Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Research breakfast

I don't expect anybody to care about my personal life. This blog is an unashamed public persona, edited and approved by my inner censor, and matters that don't affect Peni the Author will be omitted. Except, you know, when I get really excited about a warbler on my suet block or something. I wouldn't want to appear before you as a two-dimensional character or anything.

So trust me, I have a good reason for telling you that I had fried cornmeal mush for breakfast.

The current Work in Progress is set in frontier Texas during the twitchy dying months of the Confederacy. Texas, which was not invaded and had access to Mexican ports, never suffered the food shortages that other states did. Townspeople grew a lot of their own food in their yards, even during peacetime (twenty years later, boarders at the Ursuline Academy in San Antonio were still being fed "convent stew," consisting of whatever the nuns pulled out of the garden that day cooked up in one pot), cattle and hogs that roamed unmarked were the property of whoever could catch them, boys could shoot small game like quail at the edge of town, and if your area didn't have a gristmill - and most areas in then Western Texas did, because we had quite a bit of water power in those days - you could grind your own if you had to. Texan cattle weren't great milk producers, but then Texan adults weren't great milk consumers, and if you had a good cow and were willing to churn a surplus of butter, townspeople were used to paying through the nose for it long before inflation set in. The only consumables I can find people complaining of running short on were salt and coffee. Not sugar, surprisingly.

Anyway, the default cereal throughout the south in those days was corn. It was versatile, easy to grow everywhere - unlike wheat, barley, rye, and rice, which are fussier plants - and it stored well. You could eat it fresh, feed it dried to your livestock, extract syrup from it, and make the ground meal into tortillas, bread, or mush depending on your resources. It's the perfect breading for frying fish and okra. It contains starch, protein, and sugars. Frederick Law Olmsted and his brother, when they toured Texas in the early '50s, griped about being fed with corn byproducts at every table they visited, but they were urban Yankee tourists raised on wheat.

I've often read references to fried corn mush as a standard breakfast dish - not just in the South, either. I've long been curious how you'd go about frying mush, and I figured the best way to find out was to try. So I made some polenta, which is an Italian and therefore classy word for corn mush, and fried it for breakfast a couple of days ago and today.

It's kind of like frying mashed potatoes. Since making potato cakes by frying leftover mashed potatoes was one of my mom's standard ways of using them up, this presented me with less of a learning curve than it would some people. The trick is to get the right amoung of liquid absorbed during the initial cooking, so that as it sits - don't even try to fry fresh polenta, or mashed potatoes - it solidifies enough not to crumble apart when you slice it or make it into a patty. Unfortunately, since I'm both vegetarian and on a low-sodium diet, I had to use unsalted butter instead of bacon grease or lard. This means I'm missing several elements of flavor. I've tried it twice now, once with molasses and once with honey, and overestimated the absorbency both times, so I had a messy plate and couldn't taste much but the syrup. But I could tell that this was a classic comfort food. Carbs, fat, sugar - what more do you want went you get up at dawn to do your chores, or sit up late alone fueling yourself for a life crisis?

Don't think that I've omitted my book research here. Though I followed the recommendation of my modern cookbooks to make the polenta, I grab up old household management books when I see them reprinted (which I don't, not often enough), and I turned to them to see how different the cooking resources of the past would make the experience. The word "mush" doesn't appear in the index of Lydia Maria Child's The American Frugal Housewife (my Dover reprint is run off from the 1844 edition), and as far as I can tell she didn't discuss it under any other name either. It's not arranged for looking things up, not really. A recipe from The Capital Cookbook (the Sidney Johnston Chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy, 1899, excerpted in Keeping Hearth and Home in Old Texas, Carol Padgett, ed., 2001) is very similar to the modern one I used from the Moosewood Cookbook, except that whereas I used no salt at all, Mollie Katzen recommended 1/2 TSP for 1 & 1/2 cups cornmeal, and the Daughters of the Confederacy considered the correct proportions to be 1 TSP per cup. In this, if in nothing else, they agree with Yankee Fannie Farmer, whose 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cookbook declares that "Boiling water and salt should always be added to cereals, allowing one teaspoon salt to one cup of cereal, -- boiled to soften cellulose and swell starch grains, salt to give flavor." (No wonder the Confederacy had a shortage!) She also says that meal should be cooked in a double boiler, and that the proper cooking time for a cup of "Indian meal" (by which she means cornmeal) is three hours! The Daughters of the Confederacy don't give any time frame, but tell you to put it on the back of the stove over moderate heat until it's "well done." To fry it up, put it in a square container (Ms. Farmer - "a greased one pound baking-powder box," Ms. Katzen uses a greased loaf pan; I used Tupperware and didn't grease it, which I'll correct next time) overnight, cut in thin slices, fry in fat of choice.

My characters probably use bacon grease or lard, which I'll never taste now; but my Rev. Mom used to save bacon grease to cook in, so I think I can imagine it well enough. They'll certainly feel a lack of salt more than I ever would have, even before I embarked on the low sodium diet. I thought moderns used way too much salt (and we do; read the sodium content of the next few boxes and cans you open), but that's mostly accidental. Our ancestors appear to have oversalted on purpose. But perhaps they needed it. I expect my heroines routinely use up more minerals tending livestock, confronting and avoiding bandits, cooking over wood stoves, and hauling water than I do with my daily routine.

So, after all that, what role will cornmeal mush play in the finished book? I have no idea. I haven't even finished plotting it yet. They may not eat it on stage at all. This was less about the food per se than it was about getting into their heads. A good historical novel is a time machine. The flavor and texture of daily life is not contained in the big dramatic incidents that make a plot, but in the little things we do from moment to moment. Food is the fuel of our lives. We eat for physical strength, but some of us - yeah, me - eat for emotional strength, too. Who prepares the food, how do we accept it, what went into getting it, and how do we feel at the end of the meal?

The Olmsteds were not grateful for the corn pone they received on their trek across Texas. They found it monotonous, longed for the wheat bread they'd been raised on in New York, and condemned those who lived on it as too lazy and shiftless to make real bread. If their hosts had gone north and been fed wheat bread, I wonder how they would have reacted? Not a research question to pursue right now. I'm having enough trouble with the handful of counties where the story is set. If eating fried mush will bring me into their heads, even a little, then that's what I'll do.

Now the big question is - have I the fortitude to experiment with burnt okra coffee?

No comments:

Post a Comment