It’s Mush Damn It

“Food is not rational. Food is culture, habit, craving and identity.”

Jonathan Safran Foer

Tilly: Great quotation – regardless of whether you eat to live or live to eat.

“In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue…” so they told us in school. What slipped past some history teachers was the return voyage to Spain from South America.  I guess once you have supposedly discovered something comin’ home makes no difference to anyone, especially to those history teachers.

Don’t get your knickers in a wad, I’m not saying all people with PhDs in history are nuts. Just some of them. Why, several of my friends have PhDs in history and they are not nuts… Now, what makes the Columbus voyage home so important? Why, boys and girls, it was what was in the cargo hold of those ships. Corn, that’s right, CORN. The Indians in Cuba introduced Columbus to maize.  Until then, Europe and, in particular, that country called Italy, had never heard of corn.   That by the way was in the early to mid-1500s. It took them a few years to figure out just what to do with corn.

Corn was originally grown in the mountainous region of northern part of Italy. Yea, I know who knew there was an Italian hillbilly? I guess I will have to leave that for another time. I have far more important issues to deal with.

Tilly: If Italy hadn’t heard of it, how did they grow it? How long did it take the farmers to latch onto it?

Olive: You do know that Columbus brought back Native Indians don’t you.

Tilly: OMG – trafficking …

Someone in one of those mountain hamlets decided to make what is now a favourite Italian dish called polenta.  Traditionally, polenta is made with ground barley, linseeds, coriander and sufficient salt. That is according to Pliny. But Apicius,  y’all remember him and the fried chicken, donch ya? Well, Apicius stuck his big nose in the debate and altered the recipe to wheat flour served with honey.

Tilly: Apicius’s book was supposedly written in the first century – so is it possible he wrote the wheat and honey recipe before barley polenta came along? Might have to grind some barley and linseeds and make some traditional polenta! Sounds delicious, especially with fresh coriander.

Olive: Barley and linseeds with coriander… oh, now you are making me sick.

Tilly: Might skip the honey and just go for garlic butter and coriander …how’s your face now, Olive?

Back to the mountains of Northern Italy. Someone, a Yankee, at that, decided to use cornmeal and had the nerve to call the final product polenta.  I am certain that more than one Native American was not happy about that. Why? Because mush, is Native American, made the same way as the traditional polenta, but with corn meal.  Same cooking time, same everything.

Tilly: Do you think they created mush before or about the first century? And do you think it was fed to reindeer and horses, hence ‘mush mush’ to urge them on? (I am being facetious.)

Olive: Cute, Tilly, Cute

Tilly: You have no sense of the ridiculous!

My response to this and to all those T.V. chefs who insist they are right and the rest of us are wrong is NO. Not just NO but HELL NO, that’s not POLENTA. It’s MUSH damn it.

Tilly: Don’t forget the hundredth monkey effect – a phenomenon whereby so many things have been learned or created by unexplained means in differing groups/societies in different parts of the world at much the same time.

Olive: What ?????

Tilly: A troop of monkeys on a remote island learned to smash coconuts to access the milk. On the other side of the world another tribe, on another island, discovered this trick about the same time. This effect has been observed in other species, including humans. So other cultures might have learned to make polenta-type nosh at ‘mush’ the same time as the American Indians learned to make mush.

To prove my point I will give you my grandmother’s mush recipe:


3/4 cup – cold water (177.5 ml)

3 cups boiling water (709.8 ml)

1 cup – corn meal (236.6 ml)

1 tsp – salt   (4.93 ml)

First, make a paste with cold water and cornmeal/salt mixture, then stir in boiling water. Continue to cook (stirring often) over a low heat for about 20 minutes, then pour into a small loaf pan and chill thoroughly in the refrigerator, until the mush is set. Slice thinly (about 1/2 inch slices) and fry in oil until crispy brown. (We used lard to fry them in but in today’s world, use whatever floats your boat.)

Tilly: Not sure why it caught on – pretty tasteless stuff. NO garlic, no spices, no freshly ground black pepper – let alone coriander – but filling and cheap and a basis for more interesting stuff to be piled on top. Also sounds a lot like frybread – which I would like. Crispy, crunchy and tasting of beef dripping!

Olive: Coriander! At least it was not garlic. Didn’t you read the options?

Tilly: I did but I prefer savoury flavours to sweet. I’s have the eggs and bacon, but ditch the syrup.


If you have cracklin’, that’s the way I remember it or crispy bacon or some dried fruit layin’ around, then by all means toss a handful in after the cookin’ is done.

You can serve hot with eggs and bacon or with syrup or sausage gravy, but my favorite is apple butter, preferably homemade.

Tilly: It’s reminiscent of the ‘porridge’ found worldwide – congee in Japan, Jamaican cornmeal porridge, mealie pap in Southern Africa, Rumania … Russia makes a cornmeal and semolina porridge and serves it with cheese.

Olive: Russia can keep their recipe. A porridge oh yuck.

Any time you see one of those celebrity chefs use this recipe and call it polenta, please do two things… scream at the T. V “NO” and then write a proper and polite little note telling them that what they made is Mush. It is, of course, your Southern duty.

Olive and Tilly

Below is the original from that Apicius fellow I have been fighting with.

Fried Cream Wheat from the Ancient Romans

Accipies similam, coques in aqua calida ita ut durrissimam pultem facias, deinde in patellam expandis.  Cum refrizerit, concidis quasi culdia et frigis in oleo optimo.  Levas, perfundis mel, piper aspergis et inferes.  Melius feceris, si lac pro aqua miseris.

Take flour [semolina], cook in hot water so that it becomes a very firm polenta, and then spread it on a plate.  When it has cooled, cut it as for sweet cakes and fry in oil of the finest quality.  Remove, pour honey over, sprinkle with pepper, and serve.  You will do even better if you use milk instead of water.

Tilly: Honey and pepper – interesting, especially if the cakes are crisp or even crunchy.

Olive; It is fried flour, you do know that?

Tilly: Yes – but not every cook makes them crisp or crunchy. Think of all those pale and floppy chips/fries dolloped up in so many restaurants cafes – I despair that twice-cooking chips is a forgotten art. Think of the crime of the roast potatoes that are browned but nary a crunch to be enjoyed. Then someone pours gravy over them so they are soggy. Might as well be mush…


The De re Coquinaria of Apicius as found in A Taste of Ancient Rome, by Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa, Translated by Anna Herkolotz

Olive and Tilly

To get a the recipe please go to



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