Sunday, July 09, 2017

A comb and a brush and a bowl full of mush




Time to get that dated rant off the top of this page.

I’ve been consumed by a project for the last eight weeks that has nothing to do with food or Trump or anything remotely relevant to this blog, hence the dearth of posts. I decided to solve a seemingly small family mystery that ballooned into a bigger, stranger story and I got obsessed. All the energy that went into despairing over politics was suddenly diverted towards figuring out what happened with my family between 1900 and 1912. I think I figured it out. What I can’t figure out is why it happened and that part is tormenting me. I keep hoping I’m going to stumble across a cache of letters, some gossipy diary, or a juicy scrapbook that will shed light on the personalities involved and why these people did what they did, but having worked my way through archives from Broken Bow, Nebraska to Washington, D.C., I’m beginning to accept that if I really want to know what happened, I’m going to have to make it up.

Anyway, that’s why I haven’t posted in forever. Be happy for me. It’s kept me from dwelling on North Korea.

Other than eating it, I haven’t been thinking about food as much as usual, though that’s probably still more than most people. I made some cornmeal mush earlier this summer because I’d been reading so much about Nebraska circa 1900. They lived on corn. They burned it as fuel, boiled it, fried it, roasted it, dried it, ground it, and turned it into mush. Mush. I had never eaten mush. You may ask how mush differs from polenta and that’s a very good question. It doesn't. But it does. When you call your cornmeal porridge “mush” and put butter and sorghum on it you are in a very different imaginative place than when you open Essentials of Italian Cooking.

I could have eaten the whole pot of delicious, hot, humble mush, but exercised my famous iron self-discipline. The next day I made patties of the leftover mush and fried the patties in butter because I’d read that’s what people did in the old days. Fried mush was even better than regular mush, crusty on the outside, warm and creamy on the inside. There are abundant reasons to pity the Nebraska pioneers — sod houses, child mortality, winter — but cornmeal mush is not one of them.

After that I tried to find other old Nebraska dishes to try, but fried heart, chokecherry pie, and dried carrot coffee did not make my mouth water.


Now I’m in Washington, D.C. finishing up my research. After this, no mas. I am cutting myself off. Enough is enough. I’ve been staying in a kind of desolate apartment complex in Rosslyn, Virginia and eating microwave popcorn and blueberries for dinner, but last night decided to boldly venture out. According to Google Maps there was a crab restaurant just a 4 minute walk away in this bland neighborhood. Really? Yes, indeed there was. Right there, tucked amid all the boring apartments, was a boisterous, crowded restaurant with a line out the door. Since I was alone, I waltzed right in, got a seat at the bar, and ordered a half-dozen crabs which were served to me on a sheet of thick brown paper. The woman on my right was drinking bourbon and Diet Coke, a drink I hope never to taste in this lifetime or the next. The couple on my left were drinking Bud Lites and they showed me how to eat Maryland blue crabs. By the time I was done with that massive pile of crustaceans, we were good friends and my hands were filthy. It was a pretty perfect evening. 

disgusting!

40 comments:

  1. You're right in my neck of the woods! We are in Reston for now. If you have another day and the energy, take a metro up to Bethesda and call an Uber to Bacchus of Lebanon. Its become one of our favorite places and worth the travel. Try the frog's legs.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Frog legs! Yikes. That might be beyond me.

      Delete
  2. I'm glad your back. Will we get to hear the turn-of-the-century story of your family some time?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, definitely. I'm just trying to figure out in what form.

      Delete
  3. Your point about the different words for the same dishes and how they set one in a different geographical/psychological context really hits the nail on the head.

    I only recently ate a fresh, cooked crab (as opposed to tinned or frozen cooked crabmeat) and it is so remarkably delicious. I envy you your crab dinner! Sounds perfect.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It was a great dinner. I'm used to big Dungeness crabs so the little blue crabs took some getting used to, but in a way I liked them better because they took longer to eat. I could draw it out.

      Delete
  4. My Hoosier grandfather would make me mush topped with maple syrup, butter, and cold cream. The leftovers would be packed into a cylindrical mold (empty can) and chilled overnight. The next morning, he would fry bacon and then fry the sliced mush in the rendered fat and serve it up with crispy bacon and more maple syrup. The contrast between the salty, hot, crunchy exterior and the smooth, custardy inside was sublime.
    He also ate leftover popcorn with milk and sugar, like cereal. Not as good.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That sounds incredible, especially when made by a grandfather. I've never heard of popcorn with milk and sugar. It does not sound good.

      Delete
  5. I look forward to you posts and this one was great!

    ReplyDelete
  6. I am happy for you, Jennifer. I am glad you have been able to divert yourself from politics. All of it is beyond our control, so why drive ourselves crazy? It just makes us unhappy, and sometimes it makes the people around us unhappy. My husband is keeping up, but I am avoiding it these days except to know the basics. Your family mystery sounds so intriguing! I hope you find something that helps you fill in some blanks, or at least leads your imagination down a plausible road. Fried cornmeal mush is good, and there are a myriad of permutations of it. And your crab dinner sounds wonderful!
    You should already know how much you have been missed, but let me remind you. A lot. It is selfish to ask you to post when you aren't interested, but I so enjoy them. This one was particularly welcome!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, Trump. He's always there, hanging over everything. I hate what he is doing to our country so much.

