“Pennsylvanians call thee mush”

By Bob Wood.

These words of the title appear in New Englander Joel Barlow’s 1793 satiric poem “The Hasty Pudding.”

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 Pennsylvania “Dutchdom,” mush was a universal staple on the table.

Corn

Stevenson Fletcher writes in Pennsylvania Agriculture and Country Life 1640-1840, “… 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.”

Shelling corn at the Goschenhoppen Folk Festival

Cornmeal Mush

Again and again we find references to corn meal 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.

Fried mush

According to the late Don Yoder, “mush” is an Americanism for “porridge” and the first documented use of the term is in 1671. 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 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 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. For the modern cook, flint corn meal is hard to find today so, out of necessity, either one will have do. But try to find the most coarsely ground meal and avoid finely milled corn flour.

Roasting corn

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 most 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 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.

Bake oven at the Henry Antes House

Grinding corn meal

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.

Groff’s Mill, Lower Salford, Montgomery County, circa 1905

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.

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.

Cooking corn meal

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.”

Corn Meal Mush
Boyertown Area Cookery, p.20 (Boyertown Historical Society, 1978)

1 quart water
1 cup corn meal (yellow or roasted)
½ teaspoon salt
Cook slowly for at least ½ hour or longer. A double boiler is good for cooking mush, but not necessary; great grandmom didn’t have one. She let it cook gently on the back of the cookstove all afternoon. For mush and milk, serve hot with sugar and milk. To fry, pour cooked mush into a pan and chill. When stiff, slice and fry until crisp.

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 overnight 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.

Cornmeal Mush for Frying
Willing Workers Cookbook, Willing Workers Society of Friedens Union Church, Sumneytown, 1924 (6th ed.)

3 quarts of boiling water, Salt to taste, 3 cups cornmeal, ½ cup wheat flour. Moisten the dry ingredients in 1/2 pint cold water, mix well; stir this mixture gradually into the boiling water. Cook ten minutes, stirring constantly, then cook for several hours, stirring often. Turn into a dish, when cold cut into one-third inch slices and fry in hot fat.

Goschenhoppen Historian Bob Wood has researched, written and spoken extensively about PA Dutch folk culture topics and can be found at the Antes House during the Goschenhoppen Folk Festival.

Many thanks to Don Yoder’s excellent articles in Pennsylvania Folklife from which some information was drawn.

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