Editor’s note: Jodi Nisly Hertzler writes occasionally for Another Way and is a proofreader and tutor. Jodi and her husband have three children.
Christmas isn’t Christmas without fried mush and tomato gravy, and that’s that.
This weekend, one of my Miller cousins posted a picture of her breakfast of fried mush on Facebook, instantly sparking a rash of comments from other cousins, which ballooned into plans for a family reunion. We haven’t had a reunion on this side of the family since 1998, a few years before my grandparents died—it is long overdue. If I ever needed proof that food brings people together, this was it.
As soon as the idea of a reunion was sparked, my cousins quickly started listing the food that must be represented—foods Grandma was famous for making: fried mush, barbeque chicken, college pie, cinnamon rolls, macaroni salad, dandelion gravy, rivel soup, Art Ida casserole, homemade noodles (Grandma grew up Amish—not a people known to go light on the carbs; even her vegetable soup was full of overcooked macaroni). Unlike most of my cousins, my family never lived near my grandparents. So while I remember most of these dishes, I don’t even know what some of them are. College pie? Art Ida casserole?* Dandelion gravy? Really?
But fried mush? Oh, yes. That one I do remember and revere. Of course, many of my Miller cousins just top theirs with maple syrup, neglecting to add the perfect crowning touch to a good batch of crispy fried mush: tomato gravy (cue the angel choir trumpeting the “Hallelujah Chorus”). Ahhh. Fried Mush and Tomato Gravy. Most people (including my beloved husband) think the dish sounds odd at best, and downright disgusting at worst. And I understand. But this is the food of my family—this is the food that both of my parents ate while growing up—each in plain, hard-working, Amish/Mennonite farming families, one in Kansas, the other in Indiana. (So my Nisly cousins experience the same mush rapture as the Miller ones—I get it from both sides.)
In my experience, a fair number of people have heard of fried mush. For those of you who haven’t, it’s basically cornmeal mush (cornmeal and flour cooked in milk and water until thick and . . . well . . . mushy) that has been poured into a cake pan to set overnight, then cut into thin slabs, sprinkled with flour, and fried in fat. If it doesn’t sound very tasty to you, just call it fried polenta and put it on the menu of a fancy Italian restaurant (makes a difference, doesn’t it?). When my dad was growing up, mush was often served as a breakfast porridge, then the remainder would be fried for the following morning’s meal (note: this is how you feed 15 children for pennies a day).
Tomato gravy is just what it sounds like: cooked tomato juice thickened with a milk-flour-salt mixture, with some butter thrown in at the end. Honestly, it tastes rather like Campbell’s tomato soup, but don’t tell Mom I said that. You take your hot, crispy fried mush, pour on a generous slathering of tomato gravy, and then . . . top it all off with a fried egg and plenty of salt and pepper. (Yes, I realize the coronary consequences we’re dealing with here.) The richness of the yolk combined with the creamy, slightly tart gravy over crispy, corn-sweet mush . . . I can’t even describe the joy.
Now, I have to admit that my husband shudders at the thought of fried mush, my brother can’t abide it (fortunately my sister-in-law loves it, so he has been redeemed), and only one of my kids likes it. So I fear it’s becoming a thing of the past. Even now, we only serve it for Thanksgiving and Christmas and the odd special occasion. Seldom do we make it more than twice a year. But I look forward to it the way my kids look forward to Christmas stockings and Easter baskets. And I will stubbornly continue to serve it when my parents have passed . . . even if only three people in the family actually enjoy it. Christmas isn’t Christmas without fried mush and tomato gravy, and that’s that.
Fried mush and tomato gravy is where I come from. It’s a homey, honest food for simple, basic folk—for people who recognize that good things don’t have to be dressed up and called “pan-seared polenta with spicy tomato-basil sauce” (Bon Appétit, January 2010—though I’m sure that’s delicious as well, and I think I might try making it later this week). It’s a food that keeps me grounded and humble. Inexpensive, yet immensely satisfying (sometimes too satisfying, if I don’t watch my portions), it’s my heritage on a plate.
And those kids of mine are going to learn to like it even if it kills me . . . or them.
* I asked Mom about “Art Ida” casserole: back in the day, in plain Mennonite circles in Northern Indiana (and maybe elsewhere/elsetimes, but I don’t know about that), women were often referred to by their husband’s name first (to avoid confusion, I guess). Therefore, Great-Great Uncle Art’s wife, Ida, was always called Art Ida (when spoken, the names were run together almost into one word). This is her chicken casserole.
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Posted 12/5/2013 7:00:00 AM
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