Nana’s Kitchen: Pioneer staple, corn meal mush

Fresh from the stove, creamy mush with butter and maple syrup. Nana’s Kitchen photo.

Nana’s Kitchen: Pioneer staple, corn meal mush

Greetings, home cooks, welcome to Nana’s Kitchen.

The early American settlers learned how to make mush from the Native American Indians.
They had been grinding corn for entries. Cornmeal mush became a staple breakfast and supper dish. It was served with milk, butter, or meat drippings. Mush was easy to make as it required few ingredients- fresh ground corn, water and salt.

Ingredients for making corn meal mush. Nana’s Kitchen photo.

Pioneers ate corn morning, noon and night – boiled, baked, fried and dried. Corn was an important crop from the settlers. One acre of corn could produce up to twenty times the yield as an acre of rye. Corn could be planted on uncleared land between tree stumps. Multiple uses were made from the corn including animal feed, stuffing for mattresses, pipes and outhouses. Dolls were made from the shucks for children and cooks made baking powder from corncob ashes.

Mix ingredients. Nana’s Kitchen photo.

An essential part of the frontier community was the grist mill. Mills often placed by rivers and good flowing streams to power the wheel and cogs necessary for the turning of the grinding stones (the ancient Greeks invented the water wheel). 

Corn could also be ground on a stone by hand as wheat was thousands of yeas ago. The use of the mills would produce larger quantities of product more efficiently.

Top mush dipped in flour, bottom mush dipped in cornmeal. Nana’s Kitchen photo.

Buhr (stone) ground cornmeal can be found at historic meals or by mail. If using ground cornmeal, it is recommended to keep frozen till ready to use. Buhr contains the hull and germ of the kernel. The germ of corn is the center of the kernel and is also called the embryo. The rest of the kernel around the germ is the Endosperm (starch section).

Polenta is sometimes compared to cornmeal mush. Polenta is Italian and is a thick mush made by    boiling coarse lay ground cornmeal in water or stock until thickened. Toppings may include cheese, lentils,pasta sauce, meets, sautéed greens, nuts, seeds, fruit and milk. 

Cornmeal mush is the same thick cooked mixture as polenta but it can be made using any grind of cornmeal.

Mush can be served in a bowl warm fron the cook pot, fried after cooled into a loaf or baked. It  is somewhat bland and can be served served with butter, syrups of any flavor, milk, red eye gravy, sausage gravy, fruit, milk, or cream. The toppings depend on your preference.

For me this is a favorite breakfast food. Both fresh from the stove or fried. For fried mush, it starts the day before by making the creamy mixture an placing in a loaf pan to cool overnight.

    To make the mush:
         3 cups water
         One cup cornmeal 
         One cup of water or milk
         1/2 teaspoon of salt

      In a large saucepan bring 3 cups of water to a boil. In a small bowl mix, the one cup of water or milk, the cornmeal and salt. Slowly add the cornmeal to the boiling water stirring constantly. Bring to a boil again then reduce heat to low and stir till thickened. Be careful as the boiling mixture tends to pop out of the pan. Keeping the heat low let the mixture gently cook 15 to 20 minutes. Stirring occasionally. It should not be boiling. This will make a velvety mush smooth and creamy with no gritty texture. 

      In preparation for frying let the pot cool and spoon into a loaf pan. Cover and refrigerate over night.

      To fry, slice and dip the cooled mixture into cornmeal, coating each side. Place in heated skillet with melted butter, cooking oil, or bacon drippings. Fry until golden gently, flip to the other side to complete. Keep heat at a moderate setting. Too high and it will burn. Serve with your favorite toppings.


  • The mush should be cooled before placing in the loaf pan to set up well.
  • Refrigerating overnight makes a firmer loaf but should be handled gently as it breaks easily.
  • Slice into 1/2 to 1 inch slices make handling easier with less breakage.
  • No need to grease the loaf pan as it will not adhere to the pan due to the moisture content of the mixture.

I like the mush dipped into the cornmeal as the center is creamy and smooth with a crunch on the outside, very good. Floured slices are the same in the same on the inside but less satisfying on the outside. Use cooking oil to fry. I have not tried mixing the cornmeal and flour to see how that works. Experiment cooks and make it your own.

            Johnny Cake in Rhyme

             Two cups Indian (cornmeal), one cup wheat;
             One cup good eggs that you can eat.
             One-half cup molasses too,
             One big spoon sugar added thereto;
             Salt and soda, each a small spoon.
             Mix up quickly and baking it soon.

             From: Brenner, My Folks Come in a Covered Wagon.

Stir constantly till the mixture comes to a boil. Nana’s Kitchen photo.
Fresh from the stove, creamy mush with butter and maple syrup. Nana’s Kitchen photo.
Cooled mush fresh to the loaf pan. Nana’s Kitchen photo.
Cold mush ready to fry. Nana’s Kitchen photo.
Top mush dipped in flour, bottom mush dipped in cornmeal. Nana’s Kitchen photo.