by Ari Weinzweig
I feel a little bad that in the height of tomato season I show up here touting mush probably not the time to writing about doing so since theres a whole farmers market full of really great fresh fruits and vegetables to be cooking with. But . . . I got started on it and the more I cook it, eat it and learn about it the more passionate I’m becoming, the more I want to learn. I cooked it really at first out of curiosity and came out of with a culinary equivalent of a crush; Ive made mush five times in the last two weeks, sometimes both as the main course and then, a little set aside to eat for dessert (more on this in a minute). Like I said, Ive got mush on my mind.
I will say up front that when I got going on this I didn’t realize right off that I was going to end up with a two-year project. Given my penchant for perfectionism my inclination is not to put these notes out until Ive learned a whole lot more about mush than I know now. But since that’ll take many months and since I’ve been happily eating this all week and in a little bit I’m going to go home and cook some more because it’s so darned good, I figured I should start getting the word out to you sooner, rather than later. So forgive the fact that my mush knowledge remains rather superficial and let this be an entree, not an ending. Your own experiences and insights would be very welcome send ’em my way if you grew up with this stuff!!
I also want to make clear that the emphasis here has to be, as per the title above, isn’t really on mush for its own sake, but specifically about mush made from Anson Mills’ cornmeal. Since the dish is just cornmeal, water and salt it’s clearly only as good as the corn that goes into it. Anson’s is amazing; my fixation on the dish is coming really only because the corn meal we’re getting from Glenn at Anson Mills is so incredibly good. Mush made from Quaker cornmeal is going to be as bland as a sliced American single.
If you aren’t familiar with the name, mush is an old American dish that’s basically cooked cornmeal porridge. It’s pronounced “mush” like “rush”, and not “mush” as in “push.”. Mush can be eaten on its own for most any meal. You can do pretty much anything you do with grits or polenta you can do with mush. Which is why the first question that most everyone who doesn’t know it asks me is,
“What’s the difference between mush, polenta and grits?”
And a fine question it is. At a broad level you can certainly stick all three into the same category-porridge made of dried, ground corn. Taking the level of detail down a bit, the general answer I give about grits and polenta is that more often than not grits are more coarsely ground, and polenta finer. Corn meal for making traditional mush would typically be finer still. (There are of course exceptions which is . . . fine.) While the casual cook might think that the two sound like pretty much the same dish with different names, in the American South grits and mush are very definitely considered two different things. And for reasons I’ve not yet learned enough to know, while grits are really unknown in old time eating north of the Mason Dixon line (except with southern transplants or people like me who want to eat southern food up here), mush is all over old New England cooking.
In trying to figure out more about what makes these three dishes-mush, grits and polenta-different I talked to Glenn from Anson Mills, who’s done as much with growing, milling and cooking old corn varietals as anyone I know. He’s incredibly passionate about all things to do with old grains, corns and the Carolina Gold rice we get from him and he poured out pages of good info for me on this subject. After a long series of e-discussions, I finally came upon the belated glimpse of the obvious that I’d been focusing way too much on trying to come up with a black and white difference between each of the three dishes when in truth they’re all a bit different but clearly related.
I guess what I?m taking away is that the key for people to focus on is less on the name attached to the dish and more to:
a) The type of corn being used because between variety and terroir they all taste different,
b) The grind and its impact on texture and flavor of the corn
c) The ways that the dish is eaten, and what it’s eaten with in various places.
So . . . in the moment, leaving grits and polenta for future pieces . . .
given what I’ve just said, let’s focus on the mush I’ve been making. It’s incredibly simple: Anson Mills cornmeal, cooked at a ratio of about 4 parts water to 1 part cornmeal for an hour or so. You can go somewhat shorter or definitely longer-with all these corn porridges longer is almost always better if you have the time because the starches break down slowly and you get a creamier, richer texture.
Again, the reason I’ve fallen so in love with making mush is, without question because the Anson Mills corn meal is so incredibly good. Like all their stuff this meal is made from heirloom varietals that yield about 20% at best of what you get out of commercial corns. (Alex has spoken at length about this with all the work he’s doing to grow heirlooms at Cornman Farms.) Right now Anson’s meal is made from four old varietals-Leaming, John Haulk, Jarvis and Hickory King Yellow. All four are dent corns (which are softer in texture than the alternative, known as flint corn). Glenn related that,”All, except the Leaming are of Carolina or Georgia provenance; Leaming is one of the three yellow corns used in the first hybrid production trials before 1900 . . . provenance Pennsylvania . . . very floral.” Like I said, the man takes his cornmeal very seriously. In the NY Times a few years ago he said, ” Great corn is like great wine.” I agree wholeheartedly; this is the other end of the agricultural world from the industrial corns that Michael Pollan writes about in “Omnivore’s Dilemma.”
