Why Fried Cornmeal Mush Means So Much to the Midwest
Indiana starts its day with mush. And not just any mush. Made of a simple mixture of cornmeal, water, and salt, fried mush—or what those speaking to the uninitiated might clarify as fried cornmeal mush—is breakfast in the Midwest. If you were to make it from scratch, you’d cook the ingredients together on the stove until the mixture thickens, pour it into an oblong ice box, leave it to solidify, slice and pan-fry in butter, and then top it with something sticky and sweet. Or, you’d skip the first three steps and do as most Midwesterners do: Buy it premade. In Walmarts and Meijers and all the other supermarkets scattered throughout Indiana, Ohio, and the occasional grocery store in surrounding states, the refrigerated aisle will carry a muted golden-yellow tube of Jaxon Cornmeal Mush, Country Style. The product’s website calls it “a favorite Midwestern breakfast food,” which probably isn’t accurate, though it is most certainly mine.
With a density more reminiscent of summer sausage than tubed cookie dough, the uncooked product is mealy, bland, and quite frankly, a little gross. However, introduce a half-inch slice of mush to a shallow pan of bubbling-hot butter, fry until the edges get crisp and the inside turns custardy, and top it with maple syrup or honey or pillows of whipped cream that melt upon contact, and it is, I maintain, the best American breakfast food. This is a hill I’m willing to die on.
It’s relatively difficult to follow fried mush back to its origins, given that the simple mixture of cornmeal and water doesn’t lend itself well to being a traceable, preserved recipe. Various parts of Africa and the Caribbean have their own versions of the starchy dish—Kenya has ugali, St. Croix has fungi—and America has seen corn pone, cornbread, spoonbread, and countless other cornmeal products. Most historians guess that the dish traveled over to America as a result of the slave trade. In Fighting Old Nep: The Foodways of Enslaved Afro-Marylanders, 1634-1864, food historian Michael Twitty quotes the words of abolitionist Frederick Douglass that describe the horrendous conditions under which slaves were kept: “Our corn meal mush, which was our only regular if not all-sufficing diet, when sufficiently cooled from the cooking, was placed in a large tray or trough.”
From the mid-1600s through 19th century, working-class families and frugal individuals would incorporate the porridge into their diets. Johnny Appleseed, the folk hero who roamed the country planting apple trees, all the while wearing a tin pot on his head like a hat, purportedly used the latter for cooking his morning mush. In 1918, the US Food Administration circulated a poster to promote WWI-era food rationing that read “Little Americans. Do Your Bit. Eat Oatmeal - Corn meal mush - Hominy - other corn cereals - and rice with milk. Save the Wheat for our Soldiers. Leave Nothing On Your Plate.” The breakfast staple even gets a mention in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie, which the family fries and eats alongside prairie-chicken hash.
Jaxon, the most recognizable brand of cornmeal mush linked the frugal staple to the Midwest. The year was 1896, and a man named Cyrus Jackson had an inkling that his wife Theresa’s mush could be quite popular in their hometown of Indianapolis. They started selling the product to local small groceries, and by 1924, their third song Lloyd expanded the business to Dayton, Ohio, where the mush is still made today by the fifth generation of Jacksons. Somewhere along the way, Amish and Mennonite communities in the region picked the dish up as their own, and mush found a hospitable home.
For many of those born in the Heartlands, fried mush is a comforting breakfast food that you associate with home—nostalgia is almost always involved. I spent many Saturdays at my grandmother’s house in northeast Indiana, spooning globs of still-frozen Cool Whip on top of the extra-thin disks of Jaxon-brand mush that my grandmother lifted out of the pan, and shoveling the pieces in my mouth before the mush became cold and the Cool Whip became hot. I know that when I go to the Super Kroger closest to my childhood home, I can still expect to see that golden yellow tube that I’ve never seen outside the Heartlands. I know that were I to text my brother about mush, he’d know.
When I moved to Brooklyn a few years ago, I made an attempt to rid my vocabulary of ridicule-worthy Midwestern colloquialisms: “pop” became “soda,” and one day, I’ll remember to say “lollipop,” not “sucker.” Mush, however, will only ever be mush.