tells me they had no experience eating it either. I haven't found any other recipes for corn meal mush in the Texas Czech cookbooks I have. Maybe that's because it was such an everyday dish that no one else bothered to put it in a community cookbook? It does make me wonder how Czechs figured out what to do with cornmeal... did they use it like buckwheat and other grains they were used to eating back home, making porridge with it? Did they learn from German neighbors? These questions keep me up at night. 

Slices of corn meal mush dredged in flour before frying.
Below is the recipe for corn meal mush straight from the community cookbook. My practical advice…. the recipe calls for way too much water. Though the mush did firm up in the refrigerator overnight, it was the texture of soft tofu. It did hold together while frying (very gingerly turning it), but took a long time to brown because all the water in it basically had to evaporate first. Also, I fried the slices in olive oil… I’m sure frying it in a pan fresh with bacon grease would make it that much yummier. 

And though the recipe intimates that it should be eaten for breakfast (with scrambled eggs, bacon and syrup!!), I made it for dinner with another recipe I tested from the book… spinach gravy. In the photo, you’ll see slices of the corn meal mush topped with the spinach gravy. More on “gravies” in another post, but I’ve included the recipe for that, too.

Corn meal mush topped with spinach gravy.
This made a great vegetarian supper (my 3 year old wouldn't eat the spinach, but ate the fried mush with ketchup!!) or be delicious served with roast chicken. 


Corn Meal Mush
Provided courtesy McLennan-Hill Chapter of the Czech Heritage Society and Westfest
From the cookbook Czech Reflections: Recipes, Memories and History
Published by The McLennan-Hill Chapter of the Czech Heritage Society, 1994

Mix 1 cup cold water with 1 cup corn meal. Stir in 3 cups boiling water, 1 teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring constantly until mixture boils. Pack corn meal mush into greased bread pan and cover. Chill until firm. Slice ½ inch thick. Brown on each side in skillet. (For crispness, first dip slices in flour.) Serve hot with syrup or jelly, to accompany bacon, ham, sausage, etc.

Spinach Gravy
Mrs. Stasie Jaska Janek
From the cookbook Czech Reflections: Recipes, Memories and History
Published by The McLennan-Hill Chapter of the Czech Heritage Society, 1994

3 cups spinach
3 cups water from [cooking] spinach
½ cup flour
6 tablespoons shortening or butter
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
1 egg
½ clove garlic

Cook spinach in water. [Drain and chop fine.] Brown flour in shortening. Add spinach water and chopped spinach to browned flour. Add salt and pepper [and garlic] to taste. Beat egg and add to mixture, stirring until egg in cooked.

My practical advice… after browning the flour in the butter, add the cooking water by itself first. You want to mix the roux and the water together smoothly, using a whisk if you need to, to make sure there are no lumps before adding the chopped spinach. This dish is almost identical to what I grew up eating, but called "creamed spinach" because my grandmother added milk to hers instead of water. However it was much thicker and served as a side dish, not a "gravy."

Readers - I'd love comments about corn meal mush if you have a memory of it, served as above or in some other way. I'd also like to know if you are familiar with the spinach gravy. Why is it called gravy? What was it served over? Boiled potatoes? Meat? Toasted bread? Fried eggs? 

3 comments:

  1. Great post, Dawn! I was thinking about you when I wrote that entry on the AFBA blog. My neighbor's mom and grandmother-in-law have a bunch of recipes in that book, and it's really a prime example of how a community cookbook should be done. I'd love to track down the woman on the cover. Do you have any idea who she is?

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  2. Addie - I don't know who the woman on the cover is (probably Miss WestFest 1994 or something like that), but I have some Czech Heritage Society contacts and will try to find out. Thanks for the inspiration!

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  3. You inspired me with your post so last night I made the corn meal mush recipe on the back of the Pioneer bag only I used beef stock. I served it with chili, pepper jack and avocado. It was heavenly. One of my guests commented on how his mom used to make corn meal mush for breakfast...they were very poor and this brought back happy memories for him. It just reminded me of Datu and Granny making it for the dogs. :-)

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