Life in the Appalachian mountains just wouldn’t be the same without corn. Our heritage is wrapped up in cast iron skillets full of golden cornbread, black cauldrons full of hominy cooking over open fires, and stills full of moonshine hidden in the woods. Corn in its many guises has sustained countless generations of Appalachians – both Native Americans and European immigrants alike.
During the longest, coldest days of bygone winters our ancestors would have surely starved without its nourishment. The simplest corn dish, cornmeal mush, filled many a hungry mountaineer tummy during those lean months. The thick, delicious porridge was a prevalent breakfast food long before grits came on the scene. Though most folks consider grits to be particular to the southern mountains, grits are, in fact, a relative newcomer to the Appalachian diet.
In his definitive cookbook, “Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread and Scuppernong Wine: The Folklore and Art of Southern Appalachian Cooking,” Joseph E. Dabney recounts dozens of interviews with mountain old-timers. When asked to weigh in on mush and grits, all recalled eating mush. Cullowhee, North Carolina resident Frank Pressley summed it up, saying, “I didn’t get into grits until I left home. We didn’t have grits in the mountains; we ate cornmeal mush.”
This was the case in my family as well. On the coldest Saturday mornings of winter, I often woke to find my stepfather stirring up a large pot of mush for breakfast. The family gathered around the table and ate it steaming hot, with puddles of melted butter and pure maple syrup on top. If any mush was left over, he scraped it into a greased loaf pan and let it cool, then covered and refrigerated overnight. The next morning, the porridge had magically solidified and could be sliced and fried in a big skillet. The result was a wonderful crispy exterior with a creamy center.
Grits didn’t become a part of my diet until I was grown and moved to the Charleston Lowcountry. Grits are taken very seriously there and are served all day long, topped with a wide variety of ingredients. I tried them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I even spent my first summer in the city fixing grits a different way each morning. I never did learn to love them with the same passion they seemed to evoke from everyone else.
In my mind, grits simply can’t compare to the thick, delicious mush I have eaten every winter since I was a child. Maybe I’m just a mountain old-timer at heart.
Here’s my favorite recipe for cornmeal mush -- an all-natural and simple vegan breakfast if ever there was one! When making mush, start with the freshest cornmeal you can find. My Grampy is still grinding meal for our family; the freshness makes all the difference in taste and texture. And actually, my stepfather swears that mush won’t set up for frying unless the cornmeal is fresh. Take his word for it and buy fresh meal from a local mill if you can.
4 1/2 cups cold water
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 1/2 cups yellow cornmeal
In heavy, medium, non-stick saucepan, bring water, oil and salt to boil over medium heat.
Gradually add cornmeal, stirring continuously with a wire whisk.
When mixture starts to thicken, reduce heat to low. Continue to stir until mush is quite thick and creamy, about 5-10 minutes.
Serve at once with butter or margarine and sorghum or pure maple syrup.
Alternately, scrape mush into a small loaf pan or rectangular plastic container. Allow to cool, then cover and refrigerate overnight. Slice the loaf and fry pieces over medium heat in a non-stick skillet or well-seasoned cast iron skillet until browned on both sides and warmed through. Again, serve with butter and sorghum or pure maple syrup.
Photo credit: www.belly-timber.com