Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear…
Before smartphones, cell phones, before push button phones and tablets and personal computers, back to the mid-1950s and the kitchen of the Miller family from the TV series Lassie. Ellen Miller, Gramps, Jeff Miller, Porky, Lassie… and a gas-fired kitchen stove tucked in the corner. This is very close to what I grew up in.
It seemed Ellen Miller (Jan Clayton) was always baking. She was my favorite TV Mom when I was small. Jeff was pretty cool, too. I didn’t give a rat’s ass about the dog. Love the old stove!
In those days of housewives (homemakers!) and incessant baking, refrigerators with rounded shoulders, airstream-design toasters, ice-boxes (!) needing block ice every 4 days or so, checkered tablecloths, local phone calls that had to go through an operator, crystal radio sets and all else from the post-McCarthy era, we kids didn’t think much about being blown to smithereens by the Russians. Our world was small and secure and in need of just one more thing: somebody else’s back yard.
Usually, someone else’s back yard belongs to the family of a good friend in the neighborhood, but where I grew up there was no neighborhood – my nearest pal was the better part of a mile away. And yet, right next door, there was Betsy and her ever-busy kitchen.
For several years her kitchen would be my “someone else’s back yard” (meaning: a reliable safe haven away from your own house). It didn’t hurt that she looked nearly exactly like Ellen Miller, was gentle and kind (like Ellen Miller) and solicitous of my help in baking cakes or cookies or brownies, and that she knew so much of the world around us and was eager to share what she knew. She mixed things in yellow-ware bowls, rolled dough on a porcelain-and-enamel baking table, and soon had the place smelling of very good things to eat.
You can read between the lines and think that I came home after school to a house where no one baked and was chronically short of cookies, and you’d be right. Unknown forces were at work there, stressing the environment. But a mere forty feet away was my sanctuary, free of all that. In Betsy’s kitchen, I felt attended to, listened to, and cared for in a different way that felt special.
Betsy was in her early twenties then, married to a very nice man who worked in insurance. Sixty-five years later, now widowed, she is hale and witty and as sharp as ever, and living in the very same house! I’ve visited her several times, we trade Christmas cards annually, and sometimes write short notes by snail-mail (she does not have a computer). Her kitchen’s been updated, but it still smells of baking.
Most kids, like me, don’t grow up in homes like Jeff Miller’s or come home after school to a kitchen as enticing as Betsy’s. That’s why every kid needs “someone else’s back yard.”
In deference to Betsy’s early 1950s kitchen and the value of its memory, our own kitchen at home features a porcelain and enamel baking table we use as a breakfast table, and the bottom half of a Hoosier – a baking center with a tin flour drawer and cooling racks in a cupboard. It’s good old stuff. And it inspires old-fashioned comfort foods like fried corn meal mush.
It’s been a breakfast and supper favorite in the rural U.S. for generations – especially in the Midwest and South – and frequently appeared on the tables of my wife’s extended family in Indiana. It’s about the simplest recipe you’ll ever see, it isn’t the least bit “mushy,” it’s exquisitely ordinary and honest, and wonderfully delicious with hot syrup. Serve it for breakfast, or as a sweet side dish with a simple supper.
The only catch? This is an overnight dish: it needs to be cooked one day, refrigerated overnight, and fried the next day.
Traditional Fried Corn Meal Mush
- 4 cups water
- 1 cup corn meal
- blend of half canola and half peanut oil
- maple syrup (or other syrup)
Now do these things:
Get 3 cups of water boiling in a pan. In a bowl, mix 1 cup cold water with the corn meal and salt, and stir until well-blended. Pour or spoon the wet meal into the boiling water, stirring constantly (it’s good to use a long-handled spoon because the meal tends to spatter). Cook the mixture until it’s well-thickened (this happens pretty fast), stirring nearly constantly. Now cover the pan, and simmer gently for about five minutes.
Spoon the mixture into a nonstick loaf pan, cover with foil, and refrigerate overnight.
The next day, pour off any water that may have separated from the mush. Slice the mush into pieces about 3/4″ thick, remove them carefully from the loaf pan, and dust them with flour. Fry in the oil blend (about 3/4″ deep in the pan should do it) over medium heat till golden brown and crispy on outside, using tongs to turn them over once. It takes a few minutes to cook them just right – crunchy on the outside, soft in the middle. Remove the pieces and drain on paper towels.
Now serve them up with warm syrup, and await the “mmm”s and “aaah”s.
There it is.