One of the oldest frontier foods, cornmeal mush ranks right up there with beef jerky and pemmican for foods that were common and had some nutritional value. It is a type of porridge made with cornmeal, eaten not only for breakfast, but as an economical side dish. It has been around, in one form or another, since corn has been growing in the Americas.
Cornmeal mush is simple to make, needing only yellow cornmeal and water. Both the Confederate and Union armies traveled on mush from time to time during the American Civil War, when supplies were scarce, or the cooks didn’t have enough time to prepare any other kind of hot meals. The soldiers themselves also cooked it over their bivouac fires and the concoction carried them many miles when little other food was available.
American frontier travelers also relied on cornmeal mush, since cornmeal was relatively easy to find, as well as cheap to eat. It was well known in the East as being a food primarily eaten by lower income people, but on the frontier, one ate what was available or one starved. No doubt, this mush saved the lives of many American pioneers.
There are two ways to eat cornmeal mush. One is to eat it as a hot porridge right out of the pot. The other method involves allowing it to chill overnight, then slicing and frying it, rather like polenta. If sliced and fried, it is often eaten with jam, honey or preserves, like toast.
A basic recipe for cornmeal mush calls for 1 cup of yellow cornmeal; 1 cup cold water; 3 cups hot water; salt to taste. The cook combines the cornmeal with the cold water and allows it to sit for a few minutes, mixing the cornmeal with the water. Bring the 3 cups of water to the boil, and while it is heating, add the cornmeal mixture, stirring thoroughly. Add the salt and keep stirring until the mixture boils. Then, turn down the heat to low and allow it to simmer until thickened, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Some cooks add a teaspoon of sugar, but this is to the cook’s taste.
To serve as fried cornmeal mush, empty the hot mush into a heatproof dish and smooth the top with a spoon. Cool. Cover and place in the refrigerator overnight. Cut into slices and fry in a skillet with oil, until crispy.
Although not commonly seen these days, cornmeal mush is still eaten, mostly in the southeast and western parts of the United States. It is a nutritious food and can be a lifesaver for a mom attempting to feed a family on a small budget. It certainly has a place in the food history of America.