When I was a kid, mush was far from my favorite meal. The soggy cornmeal pudding, even when left to solidify, pan-fried, and drenched in a pool of maple syrup, still seemed to carry whispers of necessity. It was, essentially, the meal we had when there was nothing else to eat. Yet even as my family changed and food insecurity became less and less a factor in our lives, the mush remained. Each morning, my grandmother would skip over the farmers' market's fruits and vegetables, cured meats, and fresh eggs we had gotten for her in favor of the same little tin of cornmeal we had been refilling for years. As I did my homework at our kitchen table, I would begrudgingly watch her and wonder why, even when she had a whole new arsenal of food at her disposal, she continually

Helen Griffin's Food Story

Learning to Love Mush

Helen's Cornmeal Mush Recipe

Ingredients:

3 cups water

1 cup yellow cornmeal

1 cup milk

1/2 teaspoon salt to taste

3-4 tablespoons butter

 

Directions:

  1. In a large saucepan, bring the water to a boil.

  2. In a small bowl, mix together the cornmeal, milk, and salt.

  3. Slowly pour the cornmeal-milk mixture into the boiling water, stirring constantly.

  4. Bring it to a boil again, then reduce heat and stir almost constantly (to avoid clumps) for about 15 minutes or until the mixture has thickened to the consistency you like.

  5. Pour this mixture into a lightly greased 9x5 loaf pan and allow it to cool to room temperature.

  6. Once the cornmeal has cooled, cover it with plastic wrap and place the pan in the refrigerator overnight or until the mixture has become firm (at least 8 hours). 

  7. Remove the cornmeal loaf from the pan and slice it into 1/2" to 1" slices. (We usually slice the loaf into 10 slices, then cut those slices in half, so they cook more quickly and make smaller pieces.)

  8. Heat the butter in a skillet over medium heat.

  9. Once the pan is hot, add the slices and fry for 3-4 minutes on each side until they are golden brown and heated through. Watch them closely so they don't burn.

  10. Serve immediately with maple syrup or honey.

condemn me to mush?

Years later, when I saw my grandmother less frequently, I asked about the reasons for her mush-cooking and if she had kept it up after moving away. The latter question she answered resoundingly in the affirmative (to no shock from me). The former question caught her off-guard. To her, though the ingredients were simple, this dish was not a meal of necessity. Even in times of struggle or lack of available ingredients, my grandmother rejected the notion that food should ever be a tasteless means to an end or a reflection of that uncertainty. Food prepared in a meaningful way is a means by which people connect with their memories, their culture, and each other. Even with limited funding, this should be considered a necessity.

The last time I was able to see my grandmother, we found ourselves putting together a jigsaw puzzle at her kitchen table, watching the sunrise, and feeling the mist float through the screen door as it drifted off the little pond at her retirement community. As the family's earliest risers, we always found ourselves coming together in these twilight hours to sit with each other and our memories. After a while, she carefully stood up and began shuffling to the kitchen. I looked at her hands, knotted with arthritis and speckled with age marks. It had been quite some time since we had cooked together, and though I knew how badly she wanted to be a part of the process, I clasped her hands and guided her back to the kitchen table. It was now painful for her to continue physically standing by me on my culinary journey, but I needed her to know how much of an impact she had. So when my grandmother returned to her seat and asked what I planned to make for breakfast, I let my eyes skim over the farmers' market's fruits and vegetables, cured meats, and fresh eggs to the back of the kitchen where a little tin sat. I turned back to my grandmother, cornmeal in hand, and declared, “we’re having mush.”