Like everything we get from Anson Mills, the corn is grown organically.
It’s field dried and stone ground. Because, like all Anson products, it has the germ left in (which makes it way more flavorful) it has to be refrigerated, so please keep that in mind for storage here, or if you’re sending it to customers out of town. (Frank just visited with Glenn in person so he may have some good things to add to this.)
All four of the varietals in this mix are yellow corn, as, obviously then, is the meal itself. To quote Glenn, “It’s hard to make a general statement about corn flavors associated with color, but whites tend toward mineral and floral and yellows are usually more forwardly “corn” in flavor with floral nuances in the background.?
Floral is the key word for me. The first time I ate this stuff I did a little double take, thinking maybe I’d let something into the pot other the water, cornmeal and salt-it really was that good, and that different. Aromatic. Delicious. I mean it sounds silly to get so poetic about something as seemingly simple as mush but . . . I’m there.
You can serve most anything with mush. It can be cooked up with other items-certainly most any sauteed or roasted vegetable would be good. Unlike polenta in Italy you won’t see old recipes for it served with tomato sauce because colonial era Americans really didn’t eat tomatoes. What they did eat apparently was lots of “mush and milk,” which is just what it sounds like. A bowl of hot mush with cold milk either on the side or in a well made in the middle of the mush. (This is no surprise since it’s exactly how the Irish still eat oatmeal today.) My 1918 copy of “The Book of Corn Cookery” gives recipes for mush with figs, dates, and prunes. It’s also good topped with honey and of course with cheese. (It also has a buttermilk mush-meal cooked in buttermilk instead of water in a double boiler. Haven’t tried it yet but will.) I’ve seen it done with greens and I’ve got a Gullah recipe for oyster mush that I’m definitely going to try this week.
What I’ve been making at home is a dish that I read about in some Civil War era food writing-it’s just mush served up with fried bacon pieces and a lot of bacon fat. I’ve been using the Arkansas peppered bacon which I love but any of our good bacons would work well I’m sure. Just fry the bits of bacon til crisp and then pour it and the fat in the pan over top of the mush, add a bit of salt and pepper and eat it hot. I’m telling you . . . it’s good.
Serve it with a fried egg if you’re so inclined. Speaking of fried, mush is often served that way as well-cooked, cooled and then cut into slabs and fried up the next day. Again bacon fat would be the obvious Southern choice but you could certainly do it with butter or olive oil I suppose too.
For the dessert thing . . . up in New England mush most often seems to be known by the name Hasty Pudding. Hasty pudding is really simple-cooked mush topped with something sweet. Historically it seems like a precursor of Indian pudding, which required more ingredients and started to get closer to the steamed puddings the colonists would have craved from back home in Britain. In New England hasty pudding is often (though definitely not always) eaten with a sweet topping, most often, up there, maple syrup.
Which is very good. But to my personal taste, better still is the southern version, which is to serve the mush, topped with sorghum syrup. I like the maple, but I swear by the sorghum. If you want it straight from the miller, Glenn’s official quote on the subject of sorghum on mush (sounds like a town in rural England) was “Yummy.” He added that, “my daughter Ansley would
fight for this dish . . . and she’s a pacifist.” Me too on both counts.
I know this corn-based dessert thing probably sounds strange but remember, unlike most of the population, I’m inclined towards savory rather than sweet so . . . for me, this is like the best dessert (said with due deference to the masters of chocolate and pastry making and impassioned dessert eating people around here like Amy, Charlie, Duff, Nina and others). The sweetness of the corn and its . . . I guess, corniness come up against the slightly sour, just a bit bitter, deep dark sweetness of the sorghum. (Glenn suggested the term “whiplash” to describe this sweet/sour phenomenon as it was used to profile the best Madeira back in colonial times.) I think, for me, the sourness of the sorghum draws me in more than the higher notes of the maple but you can do it any way you like. Be good with molasses too I’m sure. (For more on sorghum syrup, see the May-June issue of Zingerman’s News or drop me a line and I’ll send you info ASAP.)
OK, there you go, more than you ever wanted to know about mush. If you’re up for a bit of cornmeal cooking, give it a try. If you like it half as much as I have I think it’ll be worth the stove time.
(Although we can and I’m sure will, we dont formally have this stuff rolled out for sale yet. The Roadhouse has the cornmeal on hand for the catfish, hush puppies and fried green tomatoes. While we haven’t been serving it as mush we probably will be soon. And anyone in the ZCoB can get it there or directly from Anson in quantity when we get our next orders in.)