      Delete
  7. Welcome back: you have been sorely missed.
    In this dreadful times it is important to hear sensible people talking about food, family and writing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dreadful times indeed. Whenever I stop focusing on a project, I focus on Twitter.

      Delete
  8. Welcome to the Washington area! My recommendation is Seoul Food DC which is in Wheaton, MD. You can take a (long) metro ride on the red line and be in walking distance of amazing bibimbap. It is worth the trip.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I wish I'd gone. I love the name.

      Delete
  9. When I was in kindergarten my teacher made cornmeal mush as part of a lesson on the first Thanksgiving, and it is seared in my memory as one of the best bowls of mush I have ever eaten. I love mush.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Isabel is working at a regional museum with a strong pioneer component and I've been urging her to promote a pioneer meal, which would include mush. Especially to school groups. I think, within reason, history museums should extend their exhibitions to include period fare.

      Delete
  10. Oh, thank heavens you are back. And like the others, I hope the family saga will be posted. Here in the South, people do what you describe with grits. Served hot, mostly with just butter, then re-fried the next day. Yay, Jennifer is back!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I made the grits recipe in Deep Run Roots; I used Anson Mills that you can get in refrigerated area of Rainbow. She tells you to use a bowl over a pot of boiling water; I did that but it made me nervous so I ordered an insert for a proper double boiler. I like the recipe better using 1/2 milk, 1/2 water. Best ever grits! I add 3 pepper gouda from Boar's Head (Sprouts and some Safeways have it).

      Delete
  11. The staple food of Zambia, where my husband and I served as Peace Corps Volunteers, is nshima, a type of stiff cornmeal mush that is eaten with the hands along with some slim portion of greens, okra, goat meat or fried caterpillars. When we had leftovers, we would fry them up as you describe. Delicious, though our host mother was scandalized.

    Also: welcome back! We missed you.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That sounds good, except the caterpillars. I envy you the two years in Zambia.

      Delete
  12. If one of your cookbooks is Cafe Beaujolais by Margaret Fox, there is a funny header to one of her recipes about how she grew up eating fried polenta and calling it mush. She put fried mush on the cafe menu but no one ordered it, so she changed the name to polenta and it became popular and trendy. She said her fantasy was every time a customer ordered polenta, to have the wait staff yell to the kitchen, "Fry one mush."

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I do have that book. I love that book. The stories and personality.
      That's funny.

      Delete
  13. Hey, welcome to the DC area. We are in Takoma Park, just over the MD border. Come visit. :)

    When I was flat broke in graduate school and eating through the contents of my dry-goods pantry, I ate a lot of cornmeal mush, generally along with instant coffee. While I am older now and seem to require things like protein and vegetables to stay alive, at the time this diet was perfectly agreeable in the short term.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I remember doing something similar with Top Ramen.

      Delete
  14. Relieved to hear from you.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Lucky baker! There is nothing better than plain unadorned crab. For me it's better than lobster.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think I like it better than lobster too, but a lobster roll is another story.

      Delete
  16. I grew up obsessed with Little House on the Prairie, but my mom also learned part of her cooking repertoire from my dad's Italian grandmother. A Saturday breakfast might be cornmeal mush with butter and brown sugar one week or, then again, what seemed to me like the exact same mush, only with sauteed tomatoes, onions, and peppers and parmesan cheese. To this day, I've never been entirely certain whether cornmeal and polenta were the same thing. Thanks for clearing that up for me!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm not 100% sure I'm right that they're absolutely the same because you can make polenta (I think) with other grains. I have to double check. But the mush I made was identical to polenta in ingredients and technique.

      Delete
  17. My Mom talks of porridge served the same way. There was a big pot for breakfast. Leftovers got fried for lunch. Anyone who wanted would dig in again at supper (she had 9 kids). At the end of the day, what was left in the pot got scraped into the cats' dish and next morning she started with a fresh new pot.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Porridge is another word that makes me hungry. Nine kids. Wow. That's a lot of cooking.

      Delete
    2. Porridge is another word that makes me hungry. Fried porridge sounds pretty good.

      Delete
  18. I lived in Nebraska for three years but never had any desire to try mush. That photo may persuade me to change my mind. And bourbon and Diet Coke sounds awful -- why bother with Diet if you're drinking sugar-based alcohol anyway? I've had bourbon and Coke and it was delicious.

    ReplyDelete
  19. The official?Replica watches?Series this is two separate series, but since they are called the?Rolex Daytona?series, so today we will they put it together. Explorer I and?Replica watches UK?Explorer II series have the old and the new series of the points, and now we buy in the market are mostly new series I watch explorers and the new Explorer II?Replica rolex. Probe I and Probe II What’s the difference, what is new and different from the old?Replica handbags, today will watch from home as we have explained in detail.

    ReplyDelete