Mother was a city girl. She married a farmer. So, when they moved to the farm after their marriage in 1937, I imagine she had many skills to acquire. She was new to gardening, canning and caring for animals. By the time I was aware of what cooking was, she had been developing those skills for ten or more years. She had gotten a head start on cooking. Her mother was a short order cook in Harrisburg, Pa., a job she continued into her late 70s. After graduation from high school, Mother took a job as a nanny in the country not far from where Dad grew up. Somewhere, Mother learned to make pon haas.
Learning to like mush
The pon haas Mother made often included chicken broth plus small scraps of meat. I wish I had asked her about the origin of her recipe. Wife, Julia, grew up with regular (plain) cornmeal mush. Her mother would start the pieces of mush in a big cast iron skillet at moderately high heat while getting ready to go to the barn for milking. Then she turned the heat under the skillet to low when leaving for the barn. An hour or so later, after the cows were milked, the family walked up the hill to a breakfast which included mush, always with apple sauce on the mush. To improve flavor of the corn, the ears of corn would be laid on the kitchen range’s oven racks at low temperature to lightly roast the corn. When I came on the scene, I made several trays to put in the oven to make moving the corn ears around easier. After shelling the corn, the kernels were placed in 5-gallon tin cans in an attic over an unheated section of the house. When more cornmeal was needed, the kernels were taken to the Belleville mill for grinding.
Our children learned to enjoy the mush. They visited their grandparents during the summer, sometimes by themselves, and with us on holidays. Now, Julia maintains the tradition by making mush for them on our return to Big Valley (Pennsylvania) for the summer vacation. Applesauce is always a required accompaniment.
Sweet corn mush and cornbread
One summer in Michigan, our sweet corn was going to mature later than we expected. Before we headed to visit family in Pennsylvania, we asked our non-gardening neighbors to harvest and eat the sweet corn. When we returned home about 20 days later, most of the corn was still in the garden! We asked our friends about it. They said “You have worked so hard to grow the corn, we thought we should leave some for you.” The corn was in the dent stage, so I did not pick it. A bit later I wondered about making cornmeal with the corn. After letting the corn mature, we dried and ground the corn. After cooking some of it, we tried to slice it for frying. What a disappointment. It would not set up–just crumbled. But, it made a tasty thick porridge. Later we made corn bread with the sweet corn. The best cornbread ever.
When we moved to Virginia, we learned from a native Virginian, Glendon, that his family didn’t make fried mush. After butchering the family would have puddin’ meat. This meat is made from various scraps of the pig as it is trimmed out during butchering. The meat is cooked down with salt, pepper and sometimes other spices. Glendon’s family ate the puddin’ meat with hominy purchased from the store. In other areas, the scraps that are used for puddin’ meat are combined with oats, flour, cornmeal or a combination of them and cooked until thick. The porridge is poured into bread pans to be later sliced and fried for breakfast. The fried product is called pan haas or scrapple. Some of the terms used above vary by locality—spelling changes, too. Related products of butchering are head cheese and souse. I know nothing about these but what I have read in Wikipedia.
This year I wanted to try different of version of cooked cornmeal. A local organization, Our Community Place, had a fund-raising meal. The chef for the meal worked at a local Italian restaurant. One of the featured entrees was meat balls on polenta (porridge). So, I tried making polenta. I used rich turkey broth made from several turkey carcasses after Thanksgiving. I sautéed the onion and garlic on top of the stove, then beat in the cornmeal. Instead of using an oven proof saucepan for this first step, (see recipe below), I poured the polenta from the saucepan into a casserole dish, which went into the oven. Worked good. We enjoyed porridge for supper. The next morning, I fried polenta for breakfast. (I would have made the polenta while the family visited on Christmas vacation, but they would not hear of breaking the plain cornmeal mush tradition.) Recipe source:
Scrapple or pon haas?
The Thomas House Restaurant in Dayton Virginia may be one of the few eateries around to serve pon haas. But, I would call it scrapple. It is dark and strong flavored—mostly soft, but a bit crisp. The “pon haas” Mother made was light-colored. She sliced it thin and fried it until crisp. Thomas House’s dark, softer pon haas is tasty, but Mother’s light, crisp “pon haas” was something else.