Polenta? NO! Grandma Cooked Cornmeal Mush

You can pretend you’re cooking polenta if it makes you feel better, or if your grandmother came from Italy–but in my family, and on my table, it’s plain old cornmeal mush.

cornmeal mush

The indigenous people taught my Pilgrim ancestors to make cornmeal and all its varieties when the Pilgrims first arrived from England.   How those Italians got into the act, and fancied up a perfectly good old American dish, I’ll never know. After all, they didn’t even HAVE corn until it was shipped from America. (Some Internet research says the Italians made polenta out of other things, like ground garbanzo beans before corn came to their shores.)

Grandma Vera (And Great-Grandmas Hattie and Mary and Great-Great Grandmas….well you get the idea) made mush. And they made it for breakfast, served with syrup, not for dinner (which they called supper, anyhow). And not with cheese and tomato sauce and god knows what else piled on top of it.

That was back when people cooked breakfast instead of pouring it out of a box, or unwrapping a breakfast bar.

Cornmeal mush is such a fundamental, staple dish, that the cookbooks I have from the late 19th and early 20th century don’t carry it. Of course that could be because people, particularly CIvil War veterans, were sick and tired of subsisting on cornmeal mush during the war when food was scarce in many parts of the country. From the Pilgrims through the settling of the West, ground corn in many guises was the food you ate when you didn’t have anything else.

But I east fried cornmeal mush because I love it. (And it is still a cheap eat.) My great-greats probably only fried the leftovers, after serving mush in bowls for breakfast.

My staple, Joy of Cooking (1975) has a recipe for Cornmeal mush as well as one for polenta, by the next edition, cornmeal mush had been pushed aside by the trendier polenta.

corn meal mush frying

Cooking cornmeal mush into a mush–a thick cereal to be served in a bowl with milk or cream and syrup or better yet molasses–is only tricky if you don’t stir often enough to prevent lumps. However, frying thick strips of chilled mush so they’re crispy on the outside and just a little soft on the inside can be a disaster. Slice it too thin, or use too little oil and it will stick to the skillet.  Don’t get the oil hot enough, and the cornmeal mush will soak up the oil and become a soggy mess instead of a crispy delight.

Final word on the subject: use a cast-iron skillet.  If you don’t, do not hold me responsible for your results. However, when you eat your mush is up to you.  I have no objection to eating mush for brupper (that’s like brunch, only at the end of the day).

Fried Corn Meal Mush Recipe

Ingredients

  • 1 cup cornmeal (white or yellow)
  • 1/2 cup water (cool)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 4 cups water (boiling)
  • Oil for frying

Directions

1. Stir cornmeal and salt into 1/2 C water with whisk, avoiding lumps.
2. Stir the cornmeal mixture into rapidly boiling water in heavy-bottom pan or in top of double boiler.
3. Reduce heat to medium low and stir frequently for about 45 minutes. It will thicken more when removed from the heat.
4. Pour into loaf pan and chill in refrigerator until ready to fry.
5. Heat 1/4-1/2 inch oil in heavy skillet to very hot. (cube of bread should brown immediately when dropped in the oil). Slice chilled mush one-half inch thick, and fry, turning several times to prevent sticking. You want a crisp outside, slightly browned. Be patient.
6. Serve with syrup or honey with bacon or sausage on the side.

Note

If you insist on getting all fancy-schmantzy and making polenta instead of mush, all you need to do is add a spoonful or two of butter and a bit of cayenne pepper to the cornmeal mixture, and either mix some cheese (parmesan and/or other Italian cheese) into the hot mix, or sprinkle it on top when you are through. See?  It's the same thing.

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Vera Marie Badertscher

About Vera Marie Badertscher

I am a grandma and was named for my grandma. I've been an actress, a political strategist and a writer.I grew up in various places, went to high school in Killbuck, Ohio and graduated from Ohio State University. My husband and I moved to Arizona after graduation and have three adult children. I love to travel and read--and have another website for that called A Traveler's Library. I ponder family as I cook.

12 thoughts on “Polenta? NO! Grandma Cooked Cornmeal Mush

  1. Bro

    I never was a fan of those cornmeal mush breakfasts except on those rare occasions when we had genuine maple syrup. I could eat cardboard if it had enough maple syrup on it. Now we eat decadent polenta a la Italia, and sometimes I make a kind of cornmeal pancake with a cup of cornmeal, a tablespoon of cooking oil, one egg, and two thirds or more cup of milk, depending on how thin you want them. We prefer them not to have a mushy center. Adding some of last night’s leftover cooked whole kernel corn gives the cakes more personality. Soak the cornmeal beforehand (how long depends on how coarsely ground it is) before cooking.

    Reply
    1. Vera Marie BadertscherVera Marie Badertscher Post author

      We love corncakes, too, bro, and thanks for your recipe. No flour? That would make a very crispy, lacy cake, right? And I love adding corn to cornmeal anything. Coming up–my special cornbread recipe.

      The corn meal mush is not mushy in the middle if you cook it long enough and hot enough, by the way. I just had some for lunch. Delish!

      Reply
  2. Pam

    You inspired me to get out my Joy of Cooking cookbook. It was a wedding gift from my Aunt Neva in 1972. It does have the cornmeal mush recipe (followed by a polenta recipe). Now I need to make it, and follow you instructions for frying it.

    Reply
    1. Vera Marie BadertscherVera Marie Badertscher Post author

      Hi Pam–always happy to see someone else who uses Joy of Cooking. But I’ve worn out one, kept the 2nd just because it has some recipes that were taken out of the 3rd, and taped together the 3rd of my copies. Boy, I really have USED these books! Enjoy your cornmeal mush and try to get some maple syrup to top it.

      Reply
    1. Vera Marie BadertscherVera Marie Badertscher Post author

      How delightful that you have your grandmother’s recipe. And I like your recipes from different places. I also read that the Pilgrims and other early settlers made corn meal mush in imitation of other “mushy” recipes made with different grains in England that were not available at first in the U.S.

      Reply
  3. Paula Price

    Corn meal mush and corn cakes, YUM! However, being a Virginian I add in corn pone and spoon bread. Also YUM! Oh, and don’t forget the scrapple to go with the mush. Not yum!
    Paula

    Reply
  4. Tom Fair

    Eating a breakfast of cornmeal mush with syrup is one of my fondest childhood memories. I can still taste it!

    Reply